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Author Topic: Dialogue  (Read 3308 times)
Planetary Overlord

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Peter "Pace" Craddock

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« on: January 18, 2007, 02:40:23 PM »
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The following article makes suggestions about creating dialogue. Members are welcome to post their own article examples if they think they are useful. Not all suggestions in articles may be applicable to your own writing but many will be useful to view.

Writing dialogue is just as simple as writing the way people talk, right? Actually, no. If you copied down a real conversation exactly as spoken, it would be boring. Very, very boring. Fictional dialogue looks like real speech, but it isn't. Dialogue is also an effective tool for characterization, the advancement of plot and many other tasks in fiction.

Difficulty: Hard
Time Required: as long as it takes

Here's How:

1. Dialogue should add new information for the reader. If there is nothing new in the words a character speaks then it shouldn't be there. However, that new thing can relate to plot, characterization, setting, or any of the other aspects of the story.

2. Avoid meaningless or routine exchanges. How exciting is it to read "Hi, Joe. How are you?" "Oh, I'm fine, Sam. How are you?" "Can't complain. Wife doing well, is she?" and so on, every time two characters meet? Not exciting at all, is it? It's boring. Whether or not real people talk that way is irrelevant. Fiction is art, not real life.

3. Avoid conversational repetition. We all stick in endless "Umm"s and "Er"s when we talk, and we often repeat all or part of what was just said to us as we consider what we'll say in reply ("How's your job going?" "My job? Oh, it's going just fine."). Like routine exchanges, repetition is boring to read, no matter how true-to-life it may be.

4. Use dialogue to suggest how the speaker feels about others and themself. What a person says can show how they feel and what they think of the other person. You can also add description about the character's tone of voice to the surrounding text, but don't overdo it. The dialogue itself and the reader's knowledge of the character often supply this information more effectively.

5. Use the speech patterns and vocabulary of the speaker. Everyone talks a little differently from everyone else and, when they are really being themselves, you should be able to tell them apart by their words alone, even if you couldn't hear voices. For an example of writing that makes full use of individual character?s speech patterns, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series).

6. Make use of region-, class-, group-, or profession-specific language. If your character is a computer nerd, think about what kind of terminology they might use that a non-computer-using character wouldn't. There are terminologies and jargons specific to all kinds of different groups ? professional, social, regional and more. Use them where you can.

7. Avoid phonetic spelling when using dialect, non-standard grammar or individual pronunciation. Phonetic spelling is difficult to read, and quickly becomes annoying; and besides, every reader is going to interpret your phonetics a little differently. The rhythms of language and word choice are a much more effective way of conveying dialect and other speech differences.

8. Use caution with slang, not because slang is offensive, but because it can change very quickly. If you want to set your work in the 1980s, then you can use 1980s slang to help. On the other hand, if you write using contemporary slang, you may be restricting your work to a contemporary audience. Also remember that the things kids say now will be the things old people say 70 years from now.


1. Dialogue is not conversation. Real conversation is dead boring to read. With dialogue you need to create the illusion of real conversation but pare the interaction down to as few lines as possible to convey the necessary information (plot development, characterization, etc).

2. Intersperse descriptive narration with your dialogue to give it detail and context and to add more information: "I'm not sure," she said, pushing a hand through her hair. She shifted her weight to the other foot and back again. "If you think I should, though, I will."

3. Don't overuse "he said" and "she said." Do realize, however that these particular dialogue tags are nearly invisible to the reader (in other words, they won't notice how many you have until you do overuse them), and should be used as necessary to clarify who is speaking.

4. Don't overuse clourful alternatives to he said/she said.
Something like "he shrieked" can be useful, but make sure that the word you choose is accurate (did he really shriek?). Also make sure any tag you use can actually replace "said." You can't say, for example: "Go over there," he gesticulated. Gesticulation is not a kind of speech. You could say: "Go over there," he said, gesticulating.

5. Don't overuse direct address. Sam does not have to say "Jo"? every time he talks to Joe. It becomes annoying fast. "Say, Joe, what is that you're doing?" "Well, Sam, I'm fixing my car." "I didn't know it was broken, Joe." "You know my car is always breaking down, Sam." And so on.

