Writing Dialogue

Yeah, I know you’ve heard it all before: dialogue “makes yours characters come alive!” and whilst I happen to agree with that statement, I think throwing around writing advice like that is about as useful as spitting out random Nietzsche quotes. Without context, it’s meaningless.

So let me get started by stating quite clearly . . .

I am not an expert in writing dialogue.

There, disclaimer done. But I reckon I know a few cheap tricks. Whether this makes me a good writer or just a bit of a conman, I don’t know but it works for me. So here we go with 10 cheap dialogue tricks . . .

1. Thirds

I’m sure I once read that ‘most good stories’ are:

  • One part action.
  • One part introspection.
  • One part dialogue.

I can’t remember where I read this. In fact, I’m not sure I read it at all. Perhaps I just dreamt it? Or maybe I’m just making it up for this blog post. You decide.

Anyway, I’m not advocating line counting and spreadsheets so you can fret and worry that, “Damn! I only have 23.7% dialogue with over 59% introspection and my action percentile is screwed!” Be sensible now. This is just a guide which seems to work for me. It may or may not work for you. I could be talking nonsense.

If I look back to discover I’ve written two or three pages of solid narrative I sometimes pause for a moment to consider whether I should add some dialogue or replace some of the narrative with dialogue. A lot of the time I just shrug and carry on. But sometimes I realise I’ve skipped a perfect opportunity for dialogue and I rewrite a paragraph or two.

This isn’t a hard rule and it tends to average out by the end of a novel or a short story. I might have a chapter with a single character on their own and there’s very little opportunity for dialogue, then the next chapter is centred around a heated exchange between two characters and it’s full of dialogue.

2. Tagging & Punctuation 

Learn the rules and how to punctuate. It’s easy and you look a bit daft if you keep getting it wrong. A standard line of dialogue works like this . . .

Dialogue + comma inside the speech marks + tag + full stop.

‘Hello + ,’ + Bob said + .

‘Hello,’ Bob said.

Or you can can tag before . . .

Tag + comma outside the speech marks + dialogue + full stop inside the speech marks.

Bob said, ‘Hello.’

Sometimes you might want to use a colon . . .

Bob stated: ‘Custard.’

If you tag before, don’t forget the full stop at the end of your dialogue. Those little speech marks haven’t changed the basic rule of punctuation, which is . . .

Capital letter + some words + maybe a comma + more words + full stop.

‘Hello,’ Bob said.

Bob said or said Bob? Personally I use Bob said. I think it’s more contemporary and would be more consistent with Bob said / I said rather than said Bob / said I. You’d obviously never say said I so you’d be mixing said Bob with I said. If you’re going to use said Bob make sure you capitalise correctly . . .

‘Hello,’ said Bob.

Be careful when you use a question mark or exclamation mark at the end of your dialogue. If you follow your dialogue with a tag your ? or ! acts like a comma, and you need a lower case tag like this . . .

‘You sure?’ said Bob.

But if you follow your dialogue question mark or exclamation mark with a beat then your ? or ! acts like a full stop, and you need to upper case like this . . .

‘You sure?’ Scratching his head, Bob looked unsure.

Another good example is using a description instead of a name. Say you’ve introduced a character as just ‘the old man’. Your tags work like this . . .

‘Hi there,’ the old man said.

The old man said, ‘Hi there.’

‘What?’ the old man said.

‘What?’ The old man shrugged.

Quit all of this . . .

Bob said, ‘Hello.’. What’s with the extra full stop?

Bob said ‘Hello.’ Missing comma. Should be: Bob said, ‘Hello.’

Bob said, ‘Hello’. Full stop in the wrong place. Should be: Bob said, ‘Hello.’

Bob said, ‘hello.’ Dialogue needs a capital letter: Bob said, ‘Hello.’

‘Hello’ Bob said. Missing comma. Should be: ‘Hello,’ Bob said.

‘Hello!’ Said Bob. Upper case S should be lower case.

