File Cabinet

You have to be a little crazy to write. What other professionals are encouraged to hear voices in their heads and brag about it? But I need tools to hone my craft so this obsession takes less of my time and allows me time for my other more important obsessions. Welcome to my file cabinet! This is where I store my writing tips and techniques. Now I just have to make sure my obsession is the Write ... Oops ... I mean Right One.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Art of Writing Dialogue

Summarized from articles at

Why is Dialogue so important?

Characters are the main ingredient when writing a story. Readers must believe in the story characters. Characters must behave like genuine people, talk like genuine people and have the feelings and reactions of genuine people. Part and parcel of character development, and of the novel in general, is the manner in which the characters speak - their dialogue.

• Dialogue can impart an enormous amount of information in a seamless way
• Dialogue offers clues to a character’s personality and social class
• Dialogue offer clues to a characters frame of mind.
• Dialogue adds to the picture by supplying pointers to character’s ages and upbringing.
• Dialogue can show up traits such as attitude problems.
• Dialogue between protagonists adds to the reader’s understanding of characters.
• Dialogue helps differentiate characters, especially minor ones, and shows relationships between them.

So, as part of creating a character, dialogue is absolutely crucial.

At its best; writing dialogue advances the story and depicts characters far more plainly than descriptive writing. Descriptive writing might satisfy some artistic streak in you, but it often becomes an act of self-indulgence. Let’s face it, plain old narrative can be quite boring.

Who wants their story to be thought of as boring? It's far better to have a character describe something in dialogue than have reams of descriptive work.
Dialogue is also quite important to today’s brief concentration-span generation. Editors and publishers like to see lots of white space. They believe readers aren't held by long passages of narrative. This principle is used quite heavily in article-writing for the web. White space is important.

White space makes patterns, it creates the feeling of a picture on the page. It is preferable to a page of solid prose. Dialogue creates this naturally.

• Up to 50% of your novel could be dialogue.
• Story dialogue keeps your story dynamic.
• Modern books steer clear of long pieces of narrative, modern readers want things to move - narrative slows things down. Story dialogue speeds it up.
• Modern readers are brought up on a diet of TV and films - loads of dialogue - little narrative. They expect their literature to be the same. Confirm this in popular published books. Study in particularly, those in your genre.
• Acceptance or rejection of your novel can hang on the balance and quality of your story dialogue.
• If dialogue is going to compose half the novel, it had better be good.

Top Tips for Writing Dialogue
1. Listen to How People Talk.
Having a sense of natural speech patterns is essential to good dialogue. Start to pay attention to the expressions that people use and the music of everyday conversation.

Dialogue - use a voice recorder and be amazed
When you write dialogue, you have to make it more formal, yet it has to sound real. Try reading back a passage from your book and recording it on a cheap digital voice recorder to see if it sounds realistic.

Dialogue reveals character and the relationship between characters. No two people speak alike and you should try to give your characters a verbal as well as a physical distinctiveness. Do they use a certain turn of phrase? A slang word? A swear word? Do they stutter or um and ah? Are they pompous or verbose?

Action scenes - As with all of your fiction, dialogue is helpful for breaking up action scenes. However, when adrenaline is flowing, people don't engage in lengthy discussions. To be realistic, keep dialogue short and snappy when writing action scenes. Looking again at The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, we have several examples: "He tugged sharply at the lower strand of wire and it came toward him, already cut. 'Come on,' he whispered urgently, 'start climbing.'" And a few paragraphs later: "He heard a voice in English from the Western side of the wall: 'Jump, Alec! Jump, man!' Now everyone was shouting, English, French and German mixed; he heard Smiley's voice from quite close: 'The girl, where's the girl?'"

Reading these last pages of the novel, dialogue occupies very little of the space, but it breaks up what would otherwise be long blocks of prose and helps propel the action. Note that the sentences in dialogue quotes are very short. People under stress use a minimum of words to get their point across. The fact that there's not time for more conveys a sense of urgency.

2. Not Exactly like Real Speech.
Story dialogue must sound natural. This doesn't mean it must be true to life.... This might seem an odd statement, but just record a conversation between your friends and you'll be amazed at how disorderly it all is. People interrupt, and often don't finish sentences. Natural conversation is a garbled affair. The problem is, communication at face to face level involves body language, subtle intonation, and facial expressions. All of these convey information it's sometimes difficult to explain in our writing.

But dialogue should read like real speech. How do you accomplish that? Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was "life, with the dull parts taken out." This very much applies to dialogue. A transcription of a conversation would be completely boring to read. Edit out the filler words and unessential dialogue -- that is, the dialogue that doesn't contribute to the plot in some way.