- Source (YouWriteOn)

Dialogue is not written speech.

Successful dialogue is a strange mixture of the actual and the imaginary. It doesn't sound exactly like real conversation (listen in on a real conversation full of stuttering and unfinished ideas for a few minutes and you'll hear why), but it reads like actual conversation. That is, it should seem realistic, like the sort of thing we might imagine these people saying in this sort of situation, only better, more focused, more alluring. On the other hand, written dialogue is not necessarily more revealing than speech.

Pass the potatoes.

That is, don't speechify; keep readers immersed in the action of a scene of dialogue. My friend Elinor Lipman first discussed potato passing for me, and I've seized on it as a valuable concept since--as in Elinor's fiction--many of my characters converse around a dinner table. Here's what we mean by it: When readers read long passages of dialogue, they tend to be eased out of the dramatic flow of the story and to lose contact with what is happening in the story as these words are being delivered. But if the writer has someone pass the potatoes (literally or figuratively) while that character talks, the reader remembers that there are people sitting around the table listening and reacting and perhaps getting ready to answer. So don't present long blocks of dialogue (which are also unfriendly to the reader's eye); break them up with action and reaction.

Use dialogue for exposition with caution.

While I remarked above that dialogue could be used to help readers orient themselves in relation to the story and its characters, this can be (and has been) done so badly so often that I offer words of warning. Don't present lots of exposition at once under the guise of dialogue. The following is a tremendously bad example of exposition masquerading as a dramatic exchange:

"I've been so lonely since my husband Ted died in 1991 of cancer. We had been happily married since 1965, when we met while I was working in the Kresge department store on Canal Street in New Orleans."

"Of course, you poor dear. Thank goodness your son Frank immediately left his job in Pittsburgh as a computer programmer to move back into your house in the Garden District of New Orleans so that he could help you with your clinical depression. Of course, now you are caring for Frank because his wife deserted him and took the kids back to Pennsylvania after the doctor discovered in a routine test that he was HIV positive."

How can you avoid these exposition blues, especially if your dialogue is not as egregiously bad as this? Follow this rule of thumb: Never use dialogue to tell the reader things the characters already know. In our real-life conversations,we refer to past events, certainly, but we don't explain them because we already have them as a common point of reference. It would be better instead to give out hints and build up information gradually. We don't need to know everything that has happened in the past to begin the story.


Part of it is maybe understanding your characters first. Another example I found to explore ways to do this, perhaps the idea is to get inside the head of your characters so that when you write them they are not 'you' but come across naturally. De Niro in films does this well you get the sense he is feeling every aspect of his character and they are real (in the good ones) so when he is violent, under threat, or whatever the viewer believes in the situation and is involved in the situation a lot more:

Ten Questions to Ask your Character

How can you write about what a character will do or say if you don't know how they think, or what is "in character" for them? If you're writing from the point of view of one or more of your characters, it's even more important to know them as well as you know yourself. Often, you need to be able to put yourself in a character's place, to get right inside their head to see what they're thinking. One way to do this is to ask them questions. These ten probing questions will get you started.

1) Who are you?
Answers to this question can range from simply a name to a deep exploration of the character's inner landscape. Asking a character this who they are may not tell you the character is, but who they think they are, which can be very revealing of their thought processes. Think of all the different ways you might answer this question yourself, and you'll see the range of possible information you might learn from a character.

2) What are you?
This question is similar to question one, but not quite the same. Different characters might see different distinctions between "who" and "what." Answers to "What are you?" might be something like, "I am a 15-year-old girl who likes to sing," or "I am a huge, green alien." Or they might be something like, "I am the one who mediates between the other members of my family," "I dream of being a dancer, but am afraid I'm too clumsy," and so on. The possibilities are wide open.

3) Where are you?
This question can be answered with locational information--such as the name of the country or city the character lives in--or more specifically: "I am sitting at the kitchen table in my mother's house, writing." The question can also be answered with information about time: "I am in the 27th century; AD 2675, to be exact." Or the answer can be about the "time" or "place" a character has reached in their life's journey: "I am at that point where I have to decide what to do with my life."