3. Single or Double Quotes?

I’m not sure this matters as long as you’re consistent. Yeah I guess they tend to use double speech marks in the US and single in the UK. Check the market you’re sending your work to and follow their guidelines. I use ‘single quotes’.

4. Said Bookism

Quit this . . .

‘Hello,’ Bob growled.

‘How are you?’ Jane crooned.

‘I’m . . . just . . . dandy!’ Bob sang. Then, well, he actually burst into song.

People do not growl/howl/whine/whimper/sing words. Try it the next time you’re standing at the checkout in Tesco, then call me from the secure unit to tell me how it went. This is called said bookism. Early 1900s hack fiction was full of this stuff. It’s naff.

5. Lessly Is Morely

Consider dropping some (or all) of the -ly adverbs on your speaker tags . . .

‘Oh my!’ Jane said excitedly.

‘I know!’ Bob said breathlessly.

‘I just don’t believe it!’ Jane said incredulously.

‘Yeah . . . what were we talking about again?’ Bob said confusedly.

We are not writing Enid Blyton. And whilst I’m a fan of the odd bosum-heaving period drama I personally wouldn’t recommend writing like this even if you are writing a bosum-heaving period drama.

Yes, I know there are plenty of Booker nominated authors who use -ly adverbs on their speaker tags. Are you a Booker nominated author yet? Well, you just carry on with your -ly adverbs and come back to me when you do get nominated.

6. Beats

I mentioned beats earlier on. Beats are classy. They identify the speaker without needing a tag, allowing you to drop some of your tags, so instead of . . .

‘Oh my!’ Jane said.

‘I know,’ Bob said.

‘I just don’t believe it!’ Jane said.

You can have . . .

‘Oh my!’ Jane said.

‘I know.’ Bob frowned.

‘I just don’t believe it!’ Jane said.

Note that the comma has changed to a full stop. But stop worrying whether you have too many tags. Too many tags can feel a little over the top but they’re pretty much invisible. Maybe use a few beats instead? Job done.

You can beat before, in the middle of, or after your dialogue . . .

Jane looked surprised. ‘Oh my!’

‘I know.’ Bob frowned. ‘I tried to—’

‘I just don’t believe it!’ She ran her fingers through her hair.

This is a bit over the top. Too many beats and your characters will be twitching all over the place.

7. Scruffying It Up (A Bit)

In the real world people are crap at dialogue. Next time you’re out somewhere just listen to two people talking to each other. They interrupt, they don’t finish sentences, they . . .

Sure, I tried this out myself. I sat in a  doctor’s surgery and—

Yeah it’s a wonder—

What?

No, I was just saying—well, it’s  wonder people understand each other at all . . .

Now, be careful here. Experiment a teeny tiny bit. If you smash up all your dialogue like this your work might be realistic but unreadable. You need to find a balance between realism and sanity.

You can trail away a sentence with an ellipsis like this . . .

‘Yeah,’ Bob said, ‘I was thinking that, but well . . .’

Or insert a pause into a sentence using an ellipsis like this . . .

‘Yeah, I was thinking that, but . . . well, I’m not so sure.’

You can use an em dash for an interruption like this . . .

‘Yeah,’ Bob said, ‘I was thinking—’

‘That’s your trouble,’ Jane said, ‘never thinking.’

You can also use a dash on the same line of dialogue to show—well you know when people change direction in their own sentence? Like this . . .

‘Yeah I was thinking—hang on, I’ve left the oven on!’

Now this whole ellipsis/dash thing seems to vary from author to author, publisher to publisher. Some authors/publishers seem to use ellipses for interruptions and dashes for trailing off. This is how I do it.

8. Names

Now there could well be people reading this post who are going to think this next point is aimed specifically at them.

It’s not.

Lots of people do it. All the time.

But real people don’t use names in dialogue unless they’re being creepy, patronising or they’re otherwise making a point of using someone’s name when they speak . . .

‘Do they, Bob? Hmm? Hmm? Bob! BOB!

