Good dialogue is very hard to do and some writers are much better at it than others, just as some actors are much better than others at doing accents. Good dialogue is dialogue that a reader hardly notices as good or not, but bad dialogue sticks out painfully, dragging the whole book down. Poor dialogue is certainly one of the things that can contribute to rejection, not on its own but then poor dialogue is most unlikely to be the only thing wrong.
The first thing to know about writing dialogue is that you should not try to write exactly as people speak. If you did, you’d have lots of ums, vast tracts of nothingness and many non sequiturs. At the same time, you mustn’t write dialogue that the characters would actually never deliver. So, we devise a kind of stylized representation of speech, something that feels very natural. In essence, good dialogue is not about writing as we speak; it’s about not writing as we would not speak.
Dialogue is usually best broken up into sections, separated by narrative. You are not writing a film script or a play – unless, of course, you are, in which case you are boiling a whole different kettle of fish. You do not have to relate the whole conversation; in fact, you shouldn't. Most parts of a conversation are way too boring to set down. Yes, no, I don't know, and OK should all be reduced to their absolute minimum.
Oh, God - so should Oh, God. Amateur writers put loads of standard minor expletives in their dialogue but, again, the fact that a real person might have used a word doesn't make it deserve a place in your book. This is not about being prudish and avoiding swearing - probably the topic of another blog post - but about creating flowing, strong dialogue.
Some other big bad things to avoid:
- As I say, too many yeses and noes. Better to replace some of them either with nodding / shaking of heads – though that can quickly become repetitive – or with the rest of the sentence and context indicating positive or affirmative.
- The blatant provision of information for the reader, which the characters would already know and therefore not say. For example, “Gosh, Sally, I hardly recognized you. You used to have dark hair with a fringe and now it’s a blonde bob. Did I tell you I recently saw Samantha, your younger daughter, the one who went round Australia? Lovely girl. She’s married now, of course, and they have a baby on the way.” Bleurgh.
- Dialogue tags – I'm going to tackle this in the next post, but dialogue tags are when we say, for example: he replied, she opined, he queried, she reiterated. Where possible, stick to said, asked, or nothing. I will show you how on Friday.
- Anything which makes it hard for a reader to hear the words in his head – this means that using dialect of any sort becomes very tricky for writers. You have to be very confident in your reader and in your writing to get away with the heavy use of an accent which that reader doesn’t speak. Trouble is, sometimes it would be absurd not to use dialect to some extent, if that’s how the character would speak, but do try to keep it toned down. Think of your reader.
I admit that dialogue is not something I find easy or something I shine in. Perhaps that's why I'm extra careful with it and extra aware of when I get it wrong. I spend a lot of time trying not to get it wrong. Good dialogue sings and makes your story sparkle and come alive. Bad dialogue is horrible and drags a book right down.
Great post, Nicola. This is one of those cases where reading helps with writing. I think someone like Nick Hornby is a superb dialogue writer and it's worth re-reading his books just to see how he does it.
Brilliant. I personally think dialogue is even more important than the all-powerful "show don't tell" as the latter just makes it a bit boring but bad dialogue is SO bad!
Exposition is my pet hate, I just stop reading if someone says "Good morning Mike who is slightly balding and has just returned from holiday". Urgh!
Your first part of this post was my favourite, as it sums up the dilemma with dialogue -getting the balance between realistic and TOO realistic.
Thanks very much!
Thanks for all these tips, I find them very useful.
I agree it is probably better to read it aloud but I used to teach profoundly disabled non-speaking children and kept telling them, "talk it to yourself inside your head". One of them now reads in both English and Greek and tells me he does just that so if you feel silly talking to yourself (or you are writing on the train and cannot talk to yourself) that might help too.
Thanks for this post, Nicola. You are so right, as ever.
A good exercise - one I honed through a decade of devising plays with actors – is to listen closely to how people speak, write it down verbatim, then prune and prune until you get the kernel of the character and his/her meaning. It's a good way of passing a train journey, at any rate.
I love the "not writing as we would not speak" dictum.
I grew up with an almost crippling fear of dialogue. To me, my dialogue always sounded good (it wasn't, of course), but my crit partner at college, who was later my best man, used to tell me every single time "you can't write dialogue for s***", and I ended up believing it was this mystical, alchemical thing. It also meant that I spent more time on it than anything else, which was possibly beneficial.
On the "not the whole conversation" thing, it can mean two things. One, which I believe (Adrian would be able to say whether this is utterly wrong), is that you should arrive at a scene late and leave early. The one that's specific to writing prose is that you can condense the non-key bits - and choosing which bits you DO include can be a great way of characterising (e.g. a conversation about an ex-lover - briefly outline the convo and dip into dialogue only to have sentences beginning "he never understood that I..."). You can also use filmic techniques such as a reaction shot (so, to show the convo is boring, focus on the fact the protag is watching a woman walking her dogs out of the window, or counting passing red cars).
Dan - I love the arriving late / leaving early thing. I want to quote that - is it yours or do you know the origin?
