Every Wednesday I’ll be sharing some hints and tips about how to improve your writing. These are basic things I have learned over the years, from writers websites, published authors and constructive feedback from friends, family and online pals.
There is an argument that fiction writing cannot be taught because it comes from talent alone, it is in your nature to be creative. Whilst there is some truth in that, even the most creative person needs to learn how to use their ability and make the best of their craft.
This week: How to make your dialogue feel real.
This week I’m going to discuss dialogue. “Y’know what I’m talkin’ ’bout, right daddy-o?” The stuff that goes between the speech marks. Doesn’t matter if you use the delicate single ‘ or the double whammy ” as long as you stick one at the start of the talky bit and one at the end, it’s all good. Writing dialogue can be a tricky dog to train, and for new writers this can be a serious challenge. It could be said that writing dialogue is easy, you just stick stuff between speech marks and tell the reader who says what and how they say it.
Come on Dave, it’s not rocket science.
Okay, so it is that easy. You got me, dear blog reader. But making dialogue feel real is an art form, an art within the art of writing.
Dialogue that feels real doesn’t flow easily for all writers, and novices can struggle with it. When it’s done well dialogue can convey many things without the narrative glue to bind it together. It can give the reader a tense feeling as two characters talk in hushed tones in a creepy grave yard, or make the reader sit up and pay attention as the characters shout and snap at one another in a fight or fast paced scene.
But just as authentic dialogue can mould characters and drive a story forward, bad dialogue can bring a reader out of the story to ask questions they shouldn’t have to.
Let’s start with the basics.
# 1 The Basics – Dialogue Pie
Think of tags, speech marks, quotation marks as the pastry crust that holds your dialogue pie together “_PIE_” Clearly this pie has been neatly sliced down the centre to reveal the yummy speech marks and the tasty dialogue inside! Speech marks are used to indicate which character is talking, moaning, whispering, howling, crying etc. Readers see the words he said she said after dialogue so often they don’t register the actual words.
“I don’t like it here,” she said.
Simple enough, right? Remember that a comma after here indicates the actual line hasn’t finished yet, after the full stop/period after the word said.
Or use the lonesome ‘ to the same effect:
‘I don’t like it here,’ she said.
Personally I prefer the double whammy. It’s what I was taught at school and I find it easier to hit Shift and 2 with thumb and finger. Go with your gut but make sure you keep it consistent. A quick word on quotes within speech. If you use the lonesome ‘ for speech it’s best to use the double whammy ” for a quote, and vice versa.
‘Did you hear him say “my mum loves The Beatles” the other day?’
“Did you hear him say ‘my mum loves The Beatles’ the other day?”
RULE: In British English (BE) the punctuation always goes inside the closing speech mark. If the dialogue ends the sentence you don’t need to write additional punctuation.
He asked, “Are we there yet?”
“Don’t lick that, it’s dirty!”
And remember that if a sentence has a question mark at the end but you want to state who is talking, then you don’t need a capital letter, even though a ? usually means a full stop/period. This is because it’s still part of the same sentence. For example:
“Have you got any cheese?” she asked.
Another way to write dialogue with punctuation in mind is the use of the comma or full stop/period when connecting chunks of dialogue:
“I love bunny rabbits,” she said. “I think they’re so soft and fluffy.”
Note the full stop/period after the word said. This can also be written with a comma instead.
“I love bunny rabbits,” she said, “I think they’re so soft and fluffy.”
Again this is all about consistency. Personally I prefer to use a full stop/period after said and start the next sentence afresh. But providing you stick to one format you’re golden.
# 2 Show, don’t Tell – Again!
I’ve mentioned this rule before in previous WTW posts but it’s worth repeating. Why just tell the reader someone is whispering when you can show them?
“Keep your voices down,” she whispered.
Um, okay, don’t you think the reader would guess that she was whispering is she is telling someone else to keep their voice down? You can convey a whisper in many ways without actually using the word whisper.
The grave yard was cold and silent. With a killer on the loose Jane couldn’t believe her friends were talking like they were at a rock concert. She pressed a finger to her lips. “Keep your voices down,” she said.
So by adding an extra line of narrative the reader understands the grave yard is quiet, there is a killer on the loose who might over head them, and Jane’s friends are being way too loud and attracting attention. Alternatively you can just end the sentence at the word down and lose the she said.
The grave yard was cold and silent. With a killer on the loose Jane couldn’t believe her friends were talking like they were at a rock concert. She pressed a finger to her lips. “Keep your voices down.”
How a character talks can be shown without the need to state exactly how they are doing it. A big no no are things like this:
“What are you doing?” he barked.
“Why are you leaving me?” she cried.
“Please don’t tickle me any more,” she laughed.
I guess you can get away with these bits of dialogue description now and then, but using them on a regular basis is the tool of a sloppy writer. Take time to build tension or describe how someone talks or what mood they’re in, or the scene itself to give the right atmosphere.
Tom’s throat was sore from shouting but he couldn’t stop. “What are you doing?”
“Why are you leaving me?” Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Please don’t tickle me any more,” said Lucy. Her cheeks hurt and she kicked her feet away from her Dad’s reaching hands.
Stephen King once mentioned that a writer should do away with stuff like this:
“We have to stop!” he said breathlessly.
“And you thought I was a clown,” she replied humorously.
And he’s right to make such a valid statement. Those lines of dialogue are grotesque. However, I’ve seen many of these ugly chunks of pointless description in many Stephen King books. But then he knows the rules well enough to break them. Don’t assume you can get away with it. This is sloppy unforgivable writing and shows the reader that the writer has given little or no thought to the scene or the readers needs.