Want to know the most important thing about Writing Dialogue in a novel? If it sounds like a conversation you would hear in the real world, you've gone horribly wrong somewhere.

Listen to two people talking...
• They will speak over each other all the time
• They'll say "um" and "er" a lot
• They'll jump from one topic to another and back again with no warning

All of which is fine in the real world - but hopeless for the purposes of novel writing.

Writing dialogue isn't about replicating real speech. It's about giving an impression of it, improving upon it. Put simply, dialogue in a novel must be so much better than real speech.

3. Don't Provide Too Much Info at Once.
It should not be obvious to the reader that they're being fed important facts. Let the story unfold naturally. You don't have to tell the reader everything up front, and you can trust him or her to remember details from earlier in the story.

When writing dialogue, keep in mind the three-sentence rule: give no character more than three uninterrupted sentences at once. You really can trust your audience to read between the lines: in fact, part of the pleasure of reading a story is putting the pieces together. And most importantly, remember that your characters should not tell each other things they already know.

Analyze this break-up scene from a romance novel:
"Look, I know I should have invited you to my party!" he yelled. "But you hate my parties. You refused to move in with me. You never want to do anything fun anymore. Ever since you bought that old movie house, you are as outdated as the classic movies you show there."

"Maybe because I'm tired after running the classic movie theater all day."
"Which you're always rubbing in my face. I have money, too. I bought this house. I run it. So what if I don't have a real job?"

Think back to your last break up. How much did you explain to each other why things were ending? Chances are, you didn't list every single problem, in complete sentences, in that final argument. The dialogue here is more concerned with communicating certain facts to the reader.

4. Break Up Dialogue with Action.
Remind your reader that your characters are physical human beings by grounding their dialogue in the physical world. Physical details also help break up the words on the page: long periods of dialogue are easier for the reader's eye when broken up by description. (And vice versa, for that matter.)

5. Don't Overdo Dialogue Tags.
Veering too much beyond "he said/she said" only draws attention to the tags -- and you want the reader's attention centered on your brilliant dialogue, not your ability to think of synonyms for "said."

While readers tend to read over these phrases, obvious efforts to insert variety, through words such as "interjected," "counseled," or "conceded," pull the reader out of the action. If the writer is doing his or her work, the reader is already aware that the speaker is interjecting, counseling, or conceding. The writer won't have to say it again in the tag.

The main reason for all the 'he said' / 'she said' tags is so your readers can keep straight who is doing the talking. You can throw in other business to identify the speaker.

• "You're late again, Clarence!" Petunia looked at her watch. "How much time does it take to put on your shoes, anyway?"
• "Didn't anybody do the homework?" Miss Smith tapped her ruler on the desk. "There will be a fifty point test on this chapter tomorrow."
• ‘… you’ll be the first to know.’ Carol softened her words with a smile.’ (This technique is preferable to ‘… you’ll be the first to know, ‘ Carol said with a soft smile.’ or even worse: ‘ … you’ll be the first to know,’ Carol said placatingly with a smile.)
You can often omit the tags altogether if it's obvious enough who said what.
"Hello, what's your name?" Tom asked.
"What an unusual name."
"It was in an opera my parents liked."

6. Stereotypes, Profanity, and Slang.Be aware of falling back on stereotypes, and use profanity and slang sparingly. All of these risk distracting or alienating your reader. Anything that takes the reader out of the fictional world you're working so hard to create is not your friend. Read some examples of how to achieve the tone you want without stereotypes, profanity, and slang.

Stereotypes are best avoided altogether, unless you're writing satire, and profanity and slang are best used sparingly. With regard to stereotypes, only write in dialect if you know the culture intimately: Any Southerner will cringe if a character says "Pa" in this day and age, and unless you grew up in Brooklyn, think twice before inserting, "Fugeddaboutit," into the mouth of your Brooklyn cop. Get it wrong, and you risk appearing naïve and/or offending your reader.

As far as profanity and slang go, both will quickly date your work -- rather than make your characters look cool or tough. Hemingway, whose characters included soldiers, fishermen, hunters, and artists, had excellent advice on this subject: "Try and write straight English; never using slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable . . . slang goes sour in a short time." And you'll notice that even with his toughest characters, profanity is as rare as slang.

When writing dialogue, be careful what you allow your characters to say. The area where people come from, often affects the way they speak. This doesn’t mean you should try to write in dialect or regional accent. The occasional use of a local expression can be enchanting, but a whole speech in dialect is almost unbearable to read.

7. Read Widely.
Pay attention to why things work or don't work. Where are you taken out of the story's action? Where did you stop believing in a character? Or, alternatively, when did the character really jump off the page, and how did dialogue help accomplish that?

