Friday, 17 March 2017

How To... Write Dialogue

By JJ Marsh

Ten tips towards creating believable, interesting and functional dialogue in fiction. 

Image by Julie Lewis


... spend time listening to how people speak. Eavesdrop on conversations and identify speech markers you can steal and attribute to your characters. Think of five people you know well. What makes their manner of speaking distinctive?

... cut the fluff. Real speech is full of irrelevant filling, so trim to the good stuff. Dialogue should sound natural but far more interesting than reality.

Here’s an excerpt from False Lights, by Gillian E. Hamer.
“One body?”

“Apparently so.”

“Any identification yet?”

Kelly shook her head. “Barely identifiable as human they said.”

... make sure the dialogue serves a purpose. Pages of realistic sounding dialogue is laudable, but what is its function? Character development? Backstory? Plot point?

... tie characters’ speech to their culture, the genre of the book, the historical period and overall tone. As David Mitchell explained when writing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
“I wrote a short grammatical constitution, for the Dutch, English, Japanese, educated, pleb and female Japanese. Each has three or four rules, for example, the Japanese don’t contract, or at least not in my book. The Dutch don’t use ‘will’, it’s always ‘shall’, which gives it an archaic patina. And all the time you’re writing under the confining umbrella of historical fiction, so neologisms are out.”

... read and/or act out the dialogue. Record yourself and listen again later. Is it rhythmic and flowing or does it sound like the school play? Are long sentences broken up with shorter exchanges? What are the characters doing at the same time?

... pay attention to how characters change tone when talking to each other. We all have different ways of speaking when in conversation with good friends, total strangers, a new boss, a small child.

Excerpt from Wolfsangel, by Liza Perrat
‘What’s so interesting down on the riverbed, Patrick?’ I asked. ‘Those creatures from Papa’s stories with a hundred eyes, horns and fins?’

‘All those stories, just to scare you into not swimming,’ Ghislaine said with a laugh.

‘I think it’s his stories I miss the most,’ I said. ‘Now he’s gone.’

‘Not that his scary tales ever stopped you two,’ said Miette.

Patrick flung an arc of hair from his face. ‘Not us, our sister perhaps.’

‘It wasn’t fear that stopped Félicité,’ I said, the rush of water massaging my harvest-weary shoulders. ‘She just found our games pointless. That’s what she always said, “a frivolous waste of time”.’


... fall into the ‘As you know, Bob...’ trap, otherwise known as stating the obvious for readers’ benefit. Characters telling characters what they already know is an awkward device lumped in with excessive use of names. Listen to real-life conversations. How often do people need to say the name of who they’re talking to? Hardly ever.

... overdo accents and verbal tics. A whole book in which a character speaks in an extreme accent is irritating and unnecessary. Readers are bright enough not to need every word in dialect, so a gentle smattering here and there is sufficient to evoke the sense of speech.

Excerpt from Ghost Town, by Catriona Troth
“Very domestic, yaar. Fancy ironing me a few shirts while you’re at it?”

“Why? Your mata-ji finally got tired of wiping your arse for you?”

It was a routine he could have done in his sleep. The two of them had been sparring since, as lone desis, they’d gravitated together at art school.

“Not that you’re a real desi,” Vik regularly reminded him. “You don’t even speak Punjabi.”

“Doesn’t make any difference to the sodding racists, does it?”

“Too Paki to be White. Too gora to be desi. The true artist is always an outsider, yaar.”

... annoy readers with ‘I have a secret’ type of dialogue and or bore them with information dumps. Your audience doesn’t want to feel excluded from what the characters are talking about, but intrigued. Neither do we need a whole life story in one monologue. Drip enough info to keep people curious but not enough to bore.

... forget about tags. Dialogue attribution is essential, especially in scenes with several speakers. Stick to said, asked, told and steer clear of qualifying adverbs. None of this nonsense: "Really? I don’t believe it!" ejaculated Gloria breathlessly. But feel free to add action so that the attribution is unnecessary.

Excerpt from Tristan and Iseult, by JD Smith.
Iseult of the White Hands comes into the kitchen. She carries a pail of water.

‘You are home?’

‘I am.’

She ladles a little water into a bowl, sits down beside me, bathes the scratches on my body. There is little tenderness. Just a methodical need to clean the wounds.

‘I worried you would not return to us.’

I reach forward for bread and cheese, a cup of ale. ‘We outnumbered them.’

She purses her lips, disapproving. It has been a long time since her lips curved and her scowl relaxed.

‘You should take more care.’ She wrings the cloth in the bowl, leaves the table.

‘Next time, I will. I am too old for this.’

One more point. Read plays or film scripts. See how much weight dialogue can carry. Human beings are experts at decoding what words, intonation and expressions mean and forming opinions as a result. When it works, good dialogue can act as both laser surgery and dynamite.

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