Or they’re in a (possibly rather cheesy) 19th century novel . . .

Bob, old chap, how are you?’

‘I’m chipper Quentin. Just chipper.’

Again, try it next time you speak to someone. Try it with the girl on the checkout in Tesco or perhaps the big guy on the door at your local nightclub. But don’t blame me if she calls you a perve and calls security or if he gives you a thump and chucks you out into the street.

Don’t use names to identify the other speaker.

Use beats. They’re classy.

Use tags. They’re invisible…

9. Sabotage and Agendas

When people talk they have an agenda. They want to tell their side of the story and they quite probably don’t give a rat’s ass about what the other person has to say. They try to change the subject and derail the conversation. They’re evasive, they omit the truth and they sometimes even lie.

Oh, is this just me?

But think about it. You, the author, might have a point to get across by making your characters talk to each other but your characters probably have something else in mind. There’s nothing more boring than a conversation like this . . .

‘Well,’ Bob said, ‘I like being a vegetarian.’

‘Me too,’ Jane said.

‘It’s healthy.’

Jane nodded. ‘And less cruel to animals.’

For a moment they stared at each other. A tumble-weed blew across the set.

Better like this . . .

‘Well,’ Bob said, ‘I like being a vegetarian.’

Jane rolled her eyes.

‘What?’ Bob asked. ‘What was that?’

Jane said, ‘Nothing, no nothing.’

‘You did the eyes thing—’

‘The eyes thing?’ Jane said. ‘No—’

‘You did, you—’

‘No it’s fine. Now these reports—’

Bob said, ‘You said the other week you don’t mind veggies?’

‘I don’t.’

This doesn’t have to devolve into an argument. Perhaps Jane just knows that Bob will drop his new regime the following week. Perhaps she’s just eaten her first burger after ten years on the greens.

10. Info Dumping

Stop using dialogue to info dump . . .

‘So,’ Agent Bob said, ‘I only load five bullets into my six cylinder revolver, leaving one chamber empty. I leave the hammer over the empty chamber so I don’t shoot myself if I accidentally pull back the hammer, like snagging it on my clothing.’

Agent Jane said, ‘Indeed. I apply a similar rule to my automatic pistol, of course.’

‘Of course,’ Agent Bob said.

‘When I pull back the slide on my automatic,’ Agent Jane continued, ‘a round is loaded into the chamber. If the safety catch is off and I snagged the hammer, the gun could fire.’

Since when do two people who know a topic this well talk like this to each other? Also avoid exposition like this . . .

‘So,’ Agent Bob said, ‘the politician was killed by the girl?’

‘Yes,’ Agent Jane said. ‘Turns out he blackmailed her father years ago, driving him to suicide. She’s been tracking him down all this time—’

‘Ah, that explains those newspaper clippings two chapters ago.’

‘Exactly.’

‘But,’ Agent Bob said, ‘I still don’t explain how she got inside.’

‘Okay, that chapter was a bit vague, let me explain . . .’

Summary

That’s it! Go scribble some stuff. You shouldn’t be spending all your time reading other people’s blogs.

Go! Shoo!

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Comments

  1. ‘Very very excellent,’ said Dave, ‘I reserve the right to post the link to this on my blog next time I want to talk about writing.’
    Craig smiled, ‘Feel free.’
    ‘Very funny and true. Love your examples, Bob said: ‘Custard.’ brilliant…’
    ‘Well you know, I’m a dialogue genius since I went to the doctors that time…’
    ‘I guess so,’ said Dave.

  2. thebloggerssoliloquy says:

    Thanks for that. It really has helped in giving me the finishing touches I need when it comes to dialogue. Saying that, I probably still will make the odd mistake now and again when it comes to the beat thing.

Trackbacks

  1. […] me to that these days).  I’ve posted on Beginnings, and Character and I don’t need to post on dialogue because Craig Pay has blogged sufficiently in this area.  So here are a few thoughts on writing […]

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