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My Lucky Thirteen Tips for Dialogue

By Keith Pyeatt
Copyright 2009 by Keith Pyeatt, All Rights Reserved


It seems like writing relaxed, realistic dialogue should be as simple as chatting with your neighbor, but effective dialogue requires careful attention. Each line a character speaks must be as natural as a real conversation -- only better. As a writer, I'm proud when my dialogue wins praise, because I work hard to make it look easy. As a freelance editor, I see common problems, so here are my lucky 13 tips for writing dialogue.

1.  Dialogue should be natural. Most people use contractions and sentence fragments when they speak. If your characters don't, they may sound stiff.

2.  Dialogue is more than spoken words. A lifted eyebrow or forced smile can convey more meaning than a spoken sentence. Non-verbal responses can add nuance or completely change the meaning of spoken words.

a) "Sounds great." He slapped Jim's back and whistled on his way out the door.

b) "Sounds great," he said, but he frowned and looked at his feet.

c) "Sounds great." She rolled her eyes and snickered.

Gestures can also replace spoken words and make a scene feel more realistic. Picture a father and son building a fort. Here are some options for a line of dialogue:

a) "Would you hand me that hammer beside your knee, son?" Dad asked.

b) Dad nodded at the hammer beside Billy's knee. "Hand me that, would you?"

c) Dad extended his hand, palm up, like a surgeon awaiting an instrument. "Hammer." 

3.  Characters don't all sound alike. Use dialogue to help make your characters unique and distinctive, but remember...

4.  A little dialect goes a long way. The same goes for speech quirks. In real life, someone might stammer or say "uh" every other sentence, but such frequency in written dialogue will annoy readers. Be subtle even when introducing dialect or a speech quirk, but once introduced, ease off further. A reminder every now and then is enough.

A final caution on dialect: Word choice is an excellent way to make characters distinctive, but don't force readers to stumble over strings of altered words like goin', arntcha, or coulda.

5.  Styles of speech should match the character. As an example, a common disparity I see are characters in positions of authority -- Sergeant, CEO, or police chief -- using weak sentences, rambling, and giving orders almost apologetically. Readers expect those in authority to be decisive and direct. Sergeants bark orders and speak in clipped, confident sentences. It's fine to vary from that expectation. Maybe a CEO started in the mailroom and vowed never to talk down to employees. Great, but let readers know there's a reason or the mismatched speech style feels unreal and can knock a reader out of your story.

6.  Dialogue in novels should be more pointed and interesting than conversations in real life. Real people chitchat, ramble, and repeat, but readers don't want to wade through small talk and redundant chatter. Dialogue should add to the story or define a character. If two characters discuss their children or the weather, there should be a reason. Maybe the discussion defines one character as an over-protective mother. Maybe there's tension behind the dialogue as a character struggles to hide feelings or notices something odd about the other. Even with tension behind the words, keep mundane chatter to a minimum.

If two characters meet, and it just feels too unnatural for them not to say howdy-do before getting to the good stuff readers want to read about, summarize the howdy-do. They caught each other up on their kids' latest misadventures before talk turned to the murder that shocked the town. Or Marvin recited his usual litany of aches before his son could mention his reason for visiting.

Similarly, avoid having a character recap events your reader just witnessed. If a character needs to be brought up to speed but the reader doesn't, summarize the conversation.

7.  Proper paragraphing helps identify who is speaking. Most writers know to break paragraphs every time a different character speaks. Doing so is traditional and readers expect it. But unnecessary paragraph breaks can also make dialogue difficult to follow.

"Look at me," Jimmy said.

He stretched his arms above his head and dove into the pool.

"That's great," Mom said.

She shifted in the patio chair and checked her watch.

"You've been in long enough," she said. "Dry off, and I'll make you lunch."

The paragraphing above suggests speaker changes that don't occur. Readers must adjust their expectations and search for dialogue tags to identify who is speaking. The following paragraphing allows the dialogue to flow better with fewer tags:

"Look at me." Jimmy stretched his arms above his head and dove into the pool.

"That's great," Mom said. She shifted in the patio chair and checked her watch. "You've been in long enough. Dry off, and I'll make you lunch."

8.  People don't repeat each other's names in conversation. A character may say a name in greeting, to get someone's attention, or to make a point, but it's not natural to keep addressing someone by name in a conversation. I think writers make this mistake because it's a convenient way to reduce dialogue tags, but repeating names makes dialogue ring false.

