Writing Good Dialogue Part 1

CWC Treasurer, Suzanne McConaghy spends a lot of time researching how to improve her writing and in this new series of posts bout dialogue, she’s going to share some of the lessons she’s learned. She accepts there can be a big gap between knowing the theory and making it work in practice, and feels she might not have quite got there herself yet. But hopefully, these insights will be useful to all of us.

How important is dialogue in a novel?

“The answer is that it’s very important. Some writers avoid it because they perceive it as difficult, but it adds so much richness and texture. Others love it, and there are even novelists who base every chapter on a short piece of dialogue as they write their first draft. More of this in Part 3 of the series.

What do we actually mean by dialogue? Inexperienced writers often mistakenly believe they have to write down every word in a conversation, and find it boring. Correct. It is – and it’s boring for the reader as well, so don’t do it.

The ground rules

Let’s deal with the negatives first:

  1. It’s not filler. It has a real purpose, and usually includes the fact that one of the characters wants something from the other – even if that’s something like reassurance or approbation.
  2. It’s not for dumping back story on the reader. If handled correctly however, quite a lot of history can be made apparent through dialogue.
  3. It shouldn’t be like a tennis match – back and forth – so vary the length and structure of the utterances, and the way in which you present them, or the reader will skip it.
  4. You shouldn’t keep using people’s names – in reality, we rarely use the person’s name when talking to them directly. What they say and how they say it should identify the speaker, but if in doubt, just use a simple tag – he/she/they said or asked. Or use an action.

Grammar

In the UK, single inverted commas are used at the beginning and end of the speech.

Punctuation for dialogue:

  • Make sure each speaker has a new paragraph, and indent each one
  • Put the spoken words inside the speech marks
  • A longer speech with several paragraphs should not have closing quotation marks until the end of the last paragraph
  • Use double speech marks if the speaker is quoting someone
Bad ExampleImproved version
‘You’re wrong, Ann.’ He sat down. ‘You don’t know that, Jim’ She looked at him. ‘Please, you must listen to me, Ann.’ He was desperate to help.  Jim touched Ann’s shoulder as he sat down beside her. ‘You’re wrong.’ She kept her head turned away. She would see only kindness and concern in his face if she could find the courage to look, she knew, but it would mean admitting he had a point. ‘You don’t know that.’ ‘Please, you must listen to me. I’m so worried about you. Please.’
  

Notice how much more you write in the second version – and see how the information in the last statement is now given through the spoken words. One of the common criticisms made by agents is that writers will often take a situation like this – clearly a tense and important scene – and pass over its possibilities, not allowing it the significance that it should have.

So, what is dialogue for – apart from providing a change from unending text?

There’s only one rule: it must have a direction, a purpose, or you may as well not bother.

Here are the characteristics of good dialogue:

  • It’s there because someone wants something.
  • It’s brief and full of emotion and impact.
  • You recognise the speakers because they are consistent in the way they speak. If that changes, it signals something important. So, if you don’t pay attention, you may be sending out conflicting messages.
  • It starts close to the heart of the matter. In reality, they may already have been talking for several minutes, but this is the part we want to hear.
  • There are interruptions to the dialogue, which reveal character, relationships, setting or story development.
  • It doesn’t necessarily give all the information.
  • It creates suspense – and remember people don’t always tell the truth or mention things they are ashamed of. You can even balance the thoughts in the speaker’s head with the words they say.
  • It’s grammatically correct. Some writers use tags that are incorrect. Look at the following

‘Good story,’ he laughed (chuckled/ gasped).

You cannot laugh, chuckle or gasp a sentence. It’s just not possible – a sentence is composed of words. How about:

‘Good story.’

He laughed (sniggered/ tittered/ gushed) and …

It’s a matter of punctuation. In addition, in the second version, you’ve used an action tag. It keeps the reader engaged – and we learn something more about that person.

  • It shows instead of telling.
Therefore, to write good dialogue, you have to understand its importance to the story and use it as a tool.

We’ve said you’re best starting a dialogue close to the heart of the matter, but is there any place for those everyday exchanges that occur between people at home, at work or in the street?

                             ‘Hello, how are you?’

                             ‘I’m fine, thanks. What about you?’

                             ‘Yeah, good …’

Do we really want to waste time reading this? This type of dialogue could only be valid if you use it to say something about your character or to move the story along. Here it is again, doing just that:

                             ‘Hello. How are you?’

                             God, it’s Sophia! She’s the last person I need to see right now. I scan around the square, seeking a way to avoid her. No chance. Heart pounding as my anger swells, I screw my features into the semblance of a smile.

                             ‘Hi …’

                             Up close, I can see how pale she is, with great, dark circles under her eyes. I

can’t resist a snide remark. After all, I’m not her ex-best friend for nothing.

                             ‘I’m fine, but you look terrible.’

                             ‘Right.’ She heaves an enormous sigh. ‘I can’t sleep.’

                             I smirk. It’s not surprising, with the guilt she must be feeling. Actually, that thought gives me an opening, and I add, ‘I wouldn’t be able to sleep, either, not if I’d done what you did to Joe.’

                             She jerks back as if I’ve punched her in the face. Is that a look of surprise? I’m confused, and for the first time, I question whether I’ve really understood what happened.

What use has it been?

  • In the first example, we know nothing, except that the two characters are acquainted. Now, we learn something about the relationship between the them.
  • A situation is being flagged up. Depending on where this occurred in the novel, this might be the first time we hear of Joe. Why does the speaker care about Joe? What was Sophia’s connection to him?
  • Initially, the main protagonist comes across as angry and self-righteous, and even a little cruel, but now, she stops to think about whether she is correct in the stance she has taken. Her considering a change in attitude immediately makes us see her differently. It means we’ll stick with her for a while, to see how things go.

So, this anodyne exchange of greetings is now carrying a lot of information about the speaker, her relationship with one character, and hinting at her relationship with another. I’m also keen to know what’s going on – ex-best friend? snide? What’s this all about?

The test for dialogue you write

Read the passage aloud, including all the infill. Don’t like it? Doesn’t sound real? If it doesn’t convince you, it’s not working.

Optional Exercise 1

If you are currently writing a novel or short story, pick a passage of dialogue from your work for this exercise.

  1. Write a small fragment of dialogue between two of your characters which, at first glance, would appear to add nothing to your novel – or use the “Bad Example” above and start from scratch.
  2. Now flesh it out, to achieve the following:
    1. Show something of the protagonist’s character or state of mind
    1. Give an idea of the relationship with the other person

In Part 2, we’ll look at one or two of the functions that dialogue should fulfil.”

Suzanne McConaghy

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