4) What are you like?
Asking what kind of person a character is can give you some interesting material to work with. You may not find out what the character really is like, but you will certainly find out what the character thinks they are like (if they answer honestly), or what the character wants you to think they are like (if they are less honest). The degree of honesty or dishonesty when they answer may not be conscious. However they answer, you'll get good material for characterization in your story.

5) What do other people think you're like?
The way a character thinks other people see them can tell you a lot about how that character sees herself. It can tell you how well the character's attempts to project a certain image fits with the way other people perceive that image. It can also tell you how self-deluded a character is. Imagine a character who thinks that everyone sees her as a sweet, giving person who helps everybody. But what if those other characters really think she is a stuck-up prig who only helps others to get praise?

6) Who are your friends?
This question is related to question 5, but has more to do with the characters perceptions of others. Which other characters does your character see as allies, and do those characters have the same perception? Also consider asking the character why those others are friends, and even how they became friends. The answers can give you important information about the relationships between your characters, information you can use in characterization and developing conlicts, among other things.

7) Who are your enemies?
Like question 6, this question explores relationships between characters. It can also tell you about the state of mind of individuals. What if a character thinks everyone is an enemy? Or how about if a character sees some others as enemies who think they are friends? Again, answers to this question will provide you with tools for characterization in your story, and for developing conflict and other interactions between characters. You might even find a subplot in there.

8) Why are you here?
This question can mean "Why are you here, in this place?" or "Why are you here, now?" or even "Why are you here, in this story?" Ask your character and see how they interpret it. Then see if you can find out why they are in the story. Of course, they're there because you put them there, but imagine your story was real--why is the character there? Because their best friend is? Because they're curious? Every character should have a reason to be in the story beyond you putting them in.

9) How did you get here?
Like question 8, the answer will depend on how "here" is interpreted. The answer can deal with the physical elements of a character's arrival--by car, on foot, along the highway, via a bicycle path--or the route through life that ended in their being in a particular place and time, in a particular story. What events or patterns of thought resulted in them being here (in whatever way you want to interpret "here").

10) What do you want?
This is the single most important question you can ask of a character, and you should ask it of every character--including background characters. You may find that the answer to this question is closely related to the answer to question 8. A character's reasons for being there (beyond the fact that you wrote them in) are probably closely tied to what they want to achieve. Every character need a motivation, and if you know what it is, you can write them more effectively.


I'm not sure whether this is a good tip, or just a lazy way to do things, but one way I've found that makes dialogue less he said; she replied is to try and make it obvious who's speaking, as Alan suggests, but where this isn't obvious, have the characters engaged in some kind of action at the time.

For example:

'You're not on there, mate,' said George.
That's dialogue, but just dialogue, and too much of that will be flat. If, on the other hand, you have:

'You're not on there, mate.' George slammed his pint down on the table, spilling Guinness over the edges you have the dialogue, with who's saying it, but also some action, some characterisation, a little bit of conflict...

- Source for the last few (YouWriteOn)
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« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2007, 03:50:03 PM »
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Wow. Now Im thinking about how much I could improve Ive ever written in my life...   Grin
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Pip the bromptonist.

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« Reply #2 on: January 19, 2007, 07:38:22 AM »
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I just want to reiterate that good dialogue is really hard to master. People probably thought I was just good at it when I wrote my first short story for my  fiction writing class, but the real reason is because the two main characters' personalities were fairly similar to mine, so I could have their words come out naturally and fluidly.

Also, I've been writing with a colloquial style on the intarweb for quite a while.

Biggest point I'll make: I read a lot. Well, not so much nowadays, but before, I read a lot. And you pick up a lot of tricks subconsciously just by reading.
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« Reply #3 on: January 19, 2007, 03:51:17 PM »
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I too read a lot, and I also reread, and also rereread and maybe sometimes rerererererereread    :D

And Pete, "You're on there, mate" I smacked my hand on the table
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