Dia[b]logue: how to write talky bits

Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I’m not very talkative – at least, in person, I’m not as chatty as I am online.  That said, I frequently get positive comments on my written dialogue.  Today, I’ll present what I hope are some helpful hints as far as writing about talking.

As with all things writing, the rules and ideas presented here are fast and loose and barely rules at all, and balance is more important than absolute adherence.  When I say “always” and “never”, I mean “usually” and “rarely” and “do what you want and not as I say.”

I. Don’t Write What You Hear

A lot of beginner dialogue advice I’ve seen says, “listen to what people say, and write that.”  I’ll start my list by saying that I think this is terrible advice.  Real people have boring conversations; we stammer; we fill pauses with “um” and “like”.  We take several attempts to say what we mean; we’re not eloquent or organised; we’re seriously awful talkers.

So where to begin?

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out the dialogue in books you love, or in films.  You’ve probably heard that “no one on TV says ‘goodbye’ on the phone” – because it’s an entirely unnecessary piece of dialogue.  They also don’t introduce themselves, order food or state mundane details like meeting locations.  The viewer either knows or it doesn’t matter, so why say it?  Dialogue on TV has the boring stuff cut out, and the same should be done for written dialogue.

“But what about authenticity?” you ask, and this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument.  “My dialogue won’t sound real if I take out everything non-essential!”  But it will, and it’ll sound better.  Writing authentic dialogue doesn’t mean including every “um”, in the same way that writing an authentic setting doesn’t mean including the name of every plant and architectural feature.  The best way to know if your dialogue sounds inauthentic is to read it aloud.

If you’re struggling to write new dialogue – to figure out what characters should be saying – or wondering how to fix some dialogue you’ve already written, try the ideas below.

II. Give Participants a (Conflicting) Goal

First and foremost: make sure that the characters involved in a conversation have a goal: why are they talking?  In real life, we usually have a reason for speaking, so craft your fictional conversations with even more goal.  For best results, try to give each participant a goal that conflicts with the goals of others (even if they are not directly opposing).  Examples:

  1. A warrior wants to tell his wife about a recent battle; meanwhile, she wants to tell him that she’s pregnant (not directly conflicting, but one topic will probably derail the other).
  2. A fledgling magician wants to learn the secrets to a powerful spell, but her teacher thinks she’s too young to learn, and refuses to tell her (directly conflicting; one participant will “win” the conversation).
  3. A boy wants to convince his boyfriend to go to the school dance with him; his boyfriend doesn’t even want to have the conversation – never mind go to the dance (directly conflicting, even though the boyfriend doesn’t have an opposing “topic” in mind).  Further complications: maybe the boyfriend’s little sister is hungry and asking for dinner, and the phone’s ringing.

In real life, people often have conversations without conflicting “goals” in mind.  For example, I might blab at my friend about weekend plans: we’re going together to the mall, to dinner, to the tea shop – or I might comment on the weather to a stranger in the elevator.  In writing, conversations like this can usually* be left out; even though they’re natural, they often weaken the writing.  Speakers in fiction need goals, and (for bonus points) it’s best if those goals align with the plot/storytelling.

All that said, it can be hard to determine the “flow” of a conversation wherein multiple characters are trying to say something different.  While most people know what to say after “how are you?”, it’s harder to figure out what to say after “teach me magic.”  One tip I’ve read in this regard is to write out separately what each character wants to say (perhaps in bullet points), then mash them together and massage as necessary.  It’s okay if the result doesn’t “flow” in the same way a normal conversation would.

* See VI.6 below – it’s at the very end!

III. Attribution: Who Says What?

When attributing dialogue to a speaker, we have a couple of options:

  1. “I don’t want to go,” Anne said.
  2. “I don’t want to go,” Anne said quietly.
  3. “I don’t want to go,” Anne uttered.
  4. “I don’t want to go.”

As ever, balance is everything and it’s better to vary your technique than to stick to one, but some methods are preferred to others.  Let’s discuss:

1. Use “Said” and Only “Said”

A lot of new writers are worried about using “said” – perhaps because it gets repeated a lot or perhaps because it just doesn’t feel accurate (he’s not just saying this, he’s saying it angrily).

If you’re worried about repetition: don’t be.  The word “said” (or “says”, or whatever tense you happen to use), more or less disappears to the reader.  We all know what’s coming after you close the quotation marks: you’re going to tell us who said that.  But I’m more interested in who, because I already know that they’re saying.  My eyes just roll right over “said”.

If you’re worried about accuracy…

2. Using “Said” + Adverbs

Adverbs are okay on occasion, but consider whether there’s a better verb to use than “said”.  Instead of saying something angrily, could your speaker hiss or spit or shout his dialogue?  Writers are usually advised not to use adverbs; I don’t think that’s possible in all cases, but a lot of adverbs that modify “said” are boring (like “quietly”, above).