I also just discovered that Robert Frost said something about the ear being the best reader. I love that. (And I love his poetry.)
Nicola, I came across it in a wonderful piece but I can't remember for the life of me by whom. It was someone who knew their dialogue onions like Palahniuk or Bukowski but I can't remember who. And thank you so much for the answer on fees - I hope you had a wonderful time at your events this week, and a good rest since
I love dialogue, but hate description - so we all have our cross to bear :-)
One of my pet hates is the kind of expositional dialogue where a character has to tell another about something we, the reader, has already experienced happen to them. In real life, of course, this happens all the time - in fact some people seem to do nothing but endlessly recount their lives to whoever is listening. But in a book it's redundant information.
Good points, as usual. I sometimes rebel against stern strictures on dialogue tagging. But on the whole it's better to err on the side of caution.
"It would be absurd not to use dialect to some extent, if that’s how the character would speak, but do try to keep it toned down. Think of your reader."
Sometimes I am paranoid, but other times I truly feel you are writing directly for me :-)
'Another great post, Nicola,' opined Sally jealously.
Does anyone ever put shouting in all capitals? And really small font for whispering?
I always wonder, as, if you have the sentence:
"You must not do that," whispered Mark.
"You must not do that," shouted Mark.
When I read them I sort of replay what has happened in the scene in my head. So I'd guess you'd be better off saying:
Mark leaned close to Nicola(easy now) and whispered, "You must not do that."
Mark stormed up the beach shouting, "You must not do that."
But I like the idea of a tiny font for whispering.
Hope you like my rambling nonsense.
A great post, thanks Nicola. It made me go straight to my ms and read through some of the dialogue. Some changes were made...
Adding my admiration for this post.
And Dan, Nicola, it was playwright David Mamet who wrote in ON DIRECTING FILM that writer should "Get in(to the scene) late, get out (of the scene) early"
Marisa thank you! I knew it was someone I loved, and thought it was filmic - you're a referencing star!!
Mark, yes - Ben Brooks is one author I know who's done very well through playing with typography in his novels
You're right - reading it out loud is the only way to check.
Thanks for the post. Great advice especially the point about dialect. I always worry about my characters sounding the same when they're speaking. Any advice on whether you should try to make each voice distinct by using different pet words or differenec paces or does that just seem forced and amateurish? Thanks.
SP - good question. I'm going to give an annoying answer: it will only sound forced and amateurish if it sounds forced and amateurish! It can work perfectly well to have a couple of idioms or pet phrases for a character, but not simply in order to show differences in personality. I wouldn't make much effort to find ways to do this - but if something occurs to you and feels right, go for it.
Thanks for this post Nicola. Boy do I need some help in this department. My dialogue writing is a very weak area!
I get sweaty palms whenever I have to make my characters talk :0)
Opined very well, Nicola, thank you! I find reading out loud all of the text, not just dialogue, helpful too.
For interest, I've had a few lines of dialogue in one of my novels that's been there over 20 years; it involved lines like: "I wouldn't normally arf you myfelf, but itf Arfur, you fee." The character is eating chocolate....
I became too fond of the humorous lines, and recently changed them back to being said normally. They were getting on my nerves...
Very useful post Nicola.
I don't have too much difficulty with dialogue- it's usually the area I get the best comments on in critiques, but like someone else said, description is my weak point.
I find reading dialogue aloud very important to getting the speech patterns right for my characters and to pick up the glitches- as you mention Nicola.
Mark: there's no need to be over-elaborate and complicate things. You first example is fine as it is. It's clear and you we know he's whispering because you say so. Readers don't all those extra words.
All you have to do with the second example is add the necessary exclamation mark. Exclamation marks should always be used when they do what they're supposed to do grammatically which is to indicate an exclamatory remark in exactly the same way a question mark must be used to indicate a question.
Capital letters to denote shouting is not only wrong but amateur and irritating and typing something in a small font to indicate whispering is totally bizarre unless you're writing comedy, I suppose.
I've been reading this blog avidly ever since James Moran linked to it.
If I'm struggling with dialogue in a scene, sometimes it's because I want my characters to talk in order to deliver some piece of information - but I haven't given them enough to talk about. Often the answer is to introduce conflict: give them opposing agendas, or a backstory fraught with antagonism. Make one of them uncooperative / deceitful / drunk. And if they're still not talking? Then I usually start to wonder if this needs to be a scene at all. Sometimes there's a better way to deliver the information. As Nicola so rightly says, there's no point in writing bad dialogue just to get your story across. You're shooting yourself in the foot if you do.
I've probably just stated the bleedin' obvious - but I know that working that out made a big difference to the way I approached dialogue.
A very useful subject to blog about. :)
The advice about arriving late and leaving early is golden.
Great post. I'm looking forward to the one on speech tags and if you could do one on dialect too, that would be amazing. Some authors write dialect really well but I'm never sure where to draw the line.
Great post, Nicola - really helpful.
