Who Said That? – The Art of Dialogue
In your reading, you may have endured dialogue like this:
It’s a nice day today, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is a nice day. The sun is out and the sky is blue.”
“We’re having lovely weather, aren’t we?”
“Yes, the weather has been very good lately.
“Remember when it rained last week?”
“Yes, that wasn’t so nice.”
I don’t know about you, but I fell asleep an hour ago. I should have quit with the first sentence and never looked back. Unlike real life, where sometimes people can blather on for hours and say virtually nothing, dialogue in fiction is there for a purpose: to move the plot forward and build your characters’ resumes.
Writing dialogue is not that difficult. If you remember that it is people talking, you should be able to pull it off. If it sounds like your third grade reader–run Spot, run.
So how do you write dialogue that will resonate with readers?
If you remember that your characters are real people, that will help. Don’t sell them out. Figure out how each character’s personality, ethnicity, age, education, and regional origin affect the way they speak to others, and give them their own voicel
Is your main character shy? Angry? Forward? It will all affect the way he carries on a conversation.
Does your villain speak in clipped, tight sentences? Or is he ebullient, likeable, perhaps a con man?
A word to the wise: If you are writing about someone who is not a native speaker, be careful how you present that character’s accent. In The Comyn’s Curse, all the Scottish characters had varying Scottish accents, but only the old man, Angus, spoke in Scots. As a non-Scots speaker myself, I had to consult on-line Scots translators and locals in Scotland familiar with the language in order to translate Angus’ speech to the page, and then I had to offer a glossary of terms so that the reader wasn’t turned off by the difficulty of understanding him. The one thing I refused to do was sell him out by whitewashing his speech.
But Angus is unique. In the same book there is a Frenchwoman whose English is very good, but she has an accent. I did not have her say, “Eet eez not good,” because that is stereotypical and (at least to me) demeaning. Rather, I used transliteration–the transposing of the grammatical structure of the native language into the new one, to suggest her French heritage. “This man–he is not good for you”, told the reader that English was not her first language.
People don’t usually speak in complete sentences or use faultlessly correct grammar in conversation. Feel free to have them (okay, this hurts, I’ll admit it) end a sentence with a preposition. There. I’ve said it. And I’ve done it, and we’ve all survived.
Keep the dialogue short–no long paragraphs unbroken by someone else in the conversation. In real life, people rarely listen to long one-sided conversations without interrupting the speaker. As it should be; we all want our turn.
Keep your identifiers at a minimum, but make sure the reader can keep up with who’s speaking. I’ve read innumerable conversations of short, back-and-forth discussion that gives me no idea of who is speaking, and I’ve had to go back and read it all again carefully in order to figure out who knows what or has which opinion. It’s very wearing, and can sabotage the story.
All you need is “said”. One of the hallmarks of amateur writers is their overuse of verbs such as shouted, screamed, blathered, cried, sobbed, etc. These are lovely words, but they distract from the action. Let the character’s speech and action tell the story.
If you’re lucky enough to have a listener–someone who is willing to listen to you read your work to him or her, you can read the dialogue in the accent or tone you meant the character to convey, and believe me, your listener will tell you if it doesn’t work. Reading your manuscript aloud is a valuable tool for many reasons, dialogue being one of the most important. There is nothing like eliciting a chuckle from your listener at something one of your characters said.
When all is said and done, you love your characters, and you won’t let them behave like robots, You are speaking through them, and they will thank you by saying things that readers will find funny, or sad, or tragic. That’s the magic of dialogue.
Around the Site
By now I think everyone who follows me knows that Scotland is my Happy Place, and that I look forward to living in the Highlands for a month each year. This year that month is September, which means that I’ll be boarding a plane for Edinburgh in two days!
In honor of my heritage and obsession, this month’s Author in the Spotlight is David Rae, a Scottish writer who handles horror, comedy, irony…oh, you name it, he’ll write it, and write it well. Just tap that widget with the eyes peeking through the pages of a book, and check out one of my favorite David Rae stories, “What the World Needs Now”.
Links for Writers
6 Tricks to Improve Dialogue https://jmenefeeblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/06/6-tricks-to-improve-dialogue/
3 Tips for Writing Good Dialogue https://medium.com/the-1000-day-mfa/3-tips-for-writing-good-dialogue-8f1e4e476e60
Bad Dialogue–Bad, Bad Dialogue https://theeditorsblog.net/2011/11/03/bad-dialogue-bad-bad-dialogue
Simple Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Realistic Dialogue https://cayceberryman.com/1073-2/
The Regret, by Dan Malakin
What if someone wanted to ruin your life?
Now she has a three-year-old daughter and is in a new relationship. But someone is stalking her again. Her phone, her emails and her social media are hacked.
Rachel Stone’s world was destroyed by a stalker, Alan Griffin. After he went to prison, she rebuilt her life.
M MacKinnon’s World
The Piper’s Warning is on its way!
You have the honor of seeing, for the first time, the cover of Book 2 in the Highland Spirits Series! Yes, it’s here, and I’m pretty durn pleased with it, if I do say so myself. DartFrog nails another one! Thanks, guys.
More on The Piper’s Warning (and how to get it) as we get closer to launch date.
6 thoughts on “Volume 5 – Who Said That?–The Art of Dialogue”
I loved your insights into some of the mechanics of writing! As a non author (a reader only), I think we sometimes forget that writing is often hard work. Agonizing, too i.e. when you decide to kill off one of your characters.
And, thank you! I thought it was just me; I finished a book last night that had some confusing dialogue because it was missing who said what.
Have a great trip to your happy place!
Thanks for reading, and I’m glad I could validate your frustrations as a reader. And of course, how agonizing it is depends on who’s being killed off! 🙂
How wonderful that you’ll spend a month in Scotland! Woo hoo! No wonder you’ve grasped all the Scottish nuances and incorporated them so well into your novels. You must be excited. Won’t be long now before you’re there.
These were excellent references on dialogue. Reading them over got my wheels turning and noticing what I could improve on. I’m working in some telepathic conversations in my sequel and got some great ideas with these articles on how to write them. I particularly liked theeditorsblog with the details about italicizing and using first person and present tense when writing in third person deep POV. I’ve gone back and forth on when to do it and when not.
I always love getting the book references too. I read all the time and am always looking for the next book.
Loved the cartoon! Perfect for your post on dialogue. LOL.
Thanks, Lyn! It’s good to know when people get something out of the links. There’s so much help out there for us authors, if we only know where to look for it.
And yes, I’ll be in Scotland in two days. My next post will be from Inverness!
I wholeheartedly agree on the dialog, but prepositions at the end of sentences? I’ll leave a preposition at the end faster than I’ll split an infinitive. This despite literally years of indoctrination from my grandmother (who traced her lineage back to Scotland albeit a long way to get there).
A couple months back I sent my finally completed, longest time writing piece to an editor. Instead of getting edits I got a request to have coaching sessions. They consist of reading 10 pages to her and holy cow I had no idea how much stuff jumps out at you. One big thing was the elimination of dialect and vernacular from my character’s dialog. Very similar to what you describe here. But the other aids it has given me are phenomenal. I strongly recommend it and if anyone needs a coach (or editor) I have one I’d recommend.
Have fun in Scotland!
I know, I have a gag reflex when my characters put prepositions at the end of sentences, but what can I do? They are who they are.