Writing Dialogue | A Writer’s Cheat Sheet

Writing dialogue comes naturally to many writers. Others avoid it entirely. If you are going to use dialogue, make sure you work hard to capture readers’ interest. Here’s a cheat sheet with pointers I’ve picked up over the years.

writing dialogue, silhouette, head, bookshelf

Writing dialogue is a skill any writer can learn; however, it’s not absolutely necessary to fill your scenes with the spoken word. Some writers use little or no dialogue. Some write dialogue that’s not set off by quotation marks. Look at comparable books and see what those authors are doing, and then play to your strengths. If writing dialogue isn’t one of them, then devote less space to showing characters “in scene.”

Must-Dos When Writing Dialogue

Dialogue must do three things. It must:

  • sound realistic
  • advance the plot (meaning, it must be dealing with the issue the scene is all about)
  • reveal character

If one of these is missing, try to add it in.

Silences

Punctuate dialogue with silences. Give your characters gestures to simulate moment-to-moment time. Pick up a paperweight or pull back a curtain. Your reader can fill in the blanks.

Misunderstanding

Look for the ways people misunderstand one other. Let the dialogue reveal blind spots or conflicting agendas.

Speech Patterns

Discover the character’s particular speech patterns. For a great example, reread Polonius’s speeches in Hamlet. A talker can be maddening, but so can a person who stonewalls. Each character must react to what the other one says.

Vocabulary

Make a vocabulary list of 100 words or phrases for each major character. Identify regional speech patterns and a character’s unique turns of phrase.

Avoid Dialect

Don’t use apostrophes to stand for letters missing from spoken English. I know, I know, Mark Twain did it, but writing in “the vernacular”–as opposed to the high style of the Eastern literati–was a fad back then.

If you want to simulate Southern or rural speech patterns, look for turns of phrase that are regionally specific. I remember Bill Clinton talking about the “lick log.” Bingo! I knew he was from the South.

Don’t Broadcast the Obvious

Don’t have your characters say something a real person wouldn’t say out loud. “Oh, I see you’ve just returned from the store with the milk I asked you to buy an hour ago.” Don’t be purposefully obscure, but also, give the reader credit. Readers can pick up clues from the context, and oddly, that improves the reading experience.

Use Dialogue Tags and Actions

Stick to “he said” and “she said.” Those words disappear. Any other word stands out, including “asked,” as in “she asked.” If there’s a question mark, readers know it’s a question.

You don’t need a tag after every line of dialogue, but make sure to include dialogue tags when readers are likely to get confused. Avoid words like “chortled” or “guffawed.”

Punctuate Correctly

In the long run, learning how to correctly punctuate your manuscript will yield huge benefits. You’ll pay less for copyediting. Agents will be more receptive, and your books will have fewer errors. The exercises on these sites can help you:

http://www.scribophile.com/academy/he-said-she-said-dialog-tags-and-using-them-effectively

http://www.palidormedia.com/james/editor/lesson1.html

http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/dialogue-tags/

https://www.thebalance.com/top-tips-for-writing-dialogue-1277070

Avoid “ing” Words

So often writers tag speech this way:

“I’ll be home later,” he said, closing the door.

“Fine with me,” she said, slamming the cleaver on the counter.

Imagine yourself at your book launch. You’re standing at a microphone. The microphone will amplify the participial “ing” ending, and pretty soon, you hear “ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching”–the sound of an old-fashioned cash register.

You don’t want that. Instead, do this.

“I’ll be home later.” He closed the door.

“Fine with me.” She slammed the cleaver on the counter.

Open and Close Your Scenes

Scenes in first-draft manuscripts take too long to get off the ground. That’s because you’re writing your way into the story. You’re in the discovery phase.

“Hi.”

“How’s it going?”

“Fine.”

Cut the intro, meaning cut the first four to six lines, and then look at the end of the scene and make sure you’re wrapping things up. Table the argument. Raise a new issue. Have a character walk out.

Writing dialogue [Glengarry Glen Ross, texte de David Mamet : photographies / Daniel Cande]

The dialogue in David Mamet’s play, “Glengarry, Glen Ross,” is masterful, not just because of the through-line of the drama, but because of the way Mamet handles speech. Image from Europeana via The European Library

Writing Dialogue Gets Easier

The more you practice, the better you’ll get at writing dialogue. Short plays provide excellent study-models. The length of a 10-minute play is comparable to the length of a scene in a novel or short story.

For scene-building know-how, study contemporary 10-minute plays. Buy one of David Mamet’s short plays. Read it aloud. Notice how often characters interrupt each other or divert the topic of conversation.

You Don’t Have To Write Dialogue

Not every writer feels compelled to write dialogue. In Glimmer Train Press‘s newsletter, “Writers Ask,” author Jamaica Kincaid said, “I don’t like dialogue…all these delaying tactics of showing what people said, of constructing a character as if it were a suit–it’s a waste of time. I have no interest in it [dialogue] at all. I’m interested in getting at something.”

You Don’t Have To Use Quotation Marks

Just to really play the contrarian, let me share an article from the Wall Street Journal. It’s about American writers who don’t use quotation marks. Kent Haruf, one of my favorite writers, didn’t set off dialogue with quotes. After a while, my brain adjusted.

If you’ve read much European literature, you’ve noticed that the conventions of punctuation are quite different overseas. Rather than quote marks, dashes signal the beginning of dialogue.

As to why we’re now saddled with quotation marks, here’s an article by Richard Lea about their history:

Like many of the symbols habitually used to mount text onto the page, inverted commas have a long and complicated history. According to Keith Houston, the “germ” of the quotation mark is to be found in the “diple (>)” placed by first-century scribes in the margin to indicate a line which contained “some noteworthy text”. Christian scholars used the diple to reveal the presence of that most noteworthy of texts, the Bible, but as their theological disputes became more and more involved they started using it to distinguish their own words from those of their opponents. With the invention of the printing press, compositors began reaching for a pair of commas (“,,”) to indicate quotations, hanging doubled commas in the margin of passages containing quoted text. But in the 18th century, Houston explains, the impetus to standardise the use of quotation marks came from the “drive for realism” shown by authors such as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson as they experimented with the newest form of literature, the novel.

Eschewing paraphrased, reported speech filtered through a narrator, these new novelists presented readers with their characters’ unvarnished words, and with this new directness came a need to separate speech from narration.The 1748 edition of Clarissa separated speakers with “dashes or new lines”, but sometimes placed an opening quotation mark “at the exact point at which a quotation began, with a new ‘mark of silence’, or closing quotation mark (“), accompanying it where the quotation ended”. The 1765 edition of Moll Flanders showed changes in speaker with paragraph breaks, “though marginal inverted commas were retained for the occasional sententious quotation”. But by the end of the 18th century, Houston continues, “the growing pains of the double comma were largely past”. Largely past, that is, until editors like Freeman want to make things a little more direct, a little more real.–“Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd”.

All set to get to work on your dialogue? I hope so. And, if you still can’t quite make your characters’ speech ring true, sit down and interview them. Yep. As if you were a stenographer. If you want some questions to ask during the interview, go here.


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