Don’t say it like it is: Writing dialogue

“She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.”

Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill

I’m a fairly quiet person myself, but a good listener, and there are gems among the mundanities of everyday conversations. Sometimes I am overcome with a desire to write down what someone says before it is lost in the onslaught of babble. I wonder if any of my friends will recognise themselves in snippets from my novel. The characters are all fictional of course, but some of what they utter is not.

When I write I tend to lead with dialogue. I find my story in the conversations between characters, then go back and fill out the spaces and places and body language. In reality much of our daily prattle is nothing but fill that would bore people to death if we stuffed our novels with it.

“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”

Oscar Wilde

Credible interactions in fiction are a long way from the chaos of everyday conversations. Dialogue needs to be tight. Stripped bare of small talk and stuffing (like umm and yeah) till all that is left is plot, character reveal, subtext and a rhythm distinct to each speakers vocabulary. It needs to be pruned to reveal what people want from one another, and to dramatise their power struggles. If it doesn’t serve a purpose – cut it.

What is not said tells us something

What is not said is as important as what is said. Like all writing, dialogue is show don’t tell – feeling is conveyed through choice of words. Body language and inner voice interspersed around, or interrupting dialogue demonstrates the feeling where the words themselves do not.

“I can’t wait to see Jane,” he said excitedly.

In this sentence, the dialogue itself conveys excitement, there’s no need to explain it to the reader a second time with an adverbial dialogue tag – a tell rather than a show. Dialogue tags should only be used when its not clear who is speaking and for the most part, kept pared back so they don’t distract readers. He said, she said, said David, said Jane, is usually sufficient.

Body language conveys feeling

Every character has a unique way of talking. Good dialogue opens up our fictional worlds and offers a sense of place and time. It draws out characters personalities and relationships, creates conflict and moves the story forward.

People who deliver endless monologues in real life are dull, and the same applies on the page. Dialogue is like a dance between characters. It mixes up exposition, and exposition keeps readers grounded in time and place when interspersed with dialogue.

Unless you are being experimental, dialogue generally conforms to conventions:

  • paragraphs are indented
  • each speaker starts on a new paragraph
  • punctuation for what’s said stays inside the quotation marks
  • when dialogue goes over more than one paragraph, only the end of the last paragraph has end quotation marks, all have start quotation marks
  • when the person speaking is quoting someone else, use single quotes

Study the work of some great dialogue fiction writers to see how they do it:

  • Peter Temple – Truth
  • Toni Morrison – Jazz
  • Douglas Adams – Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men
  • Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall
  • Raymond Chandler – Farewell My Lovely
  • Elmore Leonard – Get Shorty

Read your dialogue out loud, or get someone else, or your computer to read it to you. If it doesn’t sound right, or you stumble it probably needs more editing.

“A good story is life, with the dull parts taken out.”

Alfred Hitchcock

Main image: Setting conveys so much

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