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.
- 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.'”
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.