Wednesday, February 20, 2013

5 Tips to Effective Dialogue

HE SAID, SHE SAID

Writing dialogue trips up the best of us, at one time or another. On the other hand, often comes the comment, “This author has a great ear for dialogue.” So how do we tame this beast and go from the former to the latter? A few tips will take us a long way here.

1. Formal and Stilted Dialogue, and everyone sounding the same. Often, without the tags, I cannot tell who’s talking, and I should be able to. For most new writers, this is almost a given, and I see all the time a variation of this:

“My name is Bill. What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Theresa. Good to meet you, Bill,” she replied.
Yep, this is an exaggerated example, and for comparison:
“Name’s Bill,” he said, a grin spreading over his rugged face. “Yours?”
“Theresa. I know you from somewhere?”

I.e.—get something done in the dialogue with every spoken word as well.

Dialogue should rarely be in complete sentences—we just don’t talk that way. Unless, of course, you’re writing a very formal and stiff character, and this is a character trait. Otherwise, use more contractions, and we all have our favorite words and phrases, slang, etc. Put this in. Get quiet and listen to your characters speak, then write what you hear.

Now, on that note, be careful not to pepper the dialogue with too much dialect. Toss in just a smattering, to give a flavor for the speech patterns, but not so much as to make this unreadable. It's like putting salt into a stew—you want to put in enough to bring out the other flavors, but too much makes it inedible.

2. Look At. This almost universal foible will sink a scene.

He looked straight at her and said, “X.”

Not only does this fill the passage with wasted words, but a huge opportunity is missed here to evoke emotion and description. And often, ‘look at’ is the only action happening through the discussion.

Instead, use this space to show the non-viewpoint character—reinforce what he looks like; create his emotion:

His slate-gray eyes softened as he said, “X.” Or: His steely blue eyes narrowed at her in suspicion.
And in the latter, if you’ve couched the scene correctly, you can even omit the ‘in suspicion.’
Now, break that rule if whether he does or does not look her in the eyes is important—i.e., if he’s hiding something, or conversely, has the courage to do so under tough circumstances.

3. Tag Modifiers. Somewhat a continuation of above, the tags tell me rather than show me. If you must write, ‘she said anxiously,’ then the dialogue itself is lacking (and again, ‘told to’). I should get the anxiety from the spoken words, and the actions/mannerisms of the speaker: “He’s missing,” she said, wringing her well-manicured hands.

I’m not saying to never describe the dialogue, but rather to give me a picture of the emotion, rather than telling me about it (that old ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule popping up again). On the rare occasions where describing the dialogue is merited, do so up front, so that I can hear the tone as the words are spoken, not afterward: Softly he whispered, “You’re mine.”

4. Talking Heads. You know what this is like—we have pages and pages of dialogue, with no action in between, no notice of what’s going on around the characters, no expressions, mannerisms; no evoking characterization. I can’t help but see heads just floating in white space. Disconcerting with two folks talking, but downright frustrating in a group. Often I lose track of who’s talking when and especially if everyone sounds the same, I have no clue!

Instead, use this space to again reinforce your characters’ physical descriptions and emotions. We, as writers often have crystal-clear images of how our people look. But our readers need help—again, not a beating-over-the-head type help, but gentle reinforcement. And again, rather than telling me, show me.

Rather than, ‘He looked baffled as he said, “X,”’ which I cannot see, ‘His high forehead creased as his full lips went slack.’

And evoke emotion: “She left me.” He grabbed his wiry hair in both hands. “Why?”

Use it as well to let me know if an ill wind has just blown in from the sea, or the crowds have thinned as darkness falls, to evoke a sense of impending bad juju.

5. Ancillary Dialogue. Every single word counts, no matter what you’re writing, even the spoken ones. What I often see is this, at the end of a passage of dialogue:

“Let’s meet to talk about it.”
“Where do you want to meet?”
“How about the pub at three.”
“That sounds good.”
“See you there.”
“Bye.” Lucy hung up the phone and thought about how excited she was to see him again.

Aaaccckkk! I’m pulling my hair out by now :) Instead, paraphrase this, in one sentence:

They agreed to meet at the pub at three and Lucy looked heavenward and smiled.

Of course, a plethora of other dialogue problems exist, but these are the big five, the ones I see over and over, and trip up the best of us at times. Again, all words in whatever you’re writing count. Give them punch!

More tips on dialogue were shared by Jodie Renner in an earlier BRP Post.


With this latest release, award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has five traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at: MaloneEditorial.com

18 comments:

  1. Good guidelines, but I do confess I look forward to the day in a decade or so when writers--and writers on writing--look back on the silly, old-fashioned, and once overworked "show-don't-tell" in the same tone and spirit we now look back on rules against split infinitives and terminal prepositions.

    This is fashion, not art, and the current downgrading of modifiers and narrative exposition will pass, like all writing fashion. I for one will be thankful.

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  2. Jodie,

    Thanks for the tips/examples and the link to your first post on dialogue. WIll you be posting more on the subject, namely, formatting dialogue? A book that I am currently reading has often put the dialogue of its characters into a new paragraph, separating it from the narration/action that precedes it, which is related to said characters. I have found that it is tripping me up in terms of the separation making me feel like the dialogue belongs to the other character, but then, nope, there they are speaking in the next line. So, I've been having more than one instance of having to reread things on the page. sigh.

    Anyway, I am supposing that there are probably formatting tools/standards that can do much for a story in terms of keeping characters straight, evoking emotions, emphasizing a particular p.o.v., etc.

