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  • Florence Osmund

Dialogue



When done well, dialogue advances the story and fleshes out the characters while providing a break from exposition. But writing well-crafted, realistic dialogue doesn’t come easily to everyone—it takes time to develop the skill.


Content


For dialogue to be meaningful, it needs to flow naturally for each character, giving each one a distinctive voice. Some will use slang. Others will swear. More formal characters may actually speak in grammatically correct sentences. Think about your family members and friends. It’s implausible that two people speak exactly alike.


Characters can be differentiated by the number of words they say. Some people say very little, but when they do say something it’s important. Others ramble on and say nothing.


And don’t forget about the age factor. Consider these three distinct personalities coming through as they comment on the same serving of brussels sprouts.


Four-year-old boy: “Mommy, I don’t like these slimy green things.”


Forty-four-year-old husband: “Maybe if they had been cooked a little longer…dear.”


Eighty-four-year-old curmudgeon: “What…are you tryin’ to kill me with these things?”


Choose dialogue content carefully. Eliminate boring chit-chat. Omit dialogue if it doesn’t work toward developing the character, establishing the mood for a scene, moving the plot forward, or depicting the character’s feelings.


Readers will be able to picture a scene better if you replace “telling” with dialogue.


Instead of: She threw the remote at him and stomped out the door.

Try using: She threw the remote at him. “I’m outta here,” she said on her way out.


Instead of: His hand gesture made it seem to her that he didn’t care.

Try using: He flapped his hand in her direction. “Whatever.”


Instead of: She gaped in disbelief, wondering why he purposely broke the vase her mother had given to them.

Try using: “How dare you!” she said when he purposely broke the vase her mother had given to them.


Instead of: She was too upset to go out with her friends.

Try using: “Go on without me. I’ll see you later.”


Style


Varying the style in which characters speak will help to differentiate them from one another. For example, some people talk in run-on sentences. Others pause between their thoughts.


Use sentence fragments, especially when the tension is high. Or when children are speaking…teens in particular. And preoccupied husbands. In fact, sometimes a grunt will do just fine.


Don’t be afraid to let the character trail off in thought, interrupt someone else, or lose his or her train of thought altogether. That’s natural. Just don’t overdo it, unless it helps to define the character.


Before a character speaks for the first time in the story, consider describing his or her voice. Is it baritone, gravelly, or lilting? Does the character have a lisp? Do they talk fast, or do you have to drag the words out of them?


Keep dialogue as brief as possible. Lengthy exchanges between characters—unless they are categorically essential to the story, mood, or character—will bore or frustrate most readers.


And avoid telling the reader what the character is about to say before he or she says it. In the following example, the dialogue speaks for itself. The lead-in sentence should be eliminated.


John decided to put a stop to it. “Stop your fighting, or I’ll put you in a time-out.”


I have found it helpful when writing dialogue to just let it flow. Later, when editing, I clean it up with the goal of creating speech that sounds natural to the ear.


Creating good dialogue takes a certain skill, but once you’ve mastered it, it will come much more easily.


Common Pitfalls


Regardless of genre, dialogue is essential to a good story. Without effective dialogue, even the best storytelling will fall flat. Readers pay attention to dialogue. While speaking is a natural part of our lives—something we do without much thought—when we are writing dialogue, we need to take the time to reread what we’ve written to make sure it’s what we want the character to say and how we want him or her to sound. Some common pitfalls follow.


Too Formal or Casual

Dialogue that is either too formal or too casual for the situation will not sound realistic.


Formal: “Hello, Martin. I was considering going to the Rusty Bucket this evening for a glass or two of beer. Would you care to join me?”


Casual: “Hey, Mart. I was thinking about going to the Rusty Bucket later for some brewskies. Want to come?”


Very casual: “Yo, dude. Wanna throw back a few cold ones tonight at the Bucket?”


Misused Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is a small phrase inserted before, after, or in between the spoken words to identify the speaker. For example:


“Did you pick up the dry cleaning?” Kathryn asked.


The phrase “Katherine asked” is the dialogue tag in this sentence.


Dialogue tags are purely functional. You need to use them only when it is unclear who is doing the speaking.


It is possible to have too many tags:


The three of them sat squished together on the sofa in front of the television—Sylvia, her boyfriend Ralph, and her ten-year-old son Marty.

“Look at that fish!” Marty shouted. “I wish I could catch one like that,” he said.

“Can you keep it down?” Sylvia asked. “I’m trying to read,” she said.

“What are you reading?” Ralph asked.

“One of my aunt’s wonderful novels,” Sylvia answered. “Do you mind?” she asked.

“I guess not,” said Ralph. “Would you like me to pour you a drink?” he asked.

“You didn’t see that fish?” Marty said.


And it is possible to have too few tags:


The three of them sat squished together on the sofa in front of the television—Sylvia, her boyfriend Ralph, and her ten-year-old son Marty.

“Look at that fish!” Marty shouted. “I wish I could catch one like that.”

“Can you keep it down? I’m trying to read.”

