Dialogue is the most immediate mode of expression in writing prose. Used correctly it brings your writing to life, be it fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction or even personal essays. It’s importance in screenplays is vital. Done well, dialogue can move the plot forward, build multi-dimensional characters and add layers of complexity you didn’t even know were there.
However, it can be notoriously tricky, and some new writers find it so difficult to manage that they avoid it completely to the detriment of their writing. So here are some of my best tips for writing effective dialogue.
DO – Keep it short and sweet – or not so sweet. While there is sometimes a place for a poetic monologue the best advice I’ve ever been given is LESS IS ALWAYS MORE. Cut the beginnings and endings of your dialogue sentences. Cut excess sentences altogether. How can you say it with less? How can you almost say it, so the reader has to fill in the blanks themselves?
DON’T – Use dialogue to explain or describe what went on in a previous scene. If a reader has read that scene, they’ll get it. If the dialogue isn’t adding a radical new viewpoint, or revealing information we didn’t already know, then never ever look back!
DO – Make sure the reader knows which character is speaking. The easiest way to do this is with proper punctuation and speech tags.
Each first line from each speaker is indented and the dialogue itself is enclosed in quotation marks. For example:
1. “How do I punctuate dialogue?” Julie asked.
2. “That’s simple,” said Edwina. “Find a good book that uses classical punctuation and follow their lead. The main rule is to put your punctuation marks inside the quote marks and to indent the first line but not the others.”
You don’t need to use classical punctuation, but it makes dialogue much easier to read. Some modern authors eschew it and use italics or other forms of punctuation, but I often then find it hard to tell who’s speaking and get frustrated. Suit yourself, just make sure it is clear who is speaking.
DON’T – Go all fancy pants with your speech tags. “Said” is almost always best. It becomes invisible to the reader. Words like murmured, stammered, shouted, protested, and argued have their place, occasionally, but are best avoided. “Lied” is an exception. Keep it simple superstar!
DO – Ground your reader. This is good to keep in mind throughout your whole story, but especially in long stretches of dialogue when your characters can become talking heads floating in space. Even if they are floating in space, most especially then perhaps, slide in a few words describing setting or actions, that place the conversation in a context.
DON’T – Put everything in. If your characters are out for dinner, for example, we don’t have to read their whole conversation about what they’ll order, and their interactions with the wait staff, unless this contributes to character development or plot somehow. If it’s boring in real life, it’s extra boring on the page. Writer friends of mine have learnt this the hard way by transcribing recorded conversations. Your job as a writer is to trim out the boring bits and leave us with the juicy titbits!
DO – Differentiate the speech patterns or habits of each character. After a while your readers should be able to tell each character apart from the way they speak. If your characters are all from similar cultural backgrounds this can be trickier, but if you listen in on conversations around you (put in your earphones, but don’t have your music on, and eavesdrop to get an idea of how people differ) you’ll see how we all have our own individual tics.
DON’T – Use capitals to indicate shouting, that’s what an exclamation mark is for.
DO – Use character actions beside their dialogue to not only indicate who is speaking but to add to the tone or develop an undercurrent of meaning. For example:
1. “What time is it?” Joan lifted her head from the pillow.
And “What time is it?” Joan threw the saucepan full of cold soup at Brian’s head.
DON’T – Use adverbs unless absolutely necessary. If you’ve done everything else right you just don’t need them.
Here are the links to a couple of stories that use dialogue exceptionally well for you to get an idea of just how effective it can be.
Denis Johnson, “Steady Hands at Seattle General” – it doesn’t use classical punctuation, but it’s genius at creating an entire story almost solely in speech.
“Reunion” by John Cheever. It hasn’t indented the first line of each speaker but again, the dialogue demonstrates character in a way nothing else can.
Try writing your own story almost all in dialogue. Make it a hospital story like Denis Johnson’s or a reunion like Cheever’s.
Let me know how you go.
If you’d like more hints and tips on writing see my post here
or CONTACT me HERE to get regular (but not too regular!) writing advice and news.
And if you’d enjoy a whole weekend full of learning about writing then come along to my next retreat, More information HERE.
I’d love to have you along.
Lots of love,