    Larry, I know what you mean to the extent that in this particular book, I am wearying a bit by having to read the body language when a simple dialogue tag would have done the trick and moved things along.

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  3. Hi Alison,
    This post was actually mine (Jodi had the earlier one). As per formatting, I'm with you on leaving dialogue with the narration that precedes it, unless you're making a point. Otherwise, as you noted, it is very confusing!

    And yes, so many tools exist for all the things you listed, and they speak to skills in writing--which of course can be learned.

    Larry--all rules are meant to be broken. The thing is, you have to understand and master them before you can break them effectively.

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  4. Great post, Susan. If I'm racing through a book that has sucked me in and suddenly the dialogue is so poor that I have to go back and figure out which character said it, I'm very annoyed. I'm also finding that even in best-selling fictional police procedurals so much "cop slang" is used that it makes the reader feel like an outsider. It is counterproductive because the idea is to draw the reader into the story, not disenfranchise her/him.

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  5. Good post, and the comments are very helpful, too. It's always good to get different points of view on a topic. I have always thought of "show-don't-tell" as a craft issue more than a rule. Some new writers will have pages of narrative telling the reader what the characters are doing, as opposed to setting a scene and letting the characters act.

    In terms of using movement, etc in place of dialogue tags, I think mixing that up is a good approach. Use tags frequently, but then let a character do something that shows some action, or as Susan suggested, adds some description. I think a good balance is key.

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  6. I see these problems all the time as well, Susan—only instead of "looked at," I get the ramped-up version, "stared."

    Staring is not a riveting plot point, people.

    If your character won't speak now, give him a few days and see if he can't come up with a reaction to what was being said. He doesn't need to say it aloud, but he needs to feel it. "He struggled to keep his silence" is so much more compelling than "All he could do was stare"!

    If after a few days your character still doesn't know what to say/how to react, either you don't know your character well enough or the previous comment needs to bit a little harder.

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  7. Susan, your posts are always insightful. I will forward this to my daughter the author and her 8th grade English teacher. I am reading your new book and love it! Aunt Suzanne sent me a copy ;-)

    Always a fan,

    Stephanie

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  8. Amen! I've spent a lot of editing time trying to explain effective dialogue to fledgling authors. If ever there's a place to suspend proper grammar, this is it. Then we go into the little differences in phrasing, word choices, etc., that set one character apart from another. Also, dialogue tags aren't always necessary, especially when just two people are talking. Here's where showing the emotion does some of its best work. One final thought: neither is internal dialogue necessarily proper English. Who thinks in complete sentences with all the "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed?

    Great post, Susan!

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  9. Wonderful, succinct article that totally validates what I think about dialogue. I get frustrated as a reader when I encounter those issues. As an author, I try hard to keep them out of my own writing and edit until I get it right. :)

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  10. "I can not believe just how poignant this post is," he said, starring somberly at the keyboard, remembering the dialogue he had just written in his manuscript, knowing that he would have to go back and re-craft the entire scene. How tiresome, he thought to himself.

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  11. Oops, sorry for the miss on authorship, Susan. A follow-up post someday on more dialogue tools would be great.

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  12. Here's a basic dialogue misconception I see far too often: one character speaks (new paragraph), followed by narrative describing the scene. Then a second character speaks and ends that paragraph. Wrong. I've even seen this without tags for the second speaker which makes the conversation more confusing yet. Each speaker gets his own paragraph.

    I won't make any comments about purple prose and making the reader dig for meaning under all the embellishments. ;)

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  13. These are some good tips; it's important to make sure your readers know who's speaking at all times. Most of the points made here are the ones I stress in my dialogue workshops. As for formatting; the 'rule' is the reader has to know who's speaking. Author PJ Parrish (Kris Montee, specifically) said one of the best bits of advice she got early on was "don't bury your dialogue."

    I print out my daily output and read it that night--my 'rule' is if I have trouble following -- such as when a line of dialogue follows a narrative section to add emphasis--then I add a tag or beat to make it clearer.

    My other 'non-rule' is that I can normally follow 4 lines of untagged dialogue, so when I re-read, I'll make sure I've got enough tags or beats.

    In my dialogue workshops, we look at writing only the dialogue lines and then layering in the rest as needed for clarity, emotion, description, etc.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  14. An excellent post - thank you (and thanks to Port Yonder Press for heads-up).

    I particularly like this idea:
    'On the rare occasions where describing the dialogue is merited, do so up front, so that I can hear the tone as the words are spoken, not afterward: Softly he whispered, “You’re mine.” '

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  15. Yes, I agree, Terry. The narrative within the speaker's paragraph should enhance what is spoken within that paragraph. Not launch into something unrelated to what the character just said. Example:

    "I've never met the owner of this mansion." Maggie fought to keep her eyes from wandering to the portrait on the wall. "I wouldn't know him if I tripped over his body in broad daylight."

    "What a curious choice of words," said the inspector. "Do you make it a habit to trip over bodies?"

    And so on.

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  16. These are GREAT comments! Thank you all for the insights. And I'm glad to see it's not just me seeing these things over and over!

    Maybe we should all go in and put together an e-book on dialogue :)

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  17. It's a terrific idea, Susan. The accounting end of things is what always trips me up. LOL.

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  18. Yes, it's a good idea not to waste any opportunity to show instead of tell. When it comes to dialogue, including certain pointers like the creased forehead or softened eyes are good ways to illustrate a character's thoughts, even if they're unspoken. If we know such information, the dialogue becomes more powerful.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel

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