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Monday, June 17, 2013

Let's Talk about Dialogue

Picture Credit: http://customerrespect.com/blog/tag/dialogue/
Dialogue can make or break a story. It's not easy! It's funny that something as natural as speech is so hard to put to paper, but maybe it's partly because it's so natural.

Think back on your many conversations you had today. You could write any number of them word-for-word into a book. And guess what? It wouldn't go over well at all!

One reason your daily conversations don't work in a book is all the filler words that you use (words such as "you know", "um", "uh", "like", and all the rest). We all use them, and every language has them, but imagine how annoying it would be to read one or more filler words in every conversation. This is not to say that you can't ever write filler words into a character's conversation. But make sure you have a reason to do it. For example, if your character has a special reason that he or she is trying to stall for time, go ahead and add one. But if you're finding them appearing on the page frequently then you might want to consider removing most of them.

Another reason your normal conversations won't work in your book is that they're boring! This morning when I got into work I said the same thing I always say: "Hey, how are you doing?" After waiting for a positive response, I said something like: "Great. Did you have a good night?" This sort of every-day conversation works when I'm talking to the people that I interact with. But no one wants to read it. Dialogues in books must be to the point. Every sentence you write in dialogue has to have a purpose. If it takes the characters several paragraphs to get through pleasantries before they say anything of any substance, readers are going to mentally check out.

Think of your characters' motives during every dialogue you write. What are the participants trying to prove? What are they trying to convince each other of? That doesn't mean that your dialogue needs to be--or even should be--an argument. But if the characters are simply talking so they can express the fact that they agree with each other, then it's most likely boring and should be taken out. After reading Tayla's blog, see it here, I think she's a great example of spending time pouring over dialogue. It's not supposed to be real. It's supposed to be larger than life--but at the same time seem real.

A third reason that your average conversation isn't like a book's dialogue is that in life you don't have to worry about tags. A tag is the indication of who is speaking. A common mistake for new writers is the tendency to be afraid of overusing the word said. Instead, they mistakenly use a variety of tags to create something like the following conversation:

"Look at all the birds," Julie sighed.
"Yes," Frank nodded.
"It's a sure sign of spring," Harold smiled.
"I'm excited," Julie noted.

This is not a good idea. People expect to see said, and the word doesn't draw attention to itself. You don't want your tags to all draw attention to themselves or it takes away from your dialogue. Also, if you try to get original with your tags you will end up with verbs that don't work the way you are trying to make them work. Did Julie actually sigh out her sentence? And unless Harold is a ventriloquist, I'm pretty sure he didn't smile his sentence out. In most cases, the word said is best. Then, if you have a reason to put extra emphasis on one specific tag, you can use something else.

If there are only two people in a conversation, you don't have to add a tag to every sentence--your readers can follow along. But make sure you add them often enough that you don't lose anybody. And if you have three or more people speaking then you need a tag every line.

One legitimate way to break up a row of said's down a page is to give the characters movements. Such as this:

Julie stopped walking and stared up into the trees. "Look at all the birds."
"Yes," Frank said.
"It's a sure sign of spring," Harold said. He smiled while he watched the robins hopping along the branches.
"I'm excited." Julie paused a moment longer before she lowered her eyes to the trail and started walking again.

Okay, let's face the fact that the above dialogue is still not the most exciting dialogue in the world. But by throwing in a little bit of movement during the conversation, I gave each line its own tag without leaving a row of said's down the right side of the page.

A fourth way your daily conversation is different than a book's dialogue is the fact that only in a book do you have to worry about punctuation. One of these days I'll do a blog specifically on punctuation. Here I'm going to specifically address the exclamation point. An overused exclamation point loses all sincerity. Unless a character is actually yelling a phrase, a period will do just fine.


  1. I love using dialogue! It's a great way to help the readers get to know the character's personalities better and move the plot around! Though it's hard to find the balance between too cheesy and the whole enchilada. :)

  2. Good point about dialogue helping readers get to know characters' personalities. If it's done right, no two characters would say exactly the same thing in any given situation.