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D is for Dialogue

talking

Dialogue is essential to most fiction. Unless you’re writing a monologue, your characters are going to speak to one another, because – let’s face it – without dialogue to break it up, you’ll end up with pages and pages of narrative, which can be a daunting prospect.

Dialogue needs to carry the story forward just as narrative does, however. Readers won’t stay interestested in people who are just passing the time of day, unless there’s a reason for them doing that. Showing conflict through dialogue is a good way to show the reader who your characters are without spelling it all out in the narrative.

First and foremost, dialogue needs to be easy to follow. So, how do we do that?

Without attributes, your reader isn’t going to know who’s speaking.

“You’re just like your mother.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Of all the rotten things to say.”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

“Oh, well that’s all right then.”

We have no idea who’s speaking, or how many speakers there are. To attribute the dialogue to a particular speaker, we use tags.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

“What?” Bill said.

“You heard me,” Jenny said.

“Of all the rotten things to say,” Bill said.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.” Jenny said.

“Oh, well that’s all right then.” Bill said.

What do you think? It seems a bit repetitive, doesn’t it? That’s because we’re using the same tag for every line of speech. As with every other tool in the writing box, repeated use of ‘he said, she said.’ is noticeable and becomes monotonous.

One mistake that beginner writers often make (I know I did it, a lot, when I first started writing), is to use descriptive tags like ‘screeched’ or ‘bellowed’, or adverbs to qualify how something was said. Again, like all writing tools, they are fine when used sparingly but shouldn’t be peppered in to vary speech.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said, cheerfully.

“What?” Bill said, defensively.”

“You heard me,” Jenny quipped.

“Of all the rotten things to say!” Bill snapped.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely,” Jenny said, facetiously.

“Oh, that’s all right then.” Bill said, amiably.

What do you think? Did that make you cringe? It did for me. While none of it is technically wrong, it’s not great, either. It’s far better to show the reader how the characters are acting or feeling through what they do and say, rather than using adverbs or descriptive tags.

Let’s change it up a bit and add in some actions.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

Bill put down his newspaper and folded his arms across his chest. “What?”

“You heard me.” She began rummaging through the desk drawers so that he wouldn’t see the smile on her face.

“Of all the rotten things to say!”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

Bill grinned and let his arms drop to his sides. “Oh,” he said. “Well that’s all right then.”

As you can see, the mixture of actions and speech tags stop it from becoming a page of ‘he said, she said.’ Also, if you notice, I switched the tags around, using them at the beginning or the end of a line of dialogue, which also helped to break up the repetition.

I also varied the length of the sentences. This is something I try to do in narrative and dialogue. If you consistently use the same length of sentence, it becomes noticeable and uniform, which grows tedious to read.

There were two lines where I didn’t use any tags at all, because I’d established whose mother they were discussing. It was easy to tell who spoke in those instances, so no tags were needed.

We can see Bill getting defensive and then relaxing when he realises Jenny is teasing and means it as a compliment. Using action tags helps to create more of a visual sense of the scene in the reader’s mind than simply saying ‘Bill snapped’ or ‘Bill said, amiably’.

The exchange lets us see the relationship between Jenny and Bill. She is playful and he, while going straight on the defensive, is quick to relax when he realises she’s teasing. They obviously know each other well.

The nuts and bolts

As well as being able to write convincing dialogue, we also need to be able to punctuate it correctly.  Here are a few hard and fast rules.

Always keep the punctuation inside the quotation marks

“Of course, I’m not going to tell you,” he said.

She regarded him from under her lashes. “Well then, I hope you enjoy last night’s cold pizza. Because I’m not making your dinner.”

“Then you’ll eat cold pizza too.” He shrugged.

She laughed, picking up her car keys. “Wrong again. I’m meeting Mary for dinner and drinks in town. Don’t wait up.”

Always start a new line when a different person speaks

Jane and Tania both shopped at the same supermarket. On one occasion, they both arrived at the same time.

Jane held open the door. “After you.”

“Thank you!” Tania said, hurrying through.

“Sucker.” Jane stuck out her foot between Tania’s, sending the other woman tumbling to the floor. “Maybe that’ll teach you not to spread nasty rumours about my mother.”

Tania scrambled to her feet. “You’re Heather’s daughter?” She took a step towards Jane and then appeared to think better of it. “I should have known, you’re just as obnoxious as her.”

“And just as protective of the ones I love. Leave her alone, or next time I won’t go so easy on you.”

Dashes and ellipses

When we’re speaking, we don’t always finish a sentence. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been interrupted, or maybe we’ve trailed off because we can’t remember what we were going to say, or because we realise something as we’re speaking.

To show this in dialogue, we use dashes or ellipses.  Dashes are for when something stops us from speaking, like someone interrupting, or something happening.

Lucy picked up a pillow and hugged it against her.

Danny said, “why do you always have to be so bloody argumentative? I only asked—”

The pillow hit him on the side of the head.

“You asked a question when you already knew the answer, because you knew it would provoke me into an argument,” Lucy said.

Ellipses show speech trailing off.

“Are you going to apologise for throwing that pillow at me?” Danny asked.

Lucy raised an eyebrow. “You really expect me to apologise after you provoked me?”

“Well, yes,” he said. “I could have been hurt. You could have …” He stepped back as Lucy picked up another pillow.

That’s it for this week. Remember these tips for writing effective dialogue and you’ll do just fine:

  • Mix up your tags but keep them simple
  • Vary the length of dialogue lines
  • Start a new line for each speaker
  • Use proper punctuation
  • Make the dialogue carry the story forward

Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything

 

 

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this series of helpful (and necessary) writing tips. I’m hoping one day, you’ll compile them all in a book! Thank you!

    April 9, 2018
    • C. J. Jessop #

      Thanks Katie, Im glad it’s helpful. I might just do that one day!

      April 9, 2018
  2. Perfect points and examples, Cheryl. You covered it! 🙂

    April 9, 2018
    • C. J. Jessop #

      Thank you, Diana! 🙂

      April 9, 2018

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