Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 23, 2010

Things to Think About When Writing Dialogue

Dialogue usually is a major part of your story, so making sure your dialogue works is very important.  Here are some things to consider when going through that first draft.

  1. 1.  Are you punctuating dialogue correctly, so that you neither confuse nor distract your readers?
  2. 2.  Are your characters speaking naturally, as they would in reality, but more coherently?
  3. 3.  Does every speech advance the story, revealing something new about the plot or the characters? If not, what is its justification?
  4. 4.  Are your characters so distinct in their speech–in diction, rhythm, and mannerism–that you rarely need to add “he said” or “she said”?

Dialogue has to sound like speech.  Most people don’t speak precisely or concisely enough to serve the writer’s needs. Good dialogue has several functions:

  • To convey exposition: to tell us, through the conversations of the characters, what we need to know to make sense of the story.
  • To convey character: to show us what kinds of people we’re dealing with.
  • To convey a sense of place and time: to evoke the speech patterns, vocabulary and rhythms of specific kinds of people.
  • To develop conflict: to show how some people use language to dominate others, or fail to do so.

Dialogue can convey character, but check to make sure you haven’t gotten bogged down in chatter that doesn’t advance the story.

Dialogue that conveys a specific place and time can become exaggerated and stereotyped.  Be careful.

Dialogue that develops conflict has to do so while also conveying exposition, portraying character, and staying true to the time and place.

Some Dialogue Hazards to Avoid:

  • Too much faithfulness to speech: “Um, uh, y’know, geez, well, like, well.”
  • Unusual spellings: “Yeah,” not “Yeh” or “Yea” or “Ya.”
  • Too much use of “he said,” “she said.”
  • Too much variation: “he averred,” “she riposted”
  • Dialect exaggeration: “Lawsy, Miz Scahlut, us’s wuhkin’ jes’ as fas’ as us kin.”
  • Excessive direct address: “Tell me, Marshall, your opinion of Vanessa.” “I hate her, Roger.” “Why is that, Marshall?” “She bullies everyone, Roger.”

Some Dialogue Conventions to Consider:

Each new speaker requires a new paragraph, properly indented and set off by quotation marks.

“Use double quotations,” the novelist ordered, “and remember to place commas and periods inside those quotation marks.”

“If a speaker goes on for more than one paragraph,” the count responded in his heavy Transylvanian accent, “do not close off the quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph.

“Simply place quotation marks at the beginning of the next paragraph, and carry on to the end of the quotation.”

Use “he said” expressions only when you must, to avoid confusion about who’s speaking.  Try to avoid signaling increasing tension by moving from “he said” to “he snapped,” to “he snarled,” to “he bellowed furiously.”  The dialogue itself should convey that changing mood, and make such comments needless.

Action as well as speech is a part of dialogue. We expect to know when the speakers pause, where they’re looking, what they’re doing with their hands, how they respond to one another. The characters’ speech becomes just one aspect of their interactions; sometimes their words are all we need, but sometimes we definitely need more. This is especially true when you’re trying to convey a conflict between what your characters say and what they feel: their nonverbal messages are going to be far more reliable than their spoken words.

Speak your dialogue out loud; if it doesn’t sound natural, or contains unexpected rhymes and rhythms, revise it.

Rely on rhythm and vocabulary, not phonetic spelling, to convey accent or dialect.

If you are giving us your characters’ exact unspoken thoughts, use italics. If you are paraphrasing those thoughts, use regular Roman type):

Now what does she want? he asked himself. Isn’t she ever satisfied? Marshall wondered what she wanted now. She was never satisfied.

If you plan to give us a long passage of inner monologue, however, consider the discomfort of having to read line after line of italic print. If you wish to emphasize a word in a line of italics, use Roman: Isn’t she ever satisfied?

Hope you find this helful.  Remember to share any tips you use to make your dialogue work.

Kathy


Responses

  1. Excellent blog. Dialogue is fun but tough to write.The innner thoughts are also challenging. I never know if I’m doing them all right. If the thought is a ‘holy shit’ thought like “He wouldn’t dare do that! I use italics. Everyday thoughts I just leave in regular type and may say , he thought. Is this right?
    J
    http://www.jridgley.wordpress.com

    Like

    • Julia,

      If your main character is telling the story in first person, then I would say don’t use italics for inner thoughts. Otherwise, I would use italics. I used to use italics when writing in first person, but the editors really didn’t like it and it can be confusing. It really works better not using them.

      Kathy

      Like

  2. Dialogue means the interpersonal talk that basically involves two people but in some circumstances(it may involve more)

    Like


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