Sunday, April 15, 2012

He Said, She Said

This article on dialogue was published in my local MCRW newsletter last year sometime. Venerable Library Journal once had nice things to say about my dialogue in A Cutthroat Business - "the hilarious dialogue and sexual tension between Savannah and Rafe will delight fans of chick-lit mysteries and romantic suspense" - so if I'm not an expert on dialogue, at least I handle it reasonably well. It's also one of the aspects of writing I most enjoy.

Without further ado:


“Hi. My name is Jenna Bennett, and I’m a writer.”

 That’s an example of dialogue. Note the double quotes at beginning and end. Note the punctuation: inside the quotes.

That’s pretty much all there is to writing dialogue. If you can master those two things, the mechanics of dialogue are easy.

The heart of dialogue, maybe not quite so much.

First of all, what’s the purpose of dialogue? In books, I mean?


  • Dialogue reveals character and the relationship between characters.
No two characters sound exactly the same; dialect and speech patterns vary from one geographic location to another and from one socio-economic level to another. Dialogue is a way to show those differences without having to spell them out.

Further, no two characters relate to each other in exactly the same way: even characters who are related, or who have known each other for a long time, interact differently based on their shared experiences. Characters who have never met before interact differently too, depending on their personalities and preconceptions.

  • Dialogue imparts information.
Dialogue is a great place to introduce backstory, with one character informing another character of things he or she doesn’t know. Just be careful to keep an eye out for the unnecessary and awkward exposition where both characters know what they’re talking about but the author decided this was the best way to tell the reader what he/she doesn’t know. Avoid anything along the lines of the following: “Your wife, whom you married last year...” 

  • Dialogue moves the plot forward.
Characters never ‘just talk.’ Banter between characters can be fun and entertaining, but unless it leads somewhere, it falls flat. If the banter doesn’t add to the plot, it should add to the character relationship or the reader’s understanding of the backstory. Dialogue should always serve a purpose beyond entertaining the reader.

So how do you write dialogue?

Very carefully.

A few of the essentials:


  • Listen to how people talk. Having a sense of the way actual conversations ebb and flow is essential to writing good dialogue. Listen to the rhythm of speech, the choices of words, the music of language. Word choice becomes especially important if you’re writing in a genre you don’t automatically belong in. For instance, if you’re a forty year old woman writing YA, your own speech won’t reflect the way real teenagers speak, and listening will help nail the language for your book.

  • Unfortunately, real conversations tend to be full of repetition, incomplete sentences, fragments, interjections and half-finished thoughts: all things that don’t make for enjoyable reading. Dialogue sounds like real conversation, but isn’t. It just has the rhythm of it. Don’t write dialogue the way people actually converse; it shouldn’t be natural speech, it should only sound like it.

  • Dialogue is conversation between one or more people. Monologue is speech by one person. Plays are full of monologues. Some have become famous. But listening to a great actor recite the speech before Agincourt isn’t the same as having to read someone blather on for three pages without drawing breath. Break it up. Short sentences and lots of white space makes it easier for the eyes to focus and the brain to comprehend. And on that note:

  • Have other characters interrupt for clarification, to ask questions, or to interject comments. Listening to one character talk for page upon page is boring; unless, of course, that character is supposed to be a pedant, in which case all bets are off. Be prepared that the reader’s eyes will glaze over and he or she will skip to the end of the monologue, though. 

  • Use dialogue tags – he said, she said – but be careful not to overdo them. Each piece of dialogue doesn’t need a tag. And where it’s usually best to use the word ‘said’ in place of most others – alleged, expressed, spoke, uttered, voiced, to name a few that sound stilted and strange – sometimes it’s OK to change things up, too. He added. She continued. I agreed.  

  • Break up the dialogue with actions. Remind the reader that the characters are grounded in the real world by having them do things. People fidget while they talk. They pick up a glass or twist a lock of hair. Sometimes they check the time. Some cross one leg over the other.

  • Keep in mind that non-verbal cues are part of communication too: someone leaning back and folding their arms signals withdrawal, while someone leaning forward to listen, eyes shining, signals eagerness and interest. Those things are also part of the communication going on.

  • Say the unexpected. There’s nothing worse than sitting through a conversation where every word is one we’ve heard before and nobody says anything new. We squirm and wish it was over. Same with dialogue in books. The best dialogue surprises us and turns our expectations on their heads. And, ideally, moves the plot forward.

Dialogue is one of the most crucial elements of a novel. Good dialogue can make the book sing, while bad dialogue can make it sink like a stone. Take the time to learn to write good dialogue; it makes all the difference.

So what do you think? Anything you want to add? What do you, or don't you, like about dialogue?

1 comment:

Cyn said...

Nothing to add--just great tips all around here!

The verbal cues can be especially challenging for me. I was revising an early chapter and noticed that people seemed to be "nodding" ALL the time... ;)