Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Dialogue tips

Dialect—When you want to reproduce regional or ethnic accents and speech patterns, you should be confident about having a good ear, to begin with, and you shouldn’t overdo it. Otherwise, you may do more harm than good by revealing yourself (the author should remain invisible) and by impeding the reader’s progress. Remember that writers cannot produce a mirror of reality; they can give the reader only an impression of it. So it’s best to use a light touch and provide just enough hints about how a character speaks to give the reader the general idea.


Do not use phonetic spellings that sound the same as the words they represent, such as wuz for was, lissen for listen, becoz for because, etc. Using words such as gonna and wanna and clipping the g off the end of some words is fine, but using dialectal spellings every other word tires a reader quickly. The flavor of how a character speaks can be communicated better with word choice, grammar, and syntax than with phonetic spellings.


Dialogue and action—People are always doing something while they speak. They don’t stand still and speak like an automaton. Dialogue isn’t a separate thing. It’s an action in itself, but it’s always part of other actions. That’s why dialogue is one of the key elements of scene-making. So make your sections of dialogue more realistic by including narrative bits of physical business that create natural pauses, like this:


“Blah blah blah,” said John, dropping his gaze from Melinda to his wedding ring. “Blah blah blah blah.” He twisted the gold band on his finger like a bottle cap, then rubbed his hands across the faded denim of his jeans. “Blah blah blah blah blah blah.”


Outside, a sudden wind rustled the branches of the old live oak against the shuttered windows behind them. “Blah blah blah,” Melinda said. “Blah blah blah blah blah.”


Dialogue, author’s voice—The narrator and the characters should not all speak the same way, and dialogue should not sound like more expository prose with quotes around it. You must find a unique voice for all your story people. Every character’s speech should reflect who he or she is. Ideally, the reader should be able to distinguish among your characters simply by reading the dialogue without the attributions. That’s a tall order, I know, but you have to try. Strive to give your dialogue the flavor of real life—a spontaneous exchange of words where the characters are speaking only for themselves and where the reader is a fly on the wall eavesdropping.


Dialogue, didactic—This kind of dialogue has an ulterior motive, namely that it is intended to teach readers things according to the author’s agenda. You don’t want a character to deliver a long speech or sermon. When that happens, it’s a monologue, not dialogue (di meaning two, mono meaning one). I have seen new writers use a question-and-answer format to create the illusion of dialogue, where one character asks a question and the other person replies at length. Certainly authors are entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, and they can communicate those views through a character sometimes, but only briefly. Fill a whole page or more with the spoken words of only one person, and you’ll lose most of your readers. Novelists who allow a character to deliver a lengthy editorial are using fiction at cross-purposes, because a story cannot serve two masters. Didactic writing does a disservice to the reader and to the author as well, who is likely to suffer the damage of backfire.


Dialogue, “exposition dialogue”—Look at this bit of dialogue:


“It is magnificent!” Claudius cried. “It is the palace of Zeus. Why, look at those three majestic stone towers, cylindrical in shape and with pointed roofs.”


Do you see what the writer has done? He is using dialogue to relate description. This is called “exposition dialogue.” It should be written as narration, not dialogue, before Claudius reacts to it. Note that it also includes a redundant expression: cylindrical in shape.


Dialogue, keep it real—Writers are usually advised to render dialogue the way people actually speak. That advice is a good place to start. Note that most of us conduct our everyday affairs by communicating quite informally, speaking in dribs and drabs, using contractions and slang, skipping words, clipping off the ends of words, and repeating favorite words and phrases. To sharpen your ear, try paying attention to the way ordinary people speak to one another. I often suggest that writers spend some time around people in the mall, in restaurants, and in other public places, listening closely to their conversation. As you write, think about how your particular character expresses himself, which should be different from the way other characters speak. Afterward, read your dialogue out loud, which will help you hear speech that sounds wooden or mechanical.


Dialogue, “soap-opera dialogue”—Example:


Rick: “Jeff got here about ten minutes ago.”

Todd: “Jeff? That sleazy attorney who broke up with Natalie last week after Dr. Lebowitz told him she had a brain tumor?”

Rick: “Yep. He flew in this morning. I guess he figures that big murder trial of his in New Orleans can go on without him.”


This is what some people call “soap-opera dialogue.” This is dialogue that has an obvious ulterior motive—to feed the reader certain significant information. Providing the reader with information he needs is part of your job, but you shouldn’t have characters discussing things they already know just for the benefit of the reader. Dialogue like this is used in soaps sometimes to help viewers who may have missed a few shows.


Dialogue,  stilted—Many new writers create dialogue that’s too formal and stilted (also called “wooden”). You shouldn’t do that unless you’re portraying a certain character who speaks that way all the time. Neither should you try to reproduce human speech verbatim. Writing dialogue is an art form, because it’s just as impressionistic as everything else a writer puts on paper. You don’t want to include all the ers and ums and you knows that serve as punctuation in most people’s speech. Novelists have to learn how to write dialogue that seems real by suggesting conversational styles. The best way to learn how to write good dialogue is to listen closely to people and to read novels by some of the better writers working today.


Dialogue style in narration—One device novelists can use to good effect is letting a character’s manner of speech carry over into the narrative that’s written from that character’s point of view (POV). In other words, the narrative should be flavored with a character’s way of speaking. For instance, if someone cusses a lot, then cuss words should find their way into narration. That way the narration maintains the character’s POV and avoids using the author’s bland voice. Using another person’s language like this really helps readers get a sense of the character.



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