Friday, July 11, 2008

The Novelist: He said, She said, Using Dialogue

One of the most important devices to spice up narrative and increase pace is the use of dialogue. There’s a reason for this: we read dialogue more quickly; it’s written in more fluid, conversational English; it tends to create more white space on a page with less dense text, more pleasing to the reader’s eye. Dialogue is action. It gets readers involved.

Good dialogue neither exactly mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor on the other extreme does it proselytize or educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle.

While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten us to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.

Below, I provide a few tips when using dialogue in your story.

  • Show, don’t tell: a common error of beginning writers is to use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes you as a novice. For instance, avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. Which brings us to the next point.
  • Have your characters talk to each other, not to the reader: for instance, “Hello, John, you loser drunk and wayward son of the most feared gangster in town!” could be improved to, “You stink like a distillery, John! Wait ‘til papa’s thugs find you!”
  • Avoid adverbs: e.g., he said dramatically, she said pleadingly; instead look for better ways to express the way they said it with actual dialogue. That’s not to say you can’t use adverbs (I believe J.K. Rowling is notorious for this), just use them sparingly and judiciously.
  • Avoid tag lines that repeat what the dialogue already tells the reader: e.g., “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Do you have a dog?” she asked.
  • He said, she said: reduce tag lines where possible and keep them simple by using “said”; another sign of a novice is the overuse of words other than said (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred, etc.). While these can add spice, keep them for special places as they are noticed by the reader and will distract otherwise.
  • Pay consistent attention to a character’s “voice”: each character has a way of speaking that identifies them as a certain type of person. This can be used to identify class, education, culture, ethnicity, proclivities, etc. For instance one character might use Oxford English and another might swear every third word.
  • Use speech signatures: pick out particular word phrases for characters that can be their own and can be identified with them. If they have additional metaphoric meaning to the story, even better. For instance, I know a person who always adds “Don’t you think?” to almost everything they say. This says something about how that person… well, thinks… I knew another person who always added “Do you see?” at the end of their phrase. Again rather revealing.
  • Intersperse dialogue with good descriptive narrative: don’t forget to keep the reader plugged into the setting. Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are having this great conversation. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.”
  • Contradict dialogue with narrative: when dialogue contradicts body language or other narrative cues about the speaker, this adds an element of compelling tension and heightens reader excitement while telling them something important. Here are a few examples:

    “How’d it go?”
    “Great,” he lied.

    “I feel so much better now,” she said, jaw clenched.
    “It’s okay; I believe you.” His heart slammed.

    Well, you get the picture, anyway. Hope this helps. Keep writing!
This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate) 2009. It is also part of a workshop series I give throughout North America and Europe called The Writer's Toolkit. "The Writer's Toolkit" will be available for purchase in summer of 2010. 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

More great writing lessons! They are practical and simple for any budding writer.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks.Hope they are useful, Jean-luc! I have found that when a writer gets dialogue right, they are usually well on their way with everything else. The key is to strike the balance between realistic dialogue and of being boring or mundane (like most of our real dialogue is... LOL!)

Greg said...

Hi SFgirl,

This is right on. I spend more time tweaking dialogue than almost anything else. I usually start with the "son of the most feared gangster in town" and watch it diminish to the bare minimum. I look forward to the dialogue parts, and can sometimes hear it click when the exchange feels authentic. Ironic how important communication is and how casual conversation is often so sparse.

I do have to watch the 'talking heads' at times, and confusing cues for who is talking have been pointed out to me more than once.

Another great tip. =]

Nina Munteanu said...

Glad you were able to take something away from this, Blackburn. Yes, the "talking heads" thing and associated lack of setting is often a problem with writers. Achieving that fine balance between too much and too little exposition between (or even in) dialogue is the challenge.

I will shortly be publishing a book on practical writing tips, some of which have appeared here.

Greg said...

Good to know. The squirrels and I would benefit from your suggestions. =]

Nina Munteanu said...

Squirrels, eh?... LOL! Glad to be helpful... :)

Tranquil Tide said...

Hi SFgirl

Its too late to post a comment for this blog now...but I happened to come accross your blog and liked this post as I started to write a mini-story and was really confused when it came to write a dialogue. Your tips helped me. I should admit, I am a novice in blogging, but I am trying to express myself in the best possible way. I am very much eager about the release of your book about tips on writing.

As I came accross your blog just today, It will take some time for me to go thru all of your blogs. :)

Nina Munteanu said...

Hi, Tranquil!

Glad you liked the post and got something useful from it. My Alien Guide (available this December) will have a chapter on dialogue, with more information, so you might find it even more useful! LOL!...among the other topics I cover. More on the book later... :)

Tranquil Tide said...

Hey..I'm glad that you responded...thanks a loot...will keep reading your posts and learn from them...and improve the way I write my small blogs :)

Nina Munteanu said...

Tranguil, if you're most interested in reading my posts on writing, check out the right sidebar and scroll down to the section on "writing tips". You'll find all my posts archived there. :)