How to write dialogue

Writing dialogue is one of the most intimidating aspects of writing a book. It’s very difficult to write conversations that sound authentic, keep the story moving and reveal your characters to your readers. One of the most common mistakes writers make (the experienced and the novices) is to pour unnecessary detail into dialogue.

The saying “less is more” is especially true when it comes to writing discourse. Obviously you don’t want to have clipped and truncated conversations, but your readers don’t need to know that Mary is washing the dishes with XYZ dishwashing liquid because it’s gentle on her hands while she talks to her son James, who is eating a peanut butter sandwich on rye bread from the supermarket on 20th Street, which also sells delicious home-baked meringues that Mary’s husband Bob is particularly fond of.

It’s important to use your characters’ body language to set the mood and imply certain actions. If Mary’s movements are quick and her manner brisk we could infer that she’s angry or upset about something. If she’s not as thorough as she usually is we can infer that she is distracted by something. If she’s taking her time and laughing we can infer that she and her son are having a good old time.

James Parsons says that you can’t use dialogue as a way to impart arbitrary back story details. It has to add to the story. It has to contribute to plot development. Dialogue that is long-winded will drag your story to a stop, readers’ minds will wonder and they’ll either start skimming pages to get back to the action or put your book on the charity shop pile.

Another problem centres on authenticity. Everyday conversation does not lend itself to written dialogue. It’s awkward, clunky, peppered with ums, ers, backtracks, tangents and pauses. But, no one speaks perfectly either. So while you don’t want to write dialogue exactly as people speak you don’t want to use syntax and vocabulary that doesn’t fit your characters’ context.

Almost all writing lecturers and writers say that the best way to get a feel for writing dialogue is to record conversations (with permission) and transcribe them. You’ll quickly find out that most of what people say is completely unnecessary. You can practise writing dialogue by editing the conversations you’ve transcribed. You’ll find that you can cut out huge chunks (up to two thirds) and still retain the gist of the dialogue. Read what you’ve got out loud and keep working on it until it doesn’t sound forced and false.

The third most common problem that trips up writers is the use of attributive verbs (or tags). He said, Anna said, said Dave – said is often considered an inferior attributive tag because it’s so common. But it’s common for two reasons: it’s simple and effective. Parsons (who knows his stuff when it comes to writing dialogue) says that the attributive tag should be invisible to readers. They should know by the vocab, punctuation and the context how a character is reacting. You shouldn’t have to keep telling them that Diana hissed, Dave moaned, Sheila whined or Baxter retorted contemptuously. You can, of course, use these, but do so sparingly and when appropriate.

Like most things related to writing (and life) you only improve with practise. Listen to people when they talk, get an ear for rhythm and syntax and keep transcribing those conversations. You’ll be amazed at the improvements you can make.


(Image by ilco, stock.xchng)

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