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The Trouble with Dialogue – Part 1

July 7, 2010

Like any emerging writer, my first stories are liberally sprinkled with cringeworthy  “he said…… she said….” and a number of worse yet those adverbs –  “she said emphatically…. he said haughtily”.

I’ve taken my journey as a writer seriously, acting upon feedback from readers, attending workshops and seminars and reading alot about writing. It would seem, from all of these sources, that dialogue is an area which causes a great deal of grief to both emerging and seasoned writers.

I’ve collated my notes from various sources and would like to share them with you in four parts.  This post will discuss the generally accepted rules of dialogue. Next weeks post will explore finding your writing voice to express dialogue, the following week looking at authentic dialogue and the last week will cover it off with some bullet points.

Dialogue is used within the text to

  • ensure the story moves along
  • reveal key information so that the reader is not bogged down into lengthy descriptive narrative.
  • allow a character to reveal their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Some writers make the mistake of overusing dialogue where it has no real purpose. The hard and fast rule which applies to all writing, also applies with dialogue.

Every word must have a reason for being there. That reason is to move the narrative forward.

Many writers are stuck in grade school thinking, where full sentences and correct grammatical structure is required, particularly when it includes the speech marks followed by “he/she said.”

Dialogue is one place within your writing you can throw away your normal grammatical rules. Over the following weeks, I will explore this notion a little deeper; suffice to say, normal people do not speak in grammatically correct sentences.  Its for this reason that short, snappy phrases aught to be utilised, rather than lengthy sentences as they are more likely to engage a reader. This is achieved by leaving out the verbs. In the control of a thoughtful writer these exchanges have the ability to add drama and realism. Again, this will depend on your character, the setting and purpose of their dialogue.

The other grammatical rule which can be ignored is that of possession.  After attending a workshop with Nick Earls on the panel, I began to experiment with the way he writes his dialogue – by ignoring possession. Very often exchanges are proceeded or prefaced with a characters name.    Particularly with a heated or passionate conversation the interjection of characters names can slow or stilt the pace; jolting the reader out of the action. Certainly if there are two characters in the same space, there is no reason to continue writing who said what.  Three and four characters in a conversation can also be accommodated without indicating who said a line. Characterisation and wording is more likely to colour who has said a line , rather than spelling it out.

If your characterisation and the dialogue you have written is strong enough, there is no need to indicate who has written in, nor how they did it.

eg – “Thats it!” Boris shouted emphatically… ….

can be edited down to just what is said; so long as the character of Boris has been painted in the readers mind as a forceful and passionate man who is excited about what has just happened.  Allow your reader to fill in the blanks.  They will connect with your characters in a stronger way if you as a writer give them that freedom.  After all, no-one likes to be spoon-fed.

Well written dialogue has the ability to:

  • Foreshadow or hint at future possibilities and events.
  • ensure that when any of these events take place, that they are vivid in the readers mind.
  • breathe life into characters
  • produce a spark in the relationships between characters

Whilst most writers will have heard the advice “show not tell” with regards to their descriptive narrative; similarly with dialogue, it is better to show rather than spell it out and tell your readers certain things.

Include or think about trying some of these tips I picked up in order to make dialogue more natural.

  • Use contractions (“don’t”, “shouldn’t”, “can’t”)  rather than “should not” or “can not” – unless your character is very stuffy or speaking in a very formal setting.
  • Throw away “said”
  • Resist over – using other words which mean ‘said’ (shouted, fumed, whined, cried, whispered, sighed etc)
  • Allow characters to stumble or break off their phrases or let other characters finish throughs.. its what happens in real life after all!
  • Write an exchange between two characters WITHOUT any reference to who is saying what. You will probably find it reads smoother with better pacing.
  • Allow characters to interrupt each other.
  • Interject with a very occasional “umm” and “errr” and “ahhh” to indicate a characters hesitation or nervousness.

Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than bad or clumsy dialogue. Go and eavesdrop on conversations, use your ‘little notebook’ and record what is being said and marvel at the lack of grammar and structure; explore what other writers do with their dialogue and then revisit some of your narrative and use what you have seen and read tighten up your style.

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Annie Evett is driving out in the middle of Central Western Queensland…..The only radio station plays both types of music. Country and Western. Follow Annie’s shameless self promotions here on Twitter  or here on Audio Boo and start your escape into her world here
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4 Comments
  1. adampb permalink
    July 7, 2010 1:14 am

    Before I started writing, I took careful note of what the “experts” were saying about ascribing tags to dialogue. Because they said so, I didn’t use mush more than “said.” Initially I didn’t understand why, but now a few months into it, I can see that it allows the dialogue to say so much more, depthing the character and the complexity or simplicity of the situation.
    Tim Winton’s style of not using quotation marks in his dialogue makes for interesting reading, at times a little irritating, but them’s the rules for breaking.

  2. Deanna Schrayer permalink
    July 8, 2010 10:13 am

    Fantastic article Annie! I once read a book, (well okay, only half of it), that used no contractions AT ALL, hence the reason I only read half the book. Who talks like that? Very few real people. It drove me nuts!

    I usually do well with dialogue, but I have reread stories I’ve written that made me cringe with all the “he said”, “she said” references. My strongest point, (or so I’ve been told), is using dialect in dialogue. I write like the character speaks, most all the time. However, that can be a tricky issue because if your reader isn’t familiar with the region’s dialect they won’t understand some of the words. For instance, I use “y’all” in a lot of my nonfiction blogs. Most people know “y’all” is the US southern way of saying “you all”, but not everyone.

    Gosh, I didn’t mean for my response to be as long as your post! :) I just love the subject of dialogue and look forward to the rest of the series. Thanks so much Annie!

  3. July 12, 2010 6:02 pm

    Excellent. Looking forward to your other posts.

  4. July 12, 2010 7:02 pm

    Thanks, Annie. A great trick to avoid littering your prose with “he asked / she said” tags is to replace them with action, for instance:

    Collette drummed her fingertips on the bar. “He’d better have a good reason for being this late.”
    “A good reason?” Marley set down her wineglass. “He better be dead.”

    Leaving out words can be a great way to make dialogue sound authentic as long as it doesn’t affect clarity. Most of my characters have advanced degrees, so I generally show them speaking in full sentences unless they’re confused or pensive. A couple of my characters, though, tend to ramble, so I use fragments or run-on sentences to capture this aspect of their personality. Dialogue shouldn’t precisely mimic speech; it’s speech distilled, so that only the essential parts remain.

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