# 3 Info dump – Exposition
Real dialogue is often bitty, an exchange of words between people where information is swapped in bits and pieces. If someone came out with the following you’d think there was something wrong with them.
“As you all know, we’ve been searching for the killer clown in the town of Whatever for weeks now and we hoped to capture him in the park. We’ve worked long and hard on this case in freezing cold rain, and up until now we’ve had little luck. However, we have a solid lead on the killers whereabouts from Mrs Nosey at 23 Main Street.”
Rarely do you hear people around you talk like that, unless you happen to be a police officer being briefed by the Big Cheese. A well crafted character wouldn’t talk in such a way. For dialogue to feel real it should reflect the conversations you hear every day.
If you want the reader to know the sort of information in the above chunk of dialogue, spread it around your characters, have each one give their opinion or add facts as part of a conversation. Use dialogue to enhance your characters and advance your plot.
# 4 Grammar – Has no place in dialogue
When you speak do you construct your sentences using flawless grammar? Does anyone? We make sense but that’s because we’re well versed in filtering the words other people speak so we can understand them. Listen to how people around you talk. When with your friends pay attention to how the conversation flows and you’ll find they talk in segments, often back tracking or repeating themselves.
Take this conversation for example:
“Did you see her? She ain’t got no idea.”
“I know, right? No idea. That dress was just gross, all brown and stuff.”
“Brown with green smudges on it. And those shoes, where she got them from God knows.”
“Reckon she’s like, colour blind or somethin’ maybe?”
“Yeah I reckon big time, gotta be with dress sense like that.”
Okay, we’ll leave the two gossips alone now. Hopefully you can see how the conversation flowed between the two girls (for the purpose of gossip I’m going with girls here, sorry ladies!) and how they continued on from each other. Grammar didn’t really play a part there, punctuation yes, but only to police the dialogue’s structure.
Understanding the rhythms of every day speech is important for you as the writer, so you can create good dialogue that feels real. Listen to that rhythm when you’re out and about and then relate that natural ebb and flow to your characters.
# 5 Research – Understand your character
If you live in New York and want to write about a Cockney window cleaner don’t just throw in a bits few Cockney Rhyming Slang or any other stereotypical slang because chances are your reader might pick up on how poorly you did your research. It won’t sound authentic and that can lead to loss of credibility.
Think about where your characters are from and where possible try to hear some real life dialogue from that place. Read your dialogue out loud and you’ll see where the natural pauses are and how the words sound in your mouth. If they don’t feel right to you then the reader is likely to pick up on that as well.
The use of profanity and slang should be used sparingly too. Too much of this and you risk bringing the reader out of the story to work out what the character is saying. Profanity, like in real life, can be used to great effect, but too many f***s spoken by too many characters is often considered the style of an amateur, but hey, we all have to start somewhere!
In my novel The Range I have a character who swears quite a bit, but she is the only one who uses it to any great degree.
“How the fuck should I know?”
I peaked around the back of the taxi at the left hand road. A metal pipe smashed into the windscreen and I ducked back down. I twisted the screen on the Handicam and aimed it at each road on my imaginary clock. Crowds of people flowed through the lines of cars at both three and nine o’clock. They were shouting and jeering like a horde of football fans.
“It’s a gang.”
“No shit.” Louise rolled her eyes. “How many?”
“There’s at least forty coming from three o’clock, maybe more coming from nine.”
“Bollocks.” Louise looked shocked. “That’s not possible.”
“Cambridge is a pretty big place. Popular with tourists and don’t forget the students.”
“Infected tourists? That’s a new one.”
Excerpt from The Range
This separates her from the other characters. I have another character, a retired Cambridge University professor, who speaks slowly with grace and sophistication, his educated manner shows through his dialogue.
“Sorry Professor. Crap. I mean…sorry Charles.”
“Not a bother.” Charles gave him a wry smile. “You’re a decent and courteous lad, and don’t let these reprobates tell you otherwise.” Charles wagged a finger at his audience. “This chap led us through a hellish land of destruction and ruin. If not for his valiant efforts we would have succumbed to the wanton and brutish behaviour of those infected with this distasteful plague. As for the gangs of thugs roaming the city I have no desire to be further acquainted with them.” Charles waved a hand as if to put the matter behind him. “This quandary cannot be resolved through bickering and worrying over what-ifs and who did what and where. Plans born from chaos are a sham, they lead to confusion and misadventure.”
The crowd mumbled an apology. I had sudden respect for the old man.
Charles nodded his head in approval. “I’m glad that much we agree on. I overheard talk regarding a plan for escaping the city, but we lack a map, correct?”
Excerpt from The Range.
That’s all folks!
There’s a lot more to writing dialogue than just jamming words between speech marks. As a writer you may be gifted in the art of narrative or plot building, but your readers will see if you fail to put such energy into your dialogue. I’m sure lots of books (potential or published) have fallen flat because of poor dialogue. Take your time to learn how it works, how it fits together and flows. When curled up with a book pull yourself from the story every so often and examine the dialogue. I know this is hard when you’re deep into the story, but as a writer you need to be able to do this.
And finally, listen to how people speak, how they use words, sometimes the wrong ones or different ones, to describe things. Listen how the conversation shifts back and forth between people. Like so many aspects of writing, dialogue can come naturally to you but it is a skill that needs to be polished like any other.