More Real Dialogue Tips

Hi Folks,

In the previous post I mentioned the nuances of the stuff between the quotation marks. Here’s a second installment on dialogue tips. This is all about the nuances. If you have questions about any of these, please ask in the comments section. Thanks!

Well-written dialogue should

  • be colorful, especially the dialogue of flat or secondary characters, and even more especially if the flat or secondary character is used to foreshadow a later event. Strive to write each line of dialogue so well that the reader will remember it.
    • why? because flat or secondary characters, if they’re in a story at all, are there to serve a specific purpose, like foreshadowing for example. They or what they say should be memorable.
  • differentiate the characters from each other and enable the reader to identify the same characters in different situations. (A character will act and speak differently in different situations.)
  • have the rhythms, the immediate give and take, of real speech. Also, the use of contractions is important, just as it is in everyday speech, unless your character is a librarian who Speaks. Very. Succinctly. And. Precisely. With. No. Contractions.
    • I don’t recommend having a character like that. If you do, I recommend letting her hang around only as long as is essential to the story.
  • be emotion-laden, both on and beneath the surface.
  • reveal the character’s relationship to the various people with whom he or she talks.
  • give the reader a sense of time and place.
  • reveal the character’s reaction to his surroundings and to the other characters with whom he shares the scene.

General dialogue techniques

  • Use dialogue to reveal the character of the character — who the character really is, how he feels about a particular situation or another character — not always with what is said, but with how it is said, and often with what is not said.
    • “You lied to me! You said you were going for a drive.”
    • “C’mon, Baby. I didn’t say I was going alone.”
  • Allow characters to interrupt each other. This keeps the reader involved in the conversation, as if she’s eavesdropping. (To form an em dash to show interrupted dialogue, use either two unspaced hyphens — like this — or an em dash — like this. Do not use an elipsis… unless dialogue trails off or a character’s speech is halting. See examples above.)
  • Allow characters to answer a question with a question. This technique is excellent for subtly setting up, or hinting at, a conflict.
    • “If you knew she’d be there, why did you go?”
    • “What difference does it make who was there?”
  • Use ragged, non-linear dialogue. Use sentence fragments. The most common is the sentence with the implied you or I as the subject.
    • “Stop!” “Don’t even think about it!” “C’mon, give me the gun.”
  •  Avoid using substitutes for “said” in tag lines. (You’ve heard this before, yes?) “He said” or “She said” is usually the best choice except when the tag line can be eliminated in short passages. (The definition of “short passage” is left to the discretion of the writer.) Sometimes eliminating the tag lines will cause the reader to pay closer attention to the story. (Witness Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”)

Next time we’ll discuss the use of verbs, especially action verbs. They are essential to the wellbeing of your story.


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