8. Punctuate Dialogue Correctly.
The rules for punctuating dialogue can be confusing: many writers need help getting them right in the beginning. Take some time to learn the basics. A reader should get lost in your prose -- not feel lost trying to follow your dialogue.

9. The King of Dialogue Rules: Dialogue in a novel must have a purpose
Giving dialogue a purpose means that every line of conversation in your novel must be there for a reason. If the speeches in the novel don't meet at least one of the following criteria, they should be cut:

A. Good Dialogue must have conflict
It's obvious, really...
Just as a description of - I don't know - two young lovers spending a perfect day out at the zoo doesn't constitute a plot (not unless the girl falls in the lion enclosure), so two people chatting about nothing much at all - and not disagreeing, either - doesn't constitute dialogue so much as a pleasant conversation. Like this:

"What are we having for dinner?" asked Jane.
Bill opened the fridge, shifted the milk to see to the back. "How does steak sound?"
"Sounds great."
"There's chicken if you prefer," he said.
"No, steak is fine. With mashed potatoes."

A perfectly nice conversation, the kind we all have everyday - but hopeless for the purposes of novel writing. Apply the king of rules on writing dialogue, though, and it might look something like this:

"What are we having for dinner?" asked Jane.
Bill opened the fridge, shifted the milk to see to the back. "How does steak sound?"
"What, again?"
"We haven't had steak since last Saturday," he said.
"I know. And the Saturday before that and the one before that! Don't you ever fancy something different, Bill?"

Much more interesting, I'm sure you'll agree. Why? Because the dialogue is in conflict. Jane wants one thing and Bill wants something else. Bill wants to stick to the same old routine and Jane wants some adventure in their relationship. And when characters have conflicting goals, consequences are sure to follow.

"When characters have different goals and are intent on achieving them, conflict results. If the stakes are high and both sides are unyielding, you have the makings of high drama."
- James N. Frey

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having some everyday conversation in a novel. Dialogue rules, along with every other kind of novel writing rule, are there to be broken. Sometimes a simple exchange of information between characters will be exactly what is required. But for the most part go for tension and disagreement and conflict between the characters.

B. Good Dialogue Drives the Story Forward
Conversations in the real world often have little or no point to them, with the circumstances of the people involved remaining unchanged. Writing good dialogue, however, means that a conversation in a novel should advance the plot in some way.

"The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story."
- Anthony Trollope

How do you know if dialogue moves the plot forward? Ask yourself these questions:
• Will the story still make sense if the dialogue is removed? If it can be removed without leaving a missing link in the character's journey towards his or her goal, scrap it.
• Does the dialogue increase the suspense for what is to come? If a character says something which causes the reader to worry about the nature or the outcome of an upcoming event, it should stay.
• Does the dialogue change the character's situation, for better or worse? Do they receive some good or bad information which leaves them closer to their goal or further away from it? If so, it is moving the plot forward.
• Does the dialogue shed some light on what the character wants? Anything which makes a character's goal clearer is good and should remain - as should anything which makes their motives clearer.
• Does the dialogue serve to strengthen the character's resolve, or perhaps weaken it? Are they told something which makes them wish they hadn't bothered to achieve their goal in the first place - or make them glad that they did? Either one is good.

I am sure there are plenty of other questions, but they give you the idea. If a conversation is some way related to a character's goals and conflicts, it can be said to be moving the plot forward. If the characters are talking about nothing important, it is filler and should be removed.

It should be noted, though, that some pointless conversation in a novel is good. Writing good dialogue also means keeping it authentic, and we all talk about the weather or what we would like for dinner.

Keep the chit-chat to a minimum, though. And always ensure that if a conversation starts out being about nothing of any importance, it quickly gets to the point.

C. Good Dialogue is Concise
"Dialogue is like a rose bush - it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don't want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along."
- Nigel Watts

Writing good dialogue by keeping it concise means you don't just cut the novel's speeches to the bone - you cut them to the marrow. Here is an example of what I mean...

"Hi, John. How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks, Mary. And yourself?"
"Oh, I can't complain," she said. "Actually, I'm glad I bumped into you. Are you coming to the party tonight?"
"I hope to, Mary. It really depends if I can get off work early."
"Have you asked your boss?"
"Not yet," John admitted. "McNulty's having a bad day, to tell you the truth. His ex-wife called. She wants money again. I'm waiting to pick the right moment."
"Is there ever a good moment with that man?"
"Sure," John said. "Catching him somewhere between his third and fourth scotch usually works."

