Nov 10, 2009

Dialogue - What I'm trying to say...

This is my weakness in writing and can be an essential part of 'showing not telling'. I've been working on my dialogue for my NaNoWriMo novel The Costume Maker and this is what I have found helpful:

Watch out for 'Talking Heads'...
If your conversation between two or three people runs too long, you'll have endless he said/she saids, the reader looses the connection they've worked to build up of place. Your location fades and disapears - all the reader sees is floating heads rambling on.
The solution? Sometimes you might have a conversation that needs to be hashed out, it can't be short and sweet. To break it up, insert a few instructions and descriptions to remind the reader where the characters are. Make them short though, you don't want to draw the attention away from what is being said
These are the sort of lines you can insert.
"He makes me feel like a woman."
Max slammed his fist on the pine kitchen table, causing the china cups to shake. He pushed his chair out roughly and it fell - he didn't pick it up, instead he walked firmly out of the room.
Susan followed him."We need to finish this."
Swinging around to face her, Max's profile filled the doorway to their bedroom.....
Anyway, you get the idea now. After you have several lines of dialogue, just get your character to move around, pick something up, stare at the sky... anything to put your reader in a physical place.

He said, she said...
If you've read any book on writing you will already know this rule. When writers start out, they often worry about their limited vocabulary and convince themselves there must be a better word to use.  J.C.Hutchins, author of 7th Son, admits in a podcast interview with The Creative Penn, feeling in the beginning he was a fraud, a 'hack' and talks about the doubting voice in our head that tries to tell us we're just pretending to be writers
As a result, new writers can abuse thesauruses in an attempt to find more loquacious ways of speaking. 
You can have characters yell, declare, admit or whisper, but if they are truly just 'saying' something, than use 'said'. It's simple and does not distract from the voice. The idea is to make reading easy for the reader and 'said' stays in the background.

Where to begin...
Don't feel like you have to start at the beginning of the conversation. Does the reader really have to hear: 
"Excuse me Mike, can we talk for a moment?"
"Sure Lacey, what it is it?" blah blah blah.
You can start halfway through conversation, or create impact by starting after one character has dropped a bombshell to the other. Jump straight into tension and drama. You can slowly reveal clues to the reader as to what the bombshell actually was.


Have fun with your characters, slip a joke in or highlight their personality in the way they speak. In any room full of people you will find a mix of personalities, funny people, rude people, boring people, shy people, etc etc etc. Make sure there's variety in your characters when they speak, don't have them all sound like one generic character voice.
Speaking out loud when you write the dialogue can help you create individual voices for your characters. Make sure you use the right words for that character, Bob the hairy plumber who scratches his bum, probably doesn't use words like loquacious (or maybe he does, because he's an international spy undercover?). Mur Lafferty emphasises the importance of appropriate language use in her podcast I Should be Writing.

Another point made by Sara (see the comments at the bottom) is not to overuse names, people who know each other do not usually use the person's name in everything they say. It's okay occasionally when you want to make it clear who's speaking, and Mum's often do it when they're mad at you (in fact then they usually use your whole name - no abreviations!).

I loved Wuthering Heights and the gothic but romantic language used. There was however, one character, a gamekeeper or some such thing, and I could not understand a word he said. 
Thick accent? Consider either not making it extreme, or making it extreme only occasionally. When this character has something important to say, make sure your reader can understand it. If necessary, include a translator.

How much dialogue?
I'm not a big fan for specific formulas on the percentage of dialogue in narrative. Stream of consciousness text may have almost no dialogue and others quite a lot. 
Think about your audience. Teens tend to talk a lot, so if you are writing about them or for them you may want to have lots of dialogue. 
If your descriptions seem to drag on, you may need more dialogue, or if your narrative looks like a script, perhaps you need less (or insert more movement between lines).

Okay, we're in a hurry, don't worry about creating the most amazing or witty dialogue right now. Just get down what you need your characters to say and you can embelish and decorate later (when you edit). If you have any funny or punchy lines, write them in a notes folder or at the end of your narrative with an * so you can insert it later.

Have fun writing dialogue, make it as different, quirky or dramatic as you can! As with all writing techniques, if it doesn't move the story along, cut it out.


  1. fabulous post! dialogue really can be so tricky... the one thing I'd also add is to make sure that the dialogue reads like something that someone would actually say! In a workshop I'm taking I recently saw dialogue that looked like this:

    "Bill, you look handsome."
    "Thanks, Sue, I really appreciate it."
    "Well, Bill, I call it like I see it."
    "Sue, you are so sweet."

    (The point is that people don't often actually call each other by name!)

  2. Yes! You are so right, otherwise it sounds like those corny commercials where two people who are apparently married and should already know, discuss their insurance and financial situations.

    Thanks Sara :-)