“What are you reading?”

“One of my aunt’s wonderful novels. Do you mind?”

“I guess not. Would you like me to pour you a drink?”

“You didn’t see that fish?”

This would be the right number of tags:

The three of them sat squished together on the sofa in front of the television—Sylvia, her boyfriend Ralph, and her ten-year-old son Marty.

“Look at that fish!” Marty shouted. “I wish I could catch one like that.”

“Can you keep it down?” Sylvia asked. “I’m trying to read.”

“What are you reading?” Ralph asked.

“One of my aunt’s wonderful novels. Do you mind?”

“I guess not. Would you like me to pour you a drink?”

“You didn’t see that fish?” Marty said.


Another mistake I often see is when writers use dialogue tags stylistically, as in this example:


“Get out of my store!” he demanded loudly.

“No,” she retorted.

“I’ll call the police,” he said threateningly.

“Go ahead,” she blurted. “I’ll tell them you owe me child support,” she added.


Better:


“Get out of my store!” he shouted.

“No,” she replied.

“I’ll call the police.”

“Go ahead. I’ll tell them you owe me child support.”


Overuse of Characters’ Names

In real life, people don’t use a person’s name very often when speaking directly to them. Nor should authors in writing fiction.


Overused names:

“Where are you going, Samantha?” he asked.

“To the store, Richard, but I can’t find my wallet. Did you take it again, Richard?”

“You’re really going to see him, aren’t you Samantha?”

“No, I’m not, Richard. Not this time,” she said. “Now, give me back my wallet.”


Better:

“Where are you going?” he asked her.

“To the store, but I can’t find my wallet. Did you take it again, Richard?”

“You’re really going to see him, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not. Not this time,” she said. “Now, give me back my wallet.”


Too Much or Too Little Descriptive Narrative

Scenes that weave in dialogue with descriptive narrative tend to engage the reader at an emotional level much more effectively than scenes that are only descriptive narrative. Finding the balance is key. As with so many other rules in writing fiction, include only that which moves the story forward.


Too much dialogue, needs more descriptive narrative to explain the action:

“I’m going to get behind the bar where it’s safe,” Eleanor said to her date.

“Watch out for flying bottles!” he told her.

She joined another woman behind the bar who was crouched in between two beer kegs. “Are you all right?” she asked the woman. “You have a black eye, and your cheek is swollen.”

“I think so. Did you just see that chair come flying over our heads?”

“How about those two swinging at each other over there? Can you believe this? I hope they don’t bring their brawling over here where we’re sort of safe.”


Too much descriptive narrative, not enough dialogue:

To avoid flying bottles and anything else the unruly patrons had decided to throw, Eleanor joined another woman who had ducked behind the bar. Crouched in between two beer kegs, the woman sported a black eye and swollen cheek. Eleanor sandwiched herself in next to her just as a chair flew over their heads and came crashing down behind them. At the end of the bar where there was an opening, the man who had started the fight was throwing punches at another man, mostly missing him. Eleanor prayed they wouldn’t take the fight behind the bar where she felt relatively safe.


Better balance between dialogue and descriptive narrative:

To avoid flying bottles and anything else the unruly patrons had decided to throw, Eleanor joined another woman who had ducked behind the bar and was crouching between two beer kegs. Not missing the woman’s black eye and swollen cheek, Eleanor sandwiched herself in next to her just as a chair flew over their heads and came crashing down behind them.

“Are you all right?” she asked the woman.

“I think so.”

At the end of the bar where there was an opening, Eleanor saw the man who had started the fight throwing punches at another man, mostly missing him. She prayed they wouldn’t take the fight behind the bar where she felt relatively safe.


When I first started writing fiction, someone advised me to eavesdrop on peoples’ conversations to learn to write realistic dialogue. Sounds lame, doesn’t it? It did to me, until I tried it. Not that you would ever write dialogue that exactly replicates how people talk—real people speak in fragments, talk about mundane topics, talk over each other, and trail off quite often. And most people don’t speak in complete or grammatically correct sentences either. But if you tweak it some, real dialogue can become credible dialogue for your characters. Dialogue in fiction has to be a blend of what goes on in real life and completely proper dialogue. Strike the right balance, and you’ll satisfy the reader and the integrity of your characters and the story.


There are times when it is appropriate to craft dialogue that mimics the way people speak in real life. Take Same Kind of Different as Me, for example. The first-person narration in this book alternates from chapter to chapter between two characters: Ron Hall, a well-educated art dealer, and Denver Moore, a homeless drifter. In this scene, Denver is standing over Ron’s wife’s grave talking to her.


“You was the onlyest person that looked past my skin and past my meanness and saw that there was somebody on the inside worth savin. I don’t know how, but you knowed that most a’ the time when I acted like a bad fella, it was just so folks wouldn’t get too close. I didn’t want nobody close to me. It wadn’t worth the trouble. Besides that, I had done lost enough people in my life, and I didn’t want to lose nobody else.”


In this example, Moore’s distinct dialect is imperative to the story.

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