Saturday, March 17, 2012

Writing Dialogue that Sings

I spend a lot of extra time when working on dialogue. Dialogue can reveal a lot about your characters, provide key information about the world/plot, and break up the monotony.

Here are some key tips I have picked up along the way:

  1. Not like real life: conversation in novels should not be written like it is real-life. Think of it as "conversation's greatest hits". Character dialogue needs to get right to the point. No round-about way of getting there with polite, long-winded speech. Think if you could orchestrate in real life the perfect sentence in any given situation; the perfect come-back, the perfect retort, in the shortest most intelligent way possible. That's how you should think when writing dialogue. 
  2. Action between breaths: just because your characters are talking doesn't mean the world stands still. Think of the action between the characters, think of their location and what the world is doing around them. If your characters are in a restaurant, have the waiter interrupt them, if they are in the train station, have the whistle blowing in the background. Add depth using body language. Communication is not limited to speech, their bodies are saying something too! (Read my blog on building memorable characters using this tool.) Keep the action moving to break up long dialogue and give readers a chance to pause and absorb the information. Just don't let the action overshadow the dialogue. 
  3. Show versus tell: use dialogue to pull your readers directly into the scene. Dialogue written well can allow readers to "hear" emotions, subtle flirting, longing, joy, pain, anger, grief, sorrow, and madness. It creates a sense of immediacy, picks up the pace, and can add conflict and tension to a scene. 
  4. Beware of modifiers: my editor once told me that ninety-five percent of the time, I should use says and asks as tags, and use them alone. The point is to justify the speaker, and to do it as quickly as possible. When you have to write 'she says anxiously,' then the dialogue or action of the character itself is lacking anxiety. 
  5. All the little things: here are some  additional things you can avoid to give your dialogue more punch:
    1. "As you know..." Don't impart in dialogue something the other character already knows. 
    2. Avoid chit-chat. Remember, get right to the point. 
    3. If a character is going to hiss, you better be sure the sentence is filled with enough "ss" to hiss. 
    4. Name dropping. Don't have your characters repeatedly refer to one another by name. "Melissa, you are awesome." "Thanks, Jane. You too!" "Listen, Melissa. Do you have time to chat later?" "Sure, Jane." 
    5. Avoid exclamation marks. 

Let it come naturally. Trust that your characters will tell you what they want to say and how they are going to say it. Read it out loud and tweak it until it sounds just right. 

Happy writing!


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  1. Number 4... Wow, is that one gonna save me a lot of time from now on!

    1. Tell me about it. More focus on what is being said, than trying to express how it is being said. Thanks for visiting, Michael! :)

  2. Excellent posts full of great advice.


  3. Great post! Your point about name dropping really got me thinking--I rarely use people's names unless I'm trying to get their attention. I think the last time I used my boyfriend's name directly at him was to keep him from walking into oncoming traffic...

    Then I also realized that one of my characters uses the narrator's name a lot. At first I thought this was disastrous, but it seemed sort of natural for him. So instead of cutting back, the narrator is going to notice it and try to figure out why he does it.

    1. Oh! I like where that's going. :) And you're correct, it definitely depends on the scenario and character. Once you have the narrator reflect on it, the reader will catch on and they'll keep their eye out for when the character points it out (and not get annoyed with it).

      Thanks for stopping by, Sarah Anne!


  4. Hello Anna. Thanks for building a helpful site, and I'm glad I found it.

    I would like to add 2 oblique things that dialogue can do...
    1) create character - Tell your reader how awful your villain is by having other characters talk about him/her (Blood Meridian)
    2) create exposition - (see Elmore Leonard)

    As for the "name dropping"...ever notice that in improvised movie/television scenes? It's a commom blunder that even actors will do.

    1. Good points, Joseph! Thanks for stopping by and hope to hear from you again.



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