Dynamic Dialogue

Apr 11, 2022 | Craft, Writing

The Gift of Gab

Dialogue is an important tool that every writer should strive to master. Good dialogue does the following:

  • It yanks the reader into the story, rather than keeping him at arm’s length, as a casual observer.
  • It gives valuable insight into each character – his socioeconomic and educational background, his mannerisms, his thought processes, his reactions to others, his attitude.
  • It provides clues about the time period and setting.
  • It helps keep you from getting bogged down in lengthy narration, provided you don’t let your speaker get bogged down in lengthy narration.

Good dialogue is dialogue that is essential to the story or to the readers’ understanding of the character. It always serves a purpose – either it moves the story forward towards its conclusion, or it illustrates an important facet of the speaker’s character. Good dialogue is not idle chit-chat.

Writing Believable Dialogue

Believable or natural dialogue is not the same as “real speech.” Listen to a group of people talking in a restaurant (yes, of course- eavesdrop!). Record them or attempt to faithfully jot down what’s said. Real, everyday speech is not very interesting to the casual observer, for the most part. It won’t be interesting to your readers, either. How many real conversations have you heard that are devoid of annoying little lack-of-forethought time fillers, like “well,” “you know,” “uh,” “um,” “like,” and so on? A well-placed “uh” or “um” can render dialogue more believable but use them very sparingly to avoid turning your dialogue into asleep aid.

Good dialogue should sound natural. One of the best ways to gauge this is to read it aloud, or ask a friend to read it aloud to you. Subvocalize, if you’re very shy. If your tripping over the words, or getting your tongue wrapped around your eyeteeth and can’t see what you’re saying, then it’s not natural.

Try to make dialogue match character. Consider the character’s socioeconomic status and background. A guttersnipe speaks differently than a college professor. Consider “My Fair Lady.” It would be easy to distinguish Henry Higgins from Eliza Doolittle, even if the same person read their lines. As Eliza learns, she is more careful and precise in her speech, even, than Higgins – because she is conscious of and cares about the perceptions of others. To her, it is not a game. He can afford to be casual in his speech, even though it is not truly in his nature to be; she cannot.

Use dropped terminal consonants (doin’, goin’, seein’, wanna, gimme, etc.), contractions (don’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, etc.), profanity and slang if the character would naturally use them. Pretend your mother and your Fifth Grade English teacher will never read your work. You can’t be a real writer and live in fear that someone will be shocked to learn that you know “those words.” Consider using profanity when it’s out of character to give dialogue “shock value.” For example, if the preacher’s wife runs across a dead body in her geranium bed, she’s not likely to say, “Oh, dear, it’s a corpse.” She might actually scream and yell a bad word. It’ll get the reader’s attention if you suddenly have a well-established character act out of character. That said, remember that profanity is the last resort of little minds, and use it sparingly – for deliberate effect.

Show – don’t tell! Make sure your characters understand this rule. Using dialogue to relate past events may tempt you to tell the story in between quotation marks. Don’t let one character simply narrate the whole story. Dialogue should give us insight into each character’s unique traits – it’s your opportunity, regardless of the point of view from which you’ve chosen to write, to give the reader a glimpse of the character’s thoughts and emotions. Use dialogue to show how characters respond to situations and react to one another.

A Few Quick Tips

  • Consider the character’s socioeconomic and educational background.
  • Give the character a distinctive “pet phrase” or set of commonly-used expressions (e.g., “Valley Girl” speech). Be careful not to exaggerate speech mannerisms to the point of annoying the reader; a little seasoning in the pot works better than dumping in a whole jar of spice.
  • Show, don’t tell! Avoid academic or wordy statements, unless they reflect a character trait.
  • Use contractions, dropped letters (goin’, doin’, etc.) slang, profanity, accents, etc. with deliberate intent.
  • Recognize when characters are likely to relate past events in present tense.

AVOID:

  • Unnecessary repetition of a phrase or idea.
  • Small talk that doesn’t illustrate character OR move the story forward.
  • Having one character address another by name (they know to whom they are talking; it should be clear enough to your reader in context and by other means)
  • Wordy, academic, stiff, stilted phrases rolling off your characters’ tongues, unless it’s a character trait.

Notes on Formatting Dialogue

  • Dialogue starts and ends with quotation marks: ” and “
  • If one speaker’s lines extend beyond one paragraph, each paragraph of dialogue opens with opening quotation marks (“); the last paragraph ends with closing quotation marks (“).
  • Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks: “And so,” explained Liz, “that’s why I killed him.”
  • When one speaker is quoting another, the quotation is enclosed in single quotation marks: ‘ and ‘ For example: “I told him Liz said ‘Eat more oatmeal.'”

Challenge Yourself!

Try writing a story using nothing but dialogue between two or more characters. Don’t include any dialogue tags (“he said,” “she cried,” etc.). See if you can convey all the elements of a good story, including distinct and interesting characters, through dialogue alone.

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

8 Comments

  1. Jill Ebstein

    This made me laugh: (yes, of course- eavesdrop!)
    All your guidance is excellent. I have been using contractions (e.g. comin’) over the last year and I feel like I am violating a law that early grammar and English teachers taught me but it feels right and real.

    Regarding using the name, sometimes I will have characters refer to each other by name, but that is usually when they are angry, and then it might be the whole goddamn name. (that profanity was not necessary but I just felt like it).

    Good work, fun read, helpful hints… all very good. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Good for you! I think when you really KNOW the “rules,” and how to break them effectively, it’s a tool, not an error. And use profanity when it seems natural! (Never as a weak-ass “crutch word” or filler. 😉)

      Reply
  2. Mitchell Allen

    “Should we tell her about auto-correct?”

    “Oh, I’m sure she knows about that vile gremlin.”

    “Okay, fuggedaboutit.”

    “Watch your mouth!”

    Cheers,

    Mitch
    Mitchell Allen recently posted…Anubis and ArtemisMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      You know it took me way too long to put this message and the other one together and realize what the heck you were talking about – talk about a diplomatic and creative way to say, “Uh, TYPO! Here it is!” 😀 Thanks, Mitchell.

      Reply
  3. Gabriela

    Incredible tips and even so there are those who criticize, make sure your publication helped me a lot. tks

    Reply
  4. Corinne Rodrigues

    A great set of tips, Holly.
    I eavesdrop a lot. Some of these dialogues are hilarious but when you translate them into another language, you lose the nuances that make them so funny!

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      There’s a challenge for you – translate them in such a way that they DO retain those nuances! (When writing fiction, we can take liberties – we don’t need to quote those bits of dialogue EXACTLY – we can alter them to translate them so that it’s faithful to the idea.)

      Reply

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