 

9.  Character references can replace tags. If a name (or pronoun) follows or precedes a line of dialogue, readers assume that's the character speaking. Looking at my examples above, note how "Jimmy stretched his arms..." replaces "Jimmy said." It's smoother and there's no confusion without the tag.

10.  Dialogue tags should not stand out. "Said" and "asked" are nearly invisible to readers. Alternate tags like uttered, assured, observed, asserted, declared, responded, snapped, vented, and urged call attention to tags. Wouldn't you rather have readers focused on the dialogue itself than how the characters are saying it?

A tag like "whispered" can work, because whispering is not the same as speaking.

11.  Effective dialogue rarely needs descriptive tags. "Go to your room" doesn't need "he ordered" to be an order. "Get out!" doesn't need "he exclaimed" to be an exclamation. "Oh gee, I don't know" doesn't need "she said indecisively" to be indecisive.

If you do use a descriptive tag, make sure it makes sense. A character can't laugh a sentence, for example. A mistake I see with surprising regularity goes something like this: "Leave me alone," she hissed. There's not a sibilant in that statement. A character can't hiss without an "s."

12.  Characters don't tell each other things they already know. Editors often call this the "As you know, Bob" syndrome.

"As you know, Bob, my wife ran off with the pool boy ten years ago, and I've not heard from her since."

That information is directed at the reader, not Bob. Bob already knows. Some writers struggle with this, but it's completely natural to relay information to the reader outside of active dialogue. Here's a snippet from my novel STRUCK to demonstrate.

Alvin stared out the window, looking even more miserable than usual, and said one word: "Chaco." The pueblo ruins in Chaco Canyon had become Alvin's passion over the years. He spent a day meditating there any time he could convince someone to drive him.

"What about Chaco?" Walter asked.

See how that's more natural than, "As you know, Walter, the pueblo ruins in Chaco Canyon have become my passion over the years. I meditate there any time I can..."

13.  Mix thoughts and dialogue. I mention this last, but it's important. A scene that's nothing but spoken dialogue can feel flat. Including physical movements helps (a character sips water, drums her fingers, or even blinks or smiles), but to add real depth to a scene, mix in the point-of-view character's thoughts, expectations, and motivations.

I'll end with another snippet from STRUCK to illustrate several points I've mentioned above, but especially how internal thoughts can add depth to dialogue. This is from a scene in Manuel's point of view. He and Sebastian are making plans to drug another man. Manuel's thoughts are in italics to make them stand out. Notice how they reveal Manuel's feelings about Sebastian and shed light on the relationship between Sebastian and the waitress. Without the thoughts, the conversation would still work, but taking advantage of being in Manuel's point of view to show his inner thoughts adds layers of meaning.

Manuel accepted a small vial of white powder from Sebastian. "This is enough to put him out?" He closed his fist over the vial when their waitress, a sturdy-looking woman in her fifties named Valerie, approached their booth in a back corner of the bar.

Valerie always waited on Sebastian. Her eyes lit up every time he teased her, but their interplay had subtly changed recently. Manuel suspected they'd passed the genuine flirting stage and now screwed regularly. The flirting that went on these days was an act, either because they liked the secrecy or to fulfill some old-fashioned need to protect Valerie's virtue.

Valerie set down a bowl of pretzels and replaced Manuel's empty beer bottle with a full one. "Another whiskey?" she asked Sebastian in her raspy, smoker's voice.

"You ever notice me stopping after two?" Sebastian's demeanor always warmed when he chatted up Valerie, making him seem almost human.

She smiled and turned to Manuel. "Don't try keeping up with this one drink for drink." She jabbed a thumb at Sebastian. "Big men like him have big appetites."

"True enough." Sebastian arched a bushy eyebrow and made a show of examining her body. "For lots of things."

Her eyes twinkled, and she cleared her throat. "I'll get you that drink."

 

Keith Pyeatt is a novelist and freelance editor. He writes paranormal thrillers he refers to collectively as "horror with heart" and edits anything that grabs his interest. Keith's first published novel, STRUCK, is due out in July '08 from Regal Crest Enterprises (www.regalcrest.biz). Learn more about Keith at his website, www.keithpyeatt.com, or his blog, www.keithpyeatt.blogspot.com.