One of the most important devices to spice up narrative and increase pace is the use of dialogue. There’s a reason for this: we read dialogue more quickly; it’s written in more fluid, conversational English; it tends to create more white space on a page with less dense text, more pleasing to the reader’s eye. Dialogue is action. It gets readers involved.
Good dialogue neither exactly mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor on the other extreme does it proselytize or educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle. While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten us to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.
Below, I provide a few tips when using dialogue in your story.
- Show, don’t tell: a common error of beginning writers is to use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes you as a novice. For instance, avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. Which brings us to the next point.
- Have your characters talk to each other, not to the reader: for instance, “Hello, John, you loser drunk and wayward son of the most feared gangster in town!” could be improved to, “You stink like a distillery, John! Wait ‘til papa’s thugs find you!”
- Avoid adverbs: e.g., he said dramatically, she said pleadingly; instead look for better ways to express the way they said it with actual dialogue. That’s not to say you can’t use adverbs (I believe J.K. Rowling is notorious for this), just use them sparingly and judiciously.
- Avoid tag lines that repeat what the dialogue already tells the reader: e.g., “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Do you have a dog?” she asked.
- He said, she said: reduce tag lines where possible and keep them simple by using “said”; another sign of a novice is the overuse of words other than said (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred, etc.). While these can add spice, keep them for special places as they are noticed by the reader and will distract otherwise.
- Pay consistent attention to a character’s “voice”: each character has a way of speaking that identifies them as a certain type of person. This can be used to identify class, education, culture, ethnicity, proclivities, etc. For instance one character might use Oxford English and another might swear every third word.
- Use speech signatures: pick out particular word phrases for characters that can be their own and can be identified with them. If they have additional metaphoric meaning to the story, even better. For instance, I know a person who always adds “Don’t you think?” to almost everything they say. This says something about how that person… well, thinks… I knew another person who always added “Do you see?” at the end of their phrase. Again rather revealing.
- Intersperse dialogue with good descriptive narrative: don’t forget to keep the reader plugged into the setting. Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are having this great conversation. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.”
- Contradict dialogue with narrative: when dialogue contradicts body language or other narrative cues about the speaker, this adds an element of compelling tension and heightens reader excitement while telling them something important. Here are a few examples:
“How’d it go?”
“Great,” he lied.
“I feel so much better now,” she said, eyes darting away from him.
Well, you get the picture, anyway.
This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.