HE SAID, SHE SAID
Writing dialogue trips up the best of us, at one time or another. On the other hand, often comes the comment, “This author has a great ear for dialogue.” So how do we tame this beast and go from the former to the latter? A few tips will take us a long way here.
1. Formal and Stilted Dialogue, and everyone sounding the same. Often, without the tags, I cannot tell who’s talking, and I should be able to. For most new writers, this is almost a given, and I see all the time a variation of this:
“My name is Bill. What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Theresa. Good to meet you, Bill,” she replied.
Yep, this is an exaggerated example, and for comparison:
“Name’s Bill,” he said, a grin spreading over his rugged face. “Yours?”
“Theresa. I know you from somewhere?”
I.e.—get something done in the dialogue with every spoken word as well.
Dialogue should rarely be in complete sentences—we just don’t talk that way. Unless, of course, you’re writing a very formal and stiff character, and this is a character trait. Otherwise, use more contractions, and we all have our favorite words and phrases, slang, etc. Put this in. Get quiet and listen to your characters speak, then write what you hear. Now, on that note, be careful not to pepper the dialogue with too much dialect. Toss in just a smattering, to give a flavor for the speech patterns, but not so much as to make this unreadable. It’s like putting salt into a stew—you want to put in enough to bring out the other flavors, but too much makes it inedible.
2. Look At. This almost universal foible will sink a scene.
He looked straight at her and said, “X.”
Not only does this fill the passage with wasted words, but a huge opportunity is missed here to evoke emotion and description. And often, ‘look at’ is the only action happening through the discussion.
Instead, use this space to show the non-viewpoint character—reinforce what he looks like; create his emotion:
His slate-gray eyes softened as he said, “X.” Or: His steely blue eyes narrowed at her in suspicion.
And in the latter, if you’ve couched the scene correctly, you can even omit the ‘in suspicion.’
Now, break that rule if whether he does or does not look her in the eyes is important—i.e., if he’s hiding something, or conversely, has the courage to do so under tough circumstances.
3. Tag Modifiers. Somewhat a continuation of above, the tags tell me rather than show me. If you must write, ‘she said anxiously,’ then the dialogue itself is lacking (and again, ‘told to’). I should get the anxiety from the spoken words, and the actions/mannerisms of the speaker: “He’s missing,” she said, wringing her well-manicured hands.
I’m not saying to never describe the dialogue, but rather to give me a picture of the emotion, rather than telling me about it (that old ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule popping up again). On the rare occasions where describing the dialogue is merited, do so up front, so that I can hear the tone as the words are spoken, not afterward: Softly he whispered, “You’re mine.”
4. Talking Heads. You know what this is like—we have pages and pages of dialogue, with no action in between, no notice of what’s going on around the characters, no expressions, mannerisms; no evoking characterization. I can’t help but see heads just floating in white space. Disconcerting with two folks talking, but downright frustrating in a group. Often I lose track of who’s talking when and especially if everyone sounds the same, I have no clue!
Instead, use this space to again reinforce your characters’ physical descriptions and emotions. We, as writers often have crystal-clear images of how our people look. But our readers need help—again, not a beating-over-the-head type help, but gentle reinforcement. And again, rather than telling me, show me.
Rather than, ‘He looked baffled as he said, “X,”’ which I cannot see, ‘His high forehead creased as his full lips went slack.’
And evoke emotion: “She left me.” He grabbed his wiry hair in both hands. “Why?”
Use it as well to let me know if an ill wind has just blown in from the sea, or the crowds have thinned as darkness falls, to evoke a sense of impending bad juju.
5. Ancillary Dialogue. Every single word counts, no matter what you’re writing, even the spoken ones. What I often see is this, at the end of a passage of dialogue:
“Let’s meet to talk about it.”
“Where do you want to meet?”
“How about the pub at 3.”
“That sounds good.”
“See you there.”
“Bye.” Lucy hung up the phone and thought about how excited she was to see him again.
Aaaccckkk! I’m pulling my hair out by now 🙂 Instead, paraphrase this, in one sentence:
They agreed to meet at the pub at 3 and Lucy looked heavenward and smiled.
Of course, a plethora of other dialogue problems exist, but these are the big five, the ones I see over and over, and trip up the best of us at times. Again, all words in whatever you’re writing count. Give them punch!