Most fiction will require, at some point, the use of dialogue. Not everybody is comfortable using it and those writers will sprinkle their manuscript with a light to sparse dusting of it, while others load their manuscript to saturation point. While a lot depends on style and what the book is about, the effective use of dialogue can bring a story and its characters to life. But it’s important to get the correct balance. Too many light-hearted quips in an action scene might work in a film, but in a book can slow things down to the point of confusion. Similarly, no dialogue at all can make a romantic scene long-winded and frustrating.
Here are 8 rules I employ when writing dialogue.
If you’re writing intense or emotional scenes it’s not the way or how it’s said that should come across, but what is said. Phrasing each character’s line right should convey the tone and emotion behind it. If you delve too deep into your vocabulary and try to equate the emotion to the number or strength of the words, there’s a danger you’ll over do it. It’s all too easy to make your hard-wrought dialogue come across as overwritten or cliched. Better to keep it simple – the more urgent or intense the situation, the shorter and more simple the lines.
Billy held up his hand. ‘I’m dead serious. If you don’t stay back I’m going to jump.’
Would a suicide would be in the mood to say all that? He probably has other things on his mind.
Billy held up his hand. ‘Get back! I swear, I’ll jump!’
‘You remember Angela,’ Valerie said. ‘The one whose father, Jonathan, lost his leg in the war and then shot himself, his wife, Mary, and their twin boys Sam and Mike. You must remember! She married Walter from the butcher’s then had an affair with Frank, who robbed the bank on Mayfair Street. She’s back in town married to a lay-preacher from Yorkshire who’s a dentist on the side and who also performs back-street abortions for three shillings sixpence.’
That’s called info-dumping. It has no place in dialogue, at least not in that huge, unbroken chunk.
In fact, dialogue is a great place to convey background information, but it needs to be woven into the story with a light touch, for several reasons. First, a reader won’t remember a whole list of names or details when they’re delivered in such a bellyful. Second, it’s dull. Third, it’s not realistic.
The temptation for any writer is to get all that background stuff out of the way as soon as possible, then never mention it again. You’ve told the reader all the facts, it’s their job to remember it. Wrong. It’s your job to unfold information as it becomes relevant and not before. And not at all if it has no bearing on the story, character development aside.
If a lot of information must be conveyed over a short space of time, then make a conversation of it. Let each character add a little. Go into the point-of-view character’s head and give a short flashback. Give the info-dump texture and interest. It’s more work for you, but the reader will be able to follow it, and remember it, better.
Think in terms of need-to-know. If the fact that Angela’s father murdered her entire family and killed himself is important to the plot, devote a scene to it. If it’s trivia, mention it when it’s necessary and not before. If at all.
Talking of trivia.
John rushed to the ringing phone. ‘Hello? 27934 John speaking.’
‘Hello John, it’s Samantha.’
‘Oh, Hi Samantha. How are you?’
‘Oh just fine. Lovely weather we’re having.’
‘Isn’t it though?’
Erm. Realistic, maybe. We all make such small talk. We all know how it goes. But is that really what people want to read about? More likely they’re keen to know why Samantha has called, and what effect it has on John. This is true whether your characters meet on the street or talk on the phone, or text, or email, or whatever method they use to communicate. Avoid the small-talk, trivia like weather, saying hello and good-bye. It serves no purpose, so it’s all pointless padding.
Think how the TV handles it. A character will pick up a ringing phone and the caller will just start talking.
‘Mother’s having another sex-change op!’
‘Oh God,’ John said. ‘We’re going to get Dad back?’
4 Make it Realistic
‘I cannot go,’ Judith said. ‘I have yet to find a sitter for my baby. It would be unseemly for me to leave my poor, helpless child all alone.’
Of course, we all talk like that, don’t we? Not.
Yet so many writers, when faced with dialogue, seem suddenly incapable of remembering how people actually talk. But their reader will. The problem maybe that we’re accustomed to using good grammar when writing (we hope, at least!).
