Monday, December 22, 2008

Let Me Tell You Something – Dialogue, Part Deux

To become a great dialogue writer, there are several things for you to keep in mind; here are a few:

1. Walking and Talking. Avoid having pages upon pages of dialogue with your characters being mere talking heads. Just like in real life, when people talk, they are often moving or looking a certain way. Take the time to think visually about the scene that your characters are in. What do the "silent" characters do as another is talking? Is the talker gesturing with her hands, pacing the room, rolling her shoulders to release the tension that's building inside her?

2. He said/She said. Many writers will attempt to go beyond "said" and use words like articulated, screamed, yelled, sighed, interjected. No one is going to think you have no talent if you only use "said". Here are a few other "tagline" tidbits: change up where you put your tagline (you don't have to place the tagline JUST at the end of a piece of dialogue). If a character has a long stretch of dialogue, don't wait until the end to drop a tagline. Place one in the middle of the dialogue. If you have two characters talking, initiate their dialogue with taglines and then drop the taglines. The reader will know who is speaking.

3. Characters' Conversation vs. Real-life Conversation. Many writers suggest that you should go listen to how people talk to each other. I, when I have the time, like to go to my fave café and sit and write and just listen to everything around me. Listen to how people talk, what they talk about, how they interact with one another. You want your characters to sound real; however, you don't necessarily want them to sound like "real people talk." What does that mean? Well, real people stutter and pause and um and ah and oh. To many, these are considered unnecessary and can look unprofessional when someone reads your manuscript. In a story, there is a purpose, a point, and with dialogue - as with any other fictional element - the goal is to write it in the most concise way to accomplish the goal and get the reader reading!

4. Despite number 3, it is still a good idea to study how people talk because you can determine how YOUR characters will talk. Will an auto mechanic and a high-maintenance partner in a law firm talk the same? Probably not. Depending on who your characters, you will create their voices, which should be distinct and separate from the voices of your other characters.

In Part Trois, I'll finish up the tips.


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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  1. Great series so far, Shon. It's nice to read similar views on dialogue.

  2. Nice! I agree with you about the yelled, opined, stated, blah, blah, blah. Some writers sound like they have their Roget's open to the entry for "said" when they write!

    In play writing class a million years ago, we had to listen to "real people" talking and write down exactly what they said. It was a hot mess--folks talking over other folks, ums and ahs, fragments. There's a balance to be found between making characters sound "real" and making their dialog believable.

    Thanks for all the good tips, Shon:)

  3. The cool things I get from listening to real people talk are rhythm, difference in voice/style, and inflections.

  4. You're probably coming to this, but one of my favorites is when you're combining the actions with the dialogue, you can avoid the "said" altogether, by using the name with the action line instead.

    "Blah blah blah." Jane closed the book. "Blah blah blah."

    Then we know Jane was speaking.

    GREAT column.

  5. That one WASN'T on my list, but it's a definite one to have there. I love when that's executed well, :-)

  6. Good series on dialogue. "Thanks, Shon," said Helen.

  7. I love all of these tips--thanks!

    With number 4--it is difficult for me to convey to my critique group members that my characters in my 1890s setting in Japan are not going to have an excessive use of slang and contractions like people talk now. It was a more formal time, so there speech is more formal (though I try to add a contraction here and there so it's not over the top).

    Still unsure of what to do with this but currently I'm leaving most of my dialogue as is. I don't want it to come across as inaccurate for the time. Such a fine line there...

  8. Time and setting are VERY important to dialogue. In the end, you have to reach for authenticity in all the facets of the storytelling experience - to include dialogue.


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