Midweek Writer-Rummage - Dialogue

'A Reading from Homer' ~ Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along” ~ Nigel Watts

And that is the key thing to remember about dialogue in fiction, it does not mirror real-life dialogue.  There is none of the rambling untidiness of real speech.  Fictional dialogue is lean and forceful; it feels spontaneous without any of the repetitiveness of real talk.  In fiction, dialogue has to be believable, not realistic.

Dialogue opens up the characters; it is through talking that they come to life.  Let us hear your characters – direct speech is more immediate, more emotionally powerful.  Dialogue also helps us understand the characters’ personalities.  We learn a lot about people and their relationships through the manner in which they speak to one another.

However, dialogue isn’t just about talking; it also has to convey information.  Not any old information, though – it has to be vital, not anything banal or irrelevant, like exchanging pleasantries.  Having said that, it is ok to include some chatty-type of dialogue for the sake of authenticity but don’t overdo it.  And don’t overlook indirect speech; it comes in handy when a character has a lot of information to deliver, or if there’s a recap of information that’s already been given.

Dialogue’s main purpose is to progress the story.  Ideally, everymajor dialogue exchange should move the conflict along, even introduce new complications.  Here are a few (obviously there are many more) ways of working out if it is fulfilling that purpose:

  • Does it make the character’s motivations clearer?
  • Does the dialogue convey good or bad news, which changes the character’s situation?
  • Does it increase the reader’s suspense?

The reason fictional dialogue must not be realistic is because conversations in real life do not flow.  There are a lot of ‘ ums’ and ‘ ahs’; random changes of topic; interruptions with people talking over one another … Can you imagine reading that kind of dialogue exchange in a book?  So let your dialogue flow; make it sound effortless.  One way to achieve this is through the use of dialogue tags, those handy little ‘ he said’, ‘ she said’ things.  But don’t overuse them or they’ll start to intrude and kill the flow.  By the same token, using too few also messes with the flow.  I’ve read books with too few dialogue tags and have had to count back to work out who’s speaking.  Annoying.

There are conflicting schools of thought when it comes to dialogue tags.  Some say stick with the simple ‘ said’ and ‘ asked’; others insist that adverbs like ‘ exclaimed’, ‘ wailed’, and ‘ ecstatically’ are necessary.  Personally, I prefer using only ‘ said’.  I feel adverbs not only interrupt the flow but also make the dialogue sound amateurish.  Instead of adverbs, I much prefer to use body language to enhance the meaning of the character’s words.

For example, in this scene from ‘ The Cursed Gift’, when Leah invites Jessalyn to walk in the palace gardens with her, instead of telling her excitement – ‘said Jessalyn excitedly’, I show it through her body language:

“Oh, yes please.” Standing on her toes, Jessalyn lightly clapped her hands together.  “I’ve never been in the palace gardens before … or the palace.”

Staying on the subject of body language – it augments another function of dialogue, which is its ability to bring us close to the characters by conveying their emotions.  There are times you learn more about a character through his body language than in the actual words being spoken.  For example, while a character is saying one thing, his mannerisms and tell-tale eye movement are running contrary to his words.

Something else that intensifies dialogue is silence because there are times when silence is much more powerful than words.  When a character doesn’t respond or refuses to speak, that’s a clear indication that something awkward is going on.

Remember, no one converses in a vacuum, not even fictional characters.  No one talks without doing something, even if it’s just fiddling with their hair.  Give your characters something to do while they’re talking, like cooking; washing pots and pans; searching for something; dressing/undressing; grooming a horse; even walking.  Mixing the words with some sort of action adds to the interest.

If you’re wondering if any bit of dialogue is necessary, or if you’re overly fond of a piece of dialogue (guilty!), remove it.  Does the story still make sense?  If it’s absence doesn’t leave a glaring hole in the story, get rid of it. 

Finally, to help polish up the dialogue, a popular piece of advice is to read it out loud.  Reading aloud is a great way to work out if it sounds plausible, and how well it flows.  It helps me pick out the stilted bits; the unrealistic, clunky bits; the overly dramatic bits.  And it’s fun.

Just before I finish, here are a few things to remember about punctuation in dialogue:

There is no hard and fast rule about using single or double quotation marks for speech.  Most use double.  I guess the ‘rule’ is to pick one and stick to it.

New speaker = new paragraph.  That applies whether or not they’re speaking.  Another example from ‘The Cursed Gift’:

“Are you alright?”

She looked up at Nadeen and pasted a smile on her face.

“It is not like you to be so quiet.”

“It’s nothing …”

“Missing your family?” said Jessalyn, adjusting her plain brown tunic over her trousers.

With a sigh, Leah nodded as she got to her feet.  “Yes, I suppose I am, especially my little brother.”

The use of quotation marks is limited in a long speech.  Most times, dialogue is limited to a couple of sentences.  But there are times when the information the character is conveying is long enough to run into a couple of paragraphs.  Punctuation is used at the beginning of the speech, the beginning of the following paragraph of the same speech, and at the end of the entire speech:

“It didn’t take me long,” she said, “to decide my story would be about a young woman who was too aware of her responsibilities to avoid them when all she really wanted was a private life, free to make her own choices.

  “I went for the ‘obvious’ and made Leah, the protagonist, royalty, and added the element of her wanting to be the same as everyone else, and not to be treated differently.”

Dashes and ellipses convey different meanings.  Ellipses (the three dots: ‘…’) are used when the character’s words are trailing off:

“I’m always the victim of his jokes and teasing. But one day I looked in his eyes and …”

A dash shows that the character has been interrupted:

“The garden behind the training–”

“No, the palace gardens.  It’s peaceful and quiet.”

I’ve only touched on a few points concerning dialogue; there’s, obviously, so much more to it.  But I hope this is enough of a starting point to help work through what can sometimes be a tricky part of writing.

I’ve not shared this before but I guess I have to get over my aversion to drawing attention to myself … Back when I was polishing up ‘The Cursed Gift’ before starting on the agent-hunt, I had it critiqued by Cornerstones Literary; here is what the editor had to say about my use of dialogue:

“… your descriptions are vivid and creative, your dialogue lively and you haven’t made the kind of mistakes first-time authors often make, such as too much flat, narrative prose and a lack of control over the plot.

You write vigorous, crunchy prose that flows well and uses a good, apt choice of words … On the whole, your dialogue is fine and suits the characters who are speaking it.