"Hi, John. Coming to the party tonight?"
"If I can get off work."
"Have you asked?"
"The boss is having a bad day," he said. "Ex-wife troubles. I'll pick my moment."
"Is there ever a good moment with McNulty?"
"Sure. Somewhere between his third and fourth scotch."
Here are three specific things you can do to achieve this:

• Get rid of most of the chit-chat and the social niceties. Don't strip these things out completely, because you still want conversations to sound natural. But fictional conversations, if they are not to bore, must cut to the chase a lot faster than real-life conversations.

• Don't feel the need to write in complete, grammatical sentences. Because very few people do, and it is no different when writing dialogue for characters in novels. Writing colloquially not only speeds up the dialogue, it also makes it sound more natural.

• Don't use ten words when five will do. And if three words will do, so much the better. Of course, you need to make allowances here for the character speaking. Some people are simply more verbose than others.

Speaking more generally, though, the best way to achieve this concision when writing dialogue is to trust your ear. You simply need to revise conversations again and again, trimming and changing them each time. And when you don't think you can revise the dialogue any more, go through it one last time and cut out something else.

D. Good Dialogue Reveals the CharacterEvery character in a novel is unique. They all look different, they all think and act in their individual ways, and it should be no different with the way they speak, giving each of the characters in a novel a unique voice. Here are questions you must ask yourself when trying to find a voice for each of the people in a story...

1. Who Are They?
You will have already developed the characters before starting to write your novel. You will know who they are and what makes them tick. When putting words into their mouths, you must make those words fit their personalities.
• The kindly old lady won't say anything too mean.
• The mean old man won't be terribly kind when he opens his mouth.
• The big-head will brag.
• The joker will have everyone laughing.
• The optimist - well, you get the idea.

There is a big danger when writing dialogue in a novel of making the characters say what you want them to say, because it fits the purposes of the plot. Don't do this.
If you ever find yourself writing a line of dialogue for a character and experiencing a niggling doubt that you are putting words into their mouth that they would never say, stop. Honest characterization must always come first.

2. What Is their Personal Vocabulary?
But it is not just about making a character's words fit their personalities. We are all influenced by our environments, too, and so writing dialogue with distinction is also about making the words fit their backgrounds and occupations.

• An educated character will have more words at his or her disposal than a not-so-educated one.
• A dockworker will probably swear more than a school teacher - and won't care as much (or know as much) about grammar.
• A physics professor will likely throw the odd scientific term into his or her speech.
• An artist will have plenty of words to describe colors.

Note that it is perfectly acceptable to use bad grammar and poor word choice in dialogue. It won't reflect badly on you as a writer, because it is understood that it is the character speaking.

Just don't go over the top. If a character's natural way of speaking is to use a curse word in every sentence, for example, you don't need to include every single one. The odd expletive here and there will be sufficient to give the reader the idea.

E. Good Dialogue Always Avoids the Obvious
Imagine a middle-aged woman sitting at the breakfast table. Her hungover husband walks in, looking like hell. We'll call them Sarah and David. Here is how their conversation might go...

"Morning," said Sarah. "How are you feeling?"
"Absolutely awful."
"Could you manage some toast?"
"I don't think I could stomach it," said David.
Sarah poured him some coffee instead, with no milk, and asked him how last night had been."
"Good," said David. "The part of it I can remember."

Not exactly the stuff page-turners are made from. The dialogue fails to ring true because it's dull and obvious. The characters in this novel say precisely what we would expect two people in this situation to say. But here's the thing: folks don't usually talk that way in the real world - and in a novel they never do. Instead, they...

• Rephrase lines to make them fresh and interesting, perhaps funny too.
• Say the exact opposite of what they really think.
• Try to avoid having the conversation altogether by changing the subject.
• Come out with an outright lie.

And so when Sarah asks her husband how he is feeling, he won't say "absolutely awful" - instead, he'll say he "feels great" or "just zippity, thanks!" or he might even ignore her altogether. (Dialogue in novels is often just as much about what characters don't say as what they do.)

Instead of asking David if he could manage some toast (boring!) Sarah could say, "I take it you won't be having extra syrup on your pancakes." And when she goes on to quiz him about his night out, David (not wanting to discuss it) could pretend he hasn't heard.

Here, then, is an improved version of the breakfast table scene...

"Morning," said Sarah. "You look good."
"Not half as good as I feel," said David.
"I take it you won't be having extra syrup on your pancakes."
No answer, not even a glance.
"Coffee it is, then," she said and poured him a large one. Black. As she watched her husband sip it and wince, she asked if his watch had packed up again."
Still nothing.
"Only I could have sworn you promised to be home before midnight," said Sarah.
David sipped some more coffee, pulled a face. "Is this stuff fresh?"

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