As writers, we should be ever evolving in our craft. This is why it is helpful to hear what others have to say about the editing process because it helps us develop better writing skills. Sometimes we hear advice that seems logical, but then we realize that maybe we need to take that advice with a grain of salt. Here are some strategies that defy some of the rules we’ve been told about writing dialogue.
Should Our Characters Always Stay on Topic?
We have been told that “dialogue should stay on topic”.
However, in real life we talk in spurts and in incoherent mumbles, grunts, and
murmurs while we try to form our thoughts. We stumble on our words and correct
ourselves. We pause and reflect. We backtrack. We circle around in tangents. If
our character is to seem realistic, our character’s dialogue needs to do the
These reveal character traits and priorities. If dialogue is
too focused and direct, it’ll sound predictable and flat. Readers want to see
the motivations, the quirks, the uniqueness our characters. These add texture when
our characters speak.
When one character asks another character a question that
the other character doesn’t want to answer, a great technique for showing that
the character doesn’t want to answer the question is by having the character
interrupt, change the subject and attempt to stay on their own course even
though the conversation has taken a different course. Conversations overlap to
reveal the characters’ attitudes.
At times you’ll want your dialogue to be layered with meaning
to show character goals of, social context of the conversation and the scene’s subtext.
Subtext and innuendo bring depth to triviality so sometimes it is important to
include trivial things to the conversation. What the reader is witnessing is
not what lies at the heart of the scene.
Scenes with romantic tension will often have dialogue in
which the characters banter or engage in small talk. But in those instances,
it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that matters most. Identify the core
tension of the scene, then plumb subtext and use apparent triviality to your
advantage in dialogue. Of course, not every scene will need subtext, but when
you want to emphasize the emotional, subtext is necessary.
Dialogue digressions can also be useful. You can use them to
insert red herrings, foreshadow important events, reveal clues about what
motivates your characters, or add new dramatic elements to the story line.
Use Dialogue in the Context
of What Each Character Trying to Accomplish in this Scene?
Another Mistake often made in dialogue comes from the advice
to “dialogue as you would actually speak.
Although in real life people speak primarily to give
information, in fiction a conversation is not simply a way for something to be
expressed. In writing, rather than asking yourself, “What does this character
need to say?” ask, “What does this character need to accomplish in this scene?”
Create mutually exclusive goals for each character in the
scene to create tension which affects how the conversation will play out. When
determining your character’s response to stimuli, remember that his agenda
toward the other person will trump the topic of conversation.
Give each character an agenda. The speaker might be trying
to impress the other person, entertain her, seduce her or punish her. Whatever
it is, the goal—whether stated explicitly or not—shapes everything that’s said.
Often you can move the story forward more effectively by
having the characters respond in a way that implies an answer, showing that
they’re reading between the lines of what was said or have questions of their own.
“SAID” and other Dialogue Tags
It’s true that you’ll want to avoid cluttering your story
with obtrusive speaker attributions. They can and will become a distraction.
Readers will stop being present in the story and will start looking for your
next synonym for “said”. They will
realize that you own a thesaurus and know how to use it, but they don’t want to
learn new words, they just want to hear your story.
On the other hand, “said” can become tiresome when it
appears repeatedly on the same page. And, when used improperly, it can be proof
that you are a novice writer.
“Kayla said” does not equal “said Kayla.”
To hear how your dialogue reads, try inserting the pronoun
instead of the character’s name. For example:
“That’s an awesome boat,” Mark said.
“That’s an awesome boat,” he said.
Both of those statements make sense. But look at what
happens when you write it the other way:
“That’s an awesome boat,” said Mark.
“That’s an awesome car,” said he.
If you wouldn’t write “said he” then don’t write “said Bob.”
Stick with placing the speaker’s name before the verb unless there’s an
overwhelming contextual reason not to.
Don’t use attributions simply to indicate who’s speaking.
Use them to create pauses reflected in actual speech, to characterize, and even
to orchestrate the pace and movement of the scene.
Additionally, speaker attributions can be used to maintain
or diminish status. Compare the two following sentences.
“Come here,” he said. “Now.”
“Come here now,” he said.
The placement of the speaker attribution in the first
example creates a pause that emphasizes the last word and raises the dominance
of the speaker.
You Don’t Always Have
to Avoid Long Speeches
Sometimes allowing a character to have her say reveals more
about her than forcing her to speak in sound bites ever could.
When deciding whether to let a character launch into a
diatribe, consider if she’s trying to get her say in before anyone else can
interrupt. Also, take into account the buildup of tension that precedes the speech.
Like a garden hose, the more pressure, the more dramatic the release.
Must Your Dialogue to
be Grammatically Correct?
Always be willing to break conventions when it’s in the
service of the story and the reader. Getting the story right is more important
than being grammatically correct.
In dialogue, sentence fragments sound more realistic to
readers than complete sentences do. Cut semicolons from dialogue. Cut semicolons
from any fiction. If you find them, it’s usually because you’re trying to
include complex sentences that wouldn’t sound natural. Choose commas and
Are Talking Heads Always a Bad Thing?
Just as dialogue should reveal the intention of the
characters, so should the actions that they take while they’re speaking. When
we read that a character folded his arms, we’ll naturally wonder why he’s doing
that. What is it meant to convey about his attitude or emotional response to
what’s happening? Don’t confuse your readers by inserting needless movement.
Rather, include action only as long as it adds to the scene or enriches it. If
the action doesn’t convey anything essential, drop it.
It is sometimes okay that the reader doesn’t see what the
character is doing when speaking. If you find your character brushing his nose
or repositioning his chair or crossing his legs and so forth for no other
reason than to provide a respite from the dialogue, recast the scene.
Keep Characters’ Speech Consistent?
When I am at work, I talk differently to other teachers than
do with students. When I am talking with elementary children, I speak with them
differently than I speak with high school students. In addition, I treat my
daughter differently than I treat my husband or sons. A character should not
respond the same to every other character exactly the same.
Dialogue needs to be honest for each character in that
situation. Don’t try to make your characters consistent in the sense of always
sounding the same, but rather allow them to remain in character within each
unique social context.
If one of my characters responses exactly the same to every
other character, I need to consider rewriting. Each character’s history with other characters affect the character’s tone, word
choice, grammar, sentence structure, use of idioms, everything. Even his
posture is likely to have changed.
So, if a character is highly educated and every time she
speaks she’s using impressive words, it gets old. The character will seem
one-dimensional. In addition, if she’s from the south and says “You’all all the
time, she will become cllched.
Few people are always blunt, always angry, always helpful.
We speak differently in different situations. Mood, goals, state of mind
fluctuate. This ties in with character believability. Remember: status,
Yes, we’ve gone over all of this before, but it really does improve
your novel when you give characters a goal, a history and an attitude toward
the other people in the conversation. And always strive for honest, believable
responses rather than scripted ones. Don’t be afraid to play with your
conversations within your scenes. The more human you can make your characters,
the more your reader will identify with them.
Get Your Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist
If you have a first draft that you would love to publish
this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you
haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this
CHECKLIST WITH SUBSCRIPTION TO THIS BLOG