The good news is we can be far freer with grammar in dialogue than we can in narrative, because people talk in syntax not grammar. People’s brains also work quicker than their mouths, so they can change their mind about what they’re saying, mid-sentence. The upshot is, provided the writer takes care to be clear about what they’re saying, they can hack sentences around in dialogue, to sound more like natural speech.
This means characters can (and should) sound like real people, and real people are seldom grammatical when they talk. They’ll break things up, interrupt themselves, add asides. They might have mannerisms, use slang, swearing, blasphemy.
‘Jesus Christ, give me a break,’ Judith said. ‘I still haven’t found a babysitter so I can’t go. Period.’
5 What’s Not Said
A lot is said ‘between the lines’. Not saying something in dialogue is often more powerful than spelling it all out. Skipping from one question to another without an answer, or asking incomplete questions are all ways of not saying something, as well as not saying anything, of course. It will keep your reader intrigued, it will lead them on.
Sally stared down at the tea cooling in her cup. ‘Why?’
Simon looked away, to where the sun was slipping lower on the horizon.
‘You could have told me,’ Sally said.
‘You wouldn’t have believed me.’
The paper napkin under the saucer fluttered softly in the breeze.
Simon clenched his fist. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Truly.’
Sally tossed the cost of her tea onto the table, rose to her feet and walked away.
6 Action Break
There will be times when a book requires a large amount of dialogue to take place. It might involve more than two people, so keeping track can be a challenge, as well as frustrating. To keep things clear, and to make it seem like a scene, rather than a script, intersperse the dialogue with action. I’m not talking about people jumping from burning buildings or leaping railway carriages to escape villains, but simple things that both break up the talking and keep the sense of place turning over in the reader’s mind.
Mark lit a cigarette then took a drag. ‘When’s it going down?’ Smoke escaped his lips as he spoke.
Steve nodded, satisfied. ‘We’re thinking two days time. They’ll be off-guard then.’
‘Yeah,’ Kev said. ‘Smaller haul but less risk.’
Mark crossed to the window. From there he could see the depot doors standing open, inviting.
‘I just drive the car,’ he said. ‘I don’t get involved with weapons.’
7 He Said, She Said
‘I’m off on holiday,’ Dave smiled happily.
‘Again?’ Andrew grumbled sourly.
‘Portugal. Julie’s aunt died and left her some money,’ Dave continued smugly.
‘I hate you,’ Andrew snarled jealously.
Great stuff, eh? Okay. It’s crap. But believe it or not a lot of writers do their dialogue like this, thinking the more adjectives and adverbs they put into their designations the more interest and accuracy their writing gives the reader. Obviously, the more they tell the reader about how something’s said, the better the reader will get the message. Obvious right?
Oddly, no. All the growling and snarling smugly and obnoxiously just gets in the way. Instead of forming their own opinion of the conversation, the reader is being told what they’re supposed to think. And that’s a big no no.
There is a trick. It’s not a secret, lots of writers know and employ it, but some resolutely refuse to believe it. Here it is.
Said. He said, she said. That’s all you need.
You have to use designations to ensure the reader can keep track of who is saying what, but you don’t need to use them all the time. In fact, the fewer you can get away with, the better. If it’s obvious from what’s being said who’s talking, leave off the designation. If you can add some action (Mark lit a cigarette) leave it off. If that can’t be done, there’s just one word you should use. Said.
The word said is one of those like ‘the’ which is almost invisible to the human brain. We unconsciously scan over it without really noticing it, so it interrupts the flow of dialogue not at all. What we get when we’re reading is the designation: Mark, Sandra, Julie, whoever. Without slip or pause we know who has spoken and we should be able to tell by the context and wording how it’s being said.
8 End Too Soon
Okay, your characters have had their conversation, they’ve said all the important stuff. Now you need to end it. As I said on number 3, hellos and goodbyes are trivia. You don’t need to go into the ‘Okay, I’ll see you.’ ‘Yeah, bye.’ stuff. End where the good stuff stops. In fact, if possible, end before the good stuff stops. End on a cliff-hanger.