Tag Archives: Writing dialogue

Did I Say That Out Loud? Tips for Writing Dialogue

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Did I Say That Out Loud? Tips for Writing Dialogue

Ernest Hemmingway has been called the master of dialogue. So who better to go to for advice than a master? On writing great dialogue he said: When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen.

So how can we take that advice and put it into practice? I’m going to cover five things we can do so that our books have great dialogue.

1. Listening is the beginning of great dialogue. We are around people everyday, whether it’s at work or at school, while we are shopping, when we take our kids to the park. People are everywhere. Most of the time we tune them out. Now it’s time to tune back in. Develop the skill of eavesdropping. What are their speech patterns? What’s the content of their conversation? Our goal as writers is to make conversation between two characters seem realistic. However, we can’t make it too real. Huh? Try to transcribe an actual conversation. Chances are it will be tedious and wordy.

“Hey, what’s up?”
“Not much. What’s up with you?”
“Nothing. Just trying to figure out what to make for dinner.”
“Me too. I get so tired of making the same thing.”
“I know what you mean. It’s time for a new cookbook.”

How extremely boring is that? Yet we have all had similar conversations. Therefore, when we listen we do it with an ear for content. How do people speak? When we write it we do it in a way that will read well. Remember, people read dialogue with theie eyes, they do not hear it with the ear.

Assignment: Take a notepad and a pen to your local coffee shop, mall or park. Somewhere you can sit close enough to people to hear them speak without crowding them. Now proceed to write what they say, every word. You will be amazed at what you learn about dialogue from this little exercise.

2. Tags or Attributions. I once read a book by a well known and liked author who did not use dialogue tags. It was so frustrating because I’d have to go back and count the lines of dialogue to figure out who was talking. I eventually gave up. The whole point of dialogue tags is to know who is talking. Read the following passage from a short story, Here We Are by Dorothy Parker. I’m going to take all the dialogue tags out to see how it reads.

She had been staring raptly out of the window, drinking in the big weathered signboards that extolled the phenomena of codfish without bones and screens no rust could corrupt. As the young man sat down, she turned politely from the pane, met his eyes, started a smile and got it about half done, and rested her gaze just above his right shoulder.
“Well!”
“Well!”
“Well, here we are.”
“Here we are, aren’t we?”
“I should say we were Eeyop. Here we are.”
“Well!”
“Well! Well. How does it feel to be an old married lady?”

Without dialogue tags we have no way of knowing who is talking until the final line when we know it is the young man asking her the question. Now read it with the dialogue tags.

She had been staring raptly out of the window, drinking in the big weathered signboards that extolled the phenomena of codfish without bones and screens no rust could corrupt. As the young man sat down, she turned politely from the pane, met his eyes, started a smile and got it about half done, and rested her gaze just above his right shoulder.
“Well!” the young man said.
“Well!” she said.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
“Here we are,” she said. “Aren’t we?”
“I should say we were,” he said. “Eeyop. Here we are.”
“Well!” she said.
“Well!” he said. “Well. How does it feel to be an old married lady?”

Isn’t that so much better? When using dialogue tags, ‘said’ is normally sufficient. Avoid ‘ly’ tags such as ‘she said loudly,’ ‘he said laughingly.’ He proclaimed and she exclaimed are also ones to avoid. Let the characters words speak for themselves. If dialogue is written properly the reader will know if the character is yelling, if there is tension in their voice, if the character laughed immediately after uttering those words.

3. Don’t use dialogue as a way to dump information on your reader. Some writers make the mistake of using dialogue to reveal facts that the other character should already know but the reader does not. For example, “As you know, I just graduated from nursing school and am working in the ER at the hospital in town,” Jane said to her brother.

That was an information dump. Since her brother already knew that, there was no reason for the line. The best thing would have been to give that information in the narrative and keep the dialogue clean.

4. Slang and dialect. Again we go to the master, Ernest Hemmingway.

Never use slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time.

To much slang can distract the reader and pull them out of the story, it’s best to use it sparingly. The same is true if your character has an accent, whether it be British, a southern drawl, or is from Boston. Giving a character an accent can be a way to distinguish them from other characters. However, it is possible to overdo it. A little goes a long way. Making it clear to the reader that the character has an accent and stressing that fact in a few words here and there is enough. Anything more risks offending or alienating the reader.

5. Break up dialogue with beats. A beat is a characters physical action interspersed in the dialogue. It sets the scene as readers can see the character moving as they speak. This adds realism to the story because a person very rarely sits perfectly still when they are talking. Some people talk with their hands. Others work while they carry on a conversation. Beats brings all that into the story. Read the following passage from Judith McNaughts Until You and see if you can pick out the beats.

Sheridan bit back a teary smile at his quip, afraid to believe him, afraid to trust him, and unable to stop herself because she loved him. “Look at me,” Stephen said, tipping her chin up again, and this time her glorious eyes looked into his. “I have several reasons for asking you to walk into that chapel, where there is a vicar waiting for us, but guilt is not among them. I also have several things to ask of you before you agree to go in there with me.”

“What sort of things?”

“I would like you to give me daughters with your hair and your spirit,” he said, beginning to enumerate his reasons and requests. “I would like my sons to have your eyes and your courage. Now, if that’s not what you want, then give me any combination you like, and I will humbly thank you for giving me any child we make.”

Happiness began to spread through Sheridan until it was so intense she ached from it. “I want to change your name,” he said with a tender smile, “so there’s no doubt who you are ever again, or who you belong to.” He slid his hands up and down her arms, looking directly into her eyes. “I want the right to share your bed tonight and every night from this day onward. I want to make you moan in my arms again, and I want to wake up wrapped in yours.”

He shifted his hands and cradled her cheeks, his thumbs brushing away two tears at the edges of her shimmering eyes. “Last of all, I want to hear you say ‘I love you’ every day of my life. If you aren’t ready to agree to that last request right now, I would be willing to wait until tonight, when I believe you will. In return for all those concessions, I will grant you every wish that is within my power to grant you.”
― Judith McNaught, Until You

Assignment: Read a scene containing dialogue in one of your favorite books. Look for the beats interspersed in the dialogue. Now take your WIP and write or rewrite a scene of dialogue including beats.