Welcome today’s guest blogger, AB Plum who has lots of tips about writing great dialogue…
“I talk, ergo I am.”
Pardon the paraphrase, but it reinforces for me that no literary device in fiction accomplishes more than dialogue.
Good, well-written dialogue can:
- Move the plot forward
- Provide info about the speaker
- Give insight into the characters’ motivations
- Reflect the characters’ feelings toward self and others
- Emphasize the characters’ distinct voice(s)
- Reflect the characters’ interior and exterior conflicts
- Heighten conflict between characters
- Add color and voice to the narrative
- Entertain the reader
- Do more, I’m sure
Unfortunately, too many authors write slow, unnatural, borrrring dialogue. In this age of great TV repartee, sub-par dialogue will kill a novel.
Here are a few rules of thumb I’ve learned about writing dialogue:
- Discourse does not equal dialogue.
- Think of discourse as conversing or writing about a subject with some depth (a political discourse, for example).
- Think of dialogue as communication between characters accomplishing at least one of the goals above. Dialogue can be light and funny or deep and heavy or somewhere in-between.
- Monologues do not equal dialogue.
- Think of cable news and anchors speaking at viewers as monologue.
- Think late-night comedians waxing on as they open the show.
- Think professors droning on and on as students fall asleep.
- Monologues can work in novels, but they require deliberate crafting.
- (I think of any passage of more than twenty words–even inside quotation marks—as monologue. Just my own arbitrary guideline).
- Soliloquy and dialogue reflect contradictory purposes.
- Soliloquy—a speech without a respondent—works at times on the stage. (The word stems from Latin and means “talking to oneself”).
- Think Shakespeare: Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet.
- Think long—usually. (And effective on stage).
- Think workable in a novel when a character mumbles or whispers or shouts a few well-crafted words to herself.
- Keep dialogue tags simple.
- Said/say/asked/ask work. They are all but invisible in our minds.
- Barked, hissed, groused, smiled, laughed, hooted, and dozens of other uncommon verbs generally weaken the spoken words. (The list is endless, BTW).
- Adding adverbs to dialogue tags can reflect the characters’ moods or attitudes, but some purists (like Elmore Leonard) view adverbs modifying said/asked as a “mortal sin.” Showing the characters’ moods and attitudes is more effective than telling the reader.
- Action tags often take the place of spoken tags because they show the reader what’s happening as characters talk. E.G., He slammed his fist on the table. “Do not raise your voice in this house.”
- Edit repetitions. Too often characters mirror each other’s speaking patterns. Or their vocabulary. Or even sounds and sentence length. Readers pick up on repetition quickly and go ho-hum or stop reading.
- Letting characters speak about nothing relevant to the story or their development may be the biggest mistake inexperienced writers make in dialogue. In life, we speak inanities all the time. In a novel, every word spoken by a character matters. Yes, they can talk about the weather—as long as the exchange moves the story forward or gives us insight into the characters, etc. Otherwise, cut, pare, edit.
- Open-ended questions provide more drama and/or comic relief than yes/no questions. Even in real life, yes/no questions too often end the conversation.
- Go for subtext wherever possible.
- Subtext simply means the essence of the message below the surface.
- Subtext is what the speaker really means but does not say. E.G. “I have never seen a more beautiful baby.” Jim swiped his hand across his twitching mouth and gazed at a spot behind Ellie’s right shoulder.
- Another example: A controlling, egotistical character wants his girlfriend to serve him more popcorn. “With lotsa butter. You can never have too much butter.” The subtext here is he wants everything to go down smoothly in his life. He’s basically telling her he’s tired of their arguments.
- Avoid bad dialogue.
- If you’re a reader or have a favorite TV show, you know good dialogue when you hear it. Reading your own out loud should help you pick up your own misses. Recording and listening to the results may shock you.
In conclusion, I’ve barely touched on some of what I’ve learned about dialogue. I could go on and on, but I risk soliloquizing.
AB Plum lives and writes in Silicon Valley. She thinks often of writing a novel that is 99.9% dialogue. The popcorn allusion above comes from her WIP, All Things Considered, a mystery in which an insomniac claims she slept through the two bullets that killed her über-wealthy, long-time lover. AB’s latest psychological thriller, Ready or Not is available on Amazon.