Crash Course: Improving Dialogue in Your Writing

 

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Good dialogue is one of the most important elements in fiction. Some might argue that dialogue is the key to a “can’t put it down” novel. Here are a few things about dialogue I hope you’ll find helpful.

 

 

A definitionShut Up! He ExplainedDialogue is an invented language. Dialogue is not a reproduction of how people actually speak. It is the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue for the reader.

Here’s a book I highly recommend. There’s a newer version now available.

 

He said, She said: Tagverbs, Adverbs, and other Miscreant Uses of Dialogue
 
It’s ’fess up time. All writers are guilty of it. No matter how experienced a writer one may be, it’s a pitfall we must always be vigilant to avoid. So, at the risk of offending writers everywhere, I present a brief refresher course on dialogue.  
 
Overusing colorful verbs (or “tagverbs,” as I like to call them) as dialogue tags
 
In dialogue, the overuse of strong verbs used as tags tends to draw attention to the words themselves and become distracting to the reader. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Here’s what The New York Times Book Review had to say about best-selling author Robert Ludlum’s, The Bourne Ultimatum (yes, that Robert Ludlum):
 
bourne“Mr. Ludlum has other peculiarities.  For example, he hates . . . “he said” . . . and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper . . . intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable (one): ‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.”
 
Another common fault is using adverbs to describe how a character speaks. It’s so much easier to “tell” the reader how the character said something than “show” how it was said. Here are a few examples from McNally’s Secret, by Lawrence Sanders (yes, that Lawrence Sanders):
 
I said resignedly; father asked idly; I said heartily; I said hastily; he inquired anxiously; she said darkly; she said lightly; she said cheerily; I said cheerfully; he cried with unexpected fury; she said fondly; I said politely; he said proudly; he said with unnecessary vehemence; he said coldly; he said hotly; she said faintly; she said bitterly; she said crisply; I asked eagerly; she said doubtfully; he said grudgingly; he said mournfully; I added earnestly; she said hesitantly; I said gratefully; she said in a doleful voice; and my two personal favorites: someone remarked sententiously; I caroled as melodiously as I could.
                                
*Examples for Your Perusal—which sounds better to your ear?*
           
“You’re fired!” Fred blurted hotly. (Tagverb ‘blurted’ and adverb ‘hotly’)
“You’re fired,” Fred said, slamming the folder on the desk. (“said” is hardly noticed)
Fred slammed the folder on his desk. “You’re fired.” (action denotes speaker’s temperament)
 
            “You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary sobbed pitifully.
            “You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary said, bursting into tears.
            Mary turned away to hide her tears. “You always manage to spoil the evening.”
 
A good rule: When a tag is needed, “he said/she said” works just fine in most situations. Use more colorful tags occasionally if you must. Always try to “show” how something was said rather than “telling” how it was said. 
 
 
Loaded dialogue (or, lazily packing dialogue with information)
           
*Do people really talk like this?*
 
“I suppose we could ask our son, Joe, to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones suggested. “After all, he is one of the best attorneys in town, and we did put him through law school.”
 
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones replied, “but he is already representing his sister, the Harvard professor, with her slander case against the university newspaper.”
 
*Well no, but they might reasonably say something like this:*
           
“Let’s ask Joe to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones said. “There’s no conflict of interest for an attorney to represent his parents.  Besides, it’s about time he did something for us. If he can afford to drive a Ferrari, he can afford to pay us back something for five years of law school.”    
           
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones said, “but I’m afraid it will conflict with his handling of Susan’s case.  If she doesn’t get tenure because of those lies the Harvard Heraldprinted, she’ll be devastated.  Joe won’t let that happen. You know what a protective big brother he’s always been.”  
 
The lesson?  If needed, you can impart information to the reader if you word the dialogue carefully.
 
word count
Dispensable dialogue (or, empty, wordcount-building dialogue)
           
“Good morning, Joe,” Sharon said, seeing her friend approaching down the hallway. “How are you today?”
“Fine, Sharon, and you?”
Sharon smiled warmly. “I couldn’t be better. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. Couldn’t ask for better. Makes you want to skip work and go on a picnic.”
“It sure does,” she said, glancing at her watch. “Oh, well, back to the grindstone. Nice seeing you, Joe.”
“Nice seeing you, too, Sharon. Tell Steve ‘hello’ for me, would you?”
“I sure will, and please give Tammy my best.”
“I will. Well, have a nice day.”
“You, too. Bye-bye.”
 
(ZZZZzzzzz — While the above exchange is technically okay, it’s boring and does absolutely nothing to reveal character, show conflict, or propel the plot.)
 
 
 
A Reminder 
 
Dialogue is an invented language, not how people actually speak. Don't Forget
 
Dialogue is action and conflict (characters interacting with one another).        
           
Dialogue is drama (the story is unfolding, or moving forward by what the characters say).
           
Dialogue is immediate scene (characters are on-stage, acting out scenes before the reader’s eyes).
 
Closing Words from author P.G. Wodehouse 
“[A]lways get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”
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Deep Breathing

A Short-short Crime Story from Writer/Blogger Margot Kinberg!

Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

Brittany hurried into the gym, almost catching her towel in the front door as it swung shut behind her. One minute to go. She quickly checked in at the front desk and rushed up the staircase to the second floor, where the evening yoga class had already gathered.

When she got to the second floor, Brittany slipped in as inconspicuously as she could and found a place towards the back of the room. The lights had already been dimmed, and most of the other people in the class were sitting on their mats, meditating. Brittany hated to interrupt other people’s focus, so, as silently as she could, she unrolled her yoga mat, took off her trainers and socks, and sat down. She had time for two deep breaths before Kimberly, the instructor, started the class.

As the hour went by, Brittany started to feel calmer. It had been a crap…

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Walk Away From it All*

From Mystery-Crime Writer/Blogger Margot Kinberg

Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

An interesting comment exchange with crime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has got me thinking about crime-fictional situations where the sleuth is asked (or sometimes told forcefully (or worse)) not to investigate. That happens quite a lot in the genre, and it’s interesting to consider the many reasons why.

Obviously, the guilty party (or someone in league with the guilty party) wouldn’t want an investigation. I’m not really talking of those cases: the reason is patently clear. But there are other reasons, which can add a layer of interest and character development to a story.

In several of Agatha Christie’s stories, the sleuth is pressured not to investigate. For example, in Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot is on a trip through the Middle East. Colonel Carbury asks Poirot’s help with a case he’s investigating. The Boynton family has been sightseeing in the area and took a trip…

View original post 888 more words