Writing 101: Dialogue Part I

No matter how young you were when you first put pen to paper, there is at least one thing you have been doing much longer than writing. Unless you are Emlyn Chand, who claims to have sprung from the womb with fountain pen in hand, you were a practiced pro at talking well before you wrote your first masterpiece.

So why is it that adding dialogue to our work is so painful? Dialogue is another one of those skills that if done well is seamless in a great piece of fiction. However, if you don't follow some basic guidelines your novel will start to resemble Frankenstein. And I'm not referring to the cuter, funnier Young Frankenstein.

Here are the basic tips I found in how to write excellent dialogue (AKA dialogue that doesn't suck). Since this is such a broad topic and one that I am especially bad at, next week I'll cover even more useful tips!

First tip, listen to how people talk. This is a perfect excuse to take a seat at your favorite coffee house, library, or lunch table and eavesdrop on other people. Feeling extra bold? Use the record memo feature on your iPhone. Some people would call this being nosy. As writers, we get to call it research. But don't just listen in, write it down. Don't skip lines, don't gloss over the hiccups, write it down verbatim.

You'll probably find two things from this exercise. One, people in general have a very poor grasp on the English language. And two, real dialogue is not going to work in your novel.

So now that you have this conversation on paper, tip number two is to slice and dice. Cut out all the filler words like 'um' and 'ah' that we are all so quick to use. This should give the scene an immediate improvement, but you're not done there. Next, figure out what the main subject on the conversation is, and cut out anything that isn't.

Like a magpie with a shiny object, people tend to get distracted by the things around them. If one of your speakers uses the phrase, “And that reminds me...”, you have just hit a tangent. Dialogue should not include every fleeting thought that pops into your character's head. Stick to the point.

Next, check to see if this conversation has a purpose. You have some dialogue free of fillers and all on one subject, but does anyone care? Let's say your MC is getting a book at the library. While checking out the book, she enters into a conversation with the librarian about how great said author is. Go ahead and picture yourself as the subject of this conversation. The talk is brief, on topic, and full of articulate language. Great! Does it have anything to do with your story about Cyborg aliens intent on destroying the planet? Darn! You were about to get some great PR, but that scene will need to be cut.

If you've followed the tips above, your dialogue is probably looking pretty good. Now it's time to take a look at your tags. The purpose of a dialogue tag is to let your reader know who is talking. Here are some things your tag should not do.

    • Give the reader backstory on the speaker
    • Give character traits for the first time
    • Pull the reader out with creative verb use (hint: no one actually ejaculates words)
    • Get on a soapbox

I know it's tempting. All that he said/she said on the page can make you feel boring, but trust me, tags should be boring.

However, you can feel free to shake it up with a he asked/she asked tag occasionally. Also, it is OK to add action to a tag so long as it makes sense. For example: “You're hilarious,” he said, stirring his coffee. This is fine, not stellar, but fine. What's not fine? “You're hilarious,” he said while taking a sip of his coffee. No matter how awesome your character is, he probably can't talk and drink coffee at the same time.

Now that you have some decent dialogue and the reader knows who is who, give your words some context. Chances are, your characters are not having this conversation in a vacuum. Life is happening around them, so don't forget to remind the reader. If your characters are chatting at a coffee shop they might hear the ding of the bell over the door, the espresso machine gurgle, or the waitress take the order for the next table over. It's important to slip in parts of the environment to keep the conversation realistic.

And don't forget that your characters are not statues. Unless they are, in which case please skip this paragraph. When people talk they fidget and move, blink their eyes, and have facial expressions. All these things can give the reader greater insight into your character and break up yards of quotation marks.

But in the words of Bon Qui Qui, “Don't get crazy”. There is a fine line between adding context to your characters' conversation and interrupting them. I like to imagine the stage directions in a play. If the playwright gives the actor an action for every line, the actor loses the freedom to interpret the role. If, as the author, you give too much context, your reader loses the ability to imagine the scene for themselves.

So there you have it, some quick tips on dialogue. Next week, I'll cover some additional subject like the all important voice and accents (yuck!). As always, I'd love to hear your suggestions for what to cover in this series. 'Till next week, y'all!