A post on dialect would be awesome Nicola. I've read a few books lately with some characters speaking in broad Scots and it adds so much flavour to the story. In my own ms, set in 19th century America, I have an ex slave. I have given him a dialect and some crits have said its overdone and some not. It gets confusing, knowing just how much to put in.
The idea that we can express shouting with capitals is, I think, linked to netiquette. I got involved in social media some ten years ago, when we didn't have fancy forums that allowed bold and underlined and italic text. All we had was plain text and so we had to find other ways of *emphasising* what we wanted to say. ALthough, capital letters are still used by newspapers (least said about that the better!) to note amendments to copy as they also put everything into plain text. At least, as far as my limited (and unpleasant) experience in that department allows.
Capital letters, in a blog comment LIKE THIS ONE, or on an internet forum, or in email, is generally considered rude. It is a way of showing that you are yelling at somebody.
So, seeing as how the net has added a whole new dimension to our communication patterns, I would think that using capital letters to indicate shouting is indeed unwise, even if it might now - as the way we behave online influences the way what we consider to be mannerly in real life - be considered correct.
That said. I have a question: How do you indicate increasing volume in a speaker? In my eternal WIP (the one I have been struggling with forever and never finish) my MC watches as medics try to resuscitate her husband and her voice gets louder and louder as she yells repeatedly for him to 'Come back, come back, come back!'.
I'm almost afraid to admit, after what I have just said, that I've used capitals. For now. Until her crabbitness tells me how to do it properly.
Or someone else does....
Just remembered that Death in the Colour of Magic speaks in CAPITALS and that was published in the early 80s I think. Probably best to try fiddling with fonts if you are completely awesome.
I'm afraid I have used the rising In Case Method To INDICATE SHOUTING! Does that make me amateur and irritating? Maybe, but it's effective once in a while. Just not Every Other SENTENCE!!!!!
Catherine. That's tricky one. Think of it like a musical crescendo? Increase the anger, panic and frustration and the reader will hear the rising volume.
How about something like: 'Come back,' she breathed. 'Come back.' Nothing. She spoke more loudly now. Hard. Insistent. 'Come back.' Still nothing. 'Come back!' She was screaming, her throat burning. 'Come back, damn you! Come back!'
Sally - FABULOUS! (she shouted). You saved me having to show how to do it and you did it perfectly, whereas I might have waffled.
||tiny||Psst, Catherine, just use capitals. You'll save loads of ink.||tiny||
Great post, Nicola. Writing plays helps ;-) One of the first things I say to beginning playwrights is to be careful of 'emotional stage directions' - such as angrily, cheerfully, sadly and so on. People tend to use lots of these, when starting out and they drive actors demented. The fact is that if the dialogue itself is strong enough, says what you want it to say, you really don't need to add too many emotional pointers - and I think this advice can usefully be carried over into prose writing as well. I remember helping my son with dialogue in a story, when he was still at school - pointing out that he didn't actually need to put 'he said/she said' after every single speech, and that the reader could follow perfectly well without this - also that there were other ways of doing it - by indicating what the speaker was doing, for instance. He grasped the point, and his story - all his own work - was quite sophisticated. His English teacher then proceeded to litter his story with appalling additions: 'he uttered', 'she declared', they warbled' after every single bit of dialogue.
"His English teacher then proceeded to litter his story with appalling additions: 'he uttered', 'she declared', they warbled' after every single bit of dialogue."
I am appalled.
So was I, Sally. But I just told him to ignore it... Mind you, as a friend of mine pointed out elsewhere - why should we expect English teachers to know about creative writing, and I think that's a fair point.
Great post Nicola.
You need to read dialogue out loud. It's the only way to pick up a word or sentence that doesn't fit or 'sounds' clunky.
In fact, I read everything out loud after I've printed it out. There are no short-cuts in this game.
I love writing dialogue. In womag stories, it's essential to include some at least. One magazine won't take stories which include no dialogue. You have to be able to hear your characters - so you need to know what their accent is, even if you don't write in that accent.
Catherine - very good points. Hooray for your son and NO to that English teacher. Gah!
MArk - I'm grateful to Sally for answering your question, which she didn't brilliantly. (And yes, careful how close you lean - I've got a cold. Apart from anything else.)
Marisa - thank you.
Spider - I am very glad you got rid of that! Very wise. Top marks for self-editing.
HeleO - very good point about characters sometimes not having enough to talk about, and your solutions are good. But when they really don't have anything to talk about, they don't need to talk. We can just assume it.
Catherine - "The fact is that if the dialogue itself is strong enough, says what you want it to say, you really don't need to add too many emotional pointers - and I think this advice can usefully be carried over into prose writing as well." Spot on.
Nicola, thanks for this great post. From someone who's guilty of using far too many 'Oh God's.
Just a quick and belated thanks to Sally - wonderful advice. It's an opening scene and quite immediate but I can see a way to revamp it along the lines you suggest.
And thanks, Mark, for the ink-saving tips!!
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