Furthermore, the use of adverbs usually just means that we could have used a better verb in the first place…

3. Using “Said” Alternatives

Similar to adverbs, “said” alternatives should be used sparingly or they’ll start to sound silly. Consider, too, that some dialogue speaks for itself – maybe all you need is “said”, or maybe you don’t need an attribution tag at all..?

4. Nixing the Attribution

If you’re writing an exchange between two people, you probably don’t need a lot of attribution tags: it follows that character A will talk, and then character B will talk, so it’s possible to get rid of a lot of attribution tags.  Furthermore, readers can often guess how something sounds without any adverbs or attributions to help them out.  For example, can you guess how characters might be speaking these lines?

  • “I never loved you.”
  • “Bring me the girl.”
  • “I don’t want another hamster, I want Fluffers!”

IV. Avoid Talking Heads

I write a lot of dialogue.  Probably too much.  One of the first tips I got, and that I still need to watch for, is to avoid “talking heads”.  Talking heads is like turning your novel into a soap opera: two people are talking, and all we see is close-ups of their faces.  There’s no body language (for shame!), no interaction with setting (which essentially fades away) and were it not for the inclusion of a few facial expressions (she said with a smirk), we might as well be writing a screenplay.  Here are some ways to avoid talking heads:

  1. Use body language.  This one is simple and can really add a lot to the dialogue.  It reminds readers that there are still people under the heads, and it can help you to kill adverbs: she doesn’t need to say something “disapprovingly” if she can say something “with a hand on her hip.”  Careful here: saying something “with a sigh” or “a frown” won’t help; use the whole body.  Say things with sagging shoulders, or while kicking a rock, or while morosely picking an elbow scab.
  2. Comment on the setting.  This one reminds the reader where we are, which can be particularly useful if we’re introducing a setting (you can dialogue and worldbuild at the same time!).  Sometimes, a change of setting can really spice up a dialogue scene, too: sure, your characters could be talking in a coffee shop, but what if they were trying to talk at a play, instead?  What if they were talking at the police station?
  3. Add some action!  Give your characters something to do while they talk.  Similar to number 2, this will keep your story moving forward and can really help to make your dialogue more exciting!  For example, your characters could be talking while making lunch, or they could be talking during a motorcycle chase.

Obviously, any added action or setting can really affect the tone of the conversation: what if your main character wants to propose, but his chef girlfriend is busy sharpening knives?  What if a wizard’s trying to give a lecture – as he and his student are chased through the sewers by a giant alligator?

V. Read Aloud and Revise

This is my best advice after “don’t write what you hear.”  Obviously, this is true for all writing, but for dialogue it’s particularly important to read aloud in order to make sure it sounds natural.

Unlike other writing, revision can be fun for dialogue, because you can revise your characters’ words to be the cleverest, funniest, snappiest, cruelest words they can possibly be.  You know when you think of a good comeback after the moment’s passed?  That won’t happen to your characters, because you can go back and tweak their words as many times as you like!

VI. Fun Stuff: Dialogue’s Many Uses

I’ve already mentioned a few cool things you can do with dialogue, but here are a few extra morsels:

  1. Characterize.  Dialogue can help a lot with characterization, as different people use different words, have different accents and speak in different ways (for example, some people talk a lot and some people just respond with “yup” to everything; others reply to everything with sarcasm).
  2. Distinguish characters.  This is similar to 1, but it can be helpful to help “separate” characters by giving them very different ways of speaking.  Remember how we talked about dialogue attribution?  If your characters speak very differently, you won’t need nearly as many attribution tags.  Dialogue could also help to distinguish different types of characters; for example, certain word choices can indicate if a speaker is Canadian or American.
  3. Add humour.  Characters can be funny!  This is where you get to write all those perfect comebacks you crafted, and it’s also what I do with almost 100% of my dialogue, because I can’t get enough sass.  Maybe don’t do this with your novel.
  4. Worldbuild and “tell” details.  Dialogue allows us a sneaky opportunity to have some characters tell story details instead of the narrator.  This is a useful trick but should be done sparingly – and you’ll have to be extra careful that it sounds natural.  For example, you can use it to introduce a character’s name – but don’t cram that name into every sentence (I’m looking at you, Supernatural).
  5. Affect pacing.  Dialogue can easily speed up a slow scene: break up long descriptions (castle on a hill, blah blah) with bursts of dialogue (what’s that flag?); break up long dialogue (speeches, lectures) with other dialogue (interruptions, questions).
  6. Increase tension.  Last one, and now we’re getting technical.  Say a character is about to reveal something (to other characters and the reader) – but his friend keeps interrupting.  Or, maybe you’ve got a character in a hurry to purchase something, but the shopkeeper insists upon chatting about each of the products she rings through.  This is a place where very ordinary dialogue might work for a novel – because the reader and the characters really don’t want to hear it.  I need to go catch my bus but Marla is still talking about her cat!  Gah!

And that’s it!  You made it to the end!

your turn scroll

Your turn: Do you love dialogue, hate it, or feel somewhere in-between about it?  What are your favourite ways to use dialogue?  Is it easier to write dialogue for specific characters?  When you read it, do you “hear” the voice?

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