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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 same.

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 periods instead.

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, context, intention.

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.

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