Four Key Points for Writing Dialogue
Recorded May 8, 2019 Archived May 8, 2019 03:00 minutes
DescriptionIn creative writing workshops, aspiring writers are told to make their dialogue natural, to make it sound like real life dialogue, and not stilted. New authors are told to listen to other people’s conversations to get a feel for speaking rhythms and flow. This writing advice is only partly true.
In reality, much of what passes for dialogue in daily life is filler. People talk about the weather, they talk about their favorite foods or drinks, they talk about chores that need to be done. How many readers want to read “natural dialogue” that is about the mundane, day-to-day trivialities? Absolutely none.
Know What the Scene Goal is Before Writing Dialogue
Each scene carries a purpose. Each exchange of dialogue carries a purpose. Each word carries a purpose. The purpose is to advance story plot, write my essay for cheap, deepen characterization, and evoke emotion in the reader.
As each scene opens, a fiction writer should decide what the goal is for that scene. Any conversation between characters, and even internalizations, character thoughts, should point the reader to that goal. The scene goal can be anything. Just as a camera lens zooms in on a subject for closer focus, so should the character dialogue zoom in on the scene goal.
Dialogue Should Move Story Plots Ahead
Authors who write fiction should remember that readers have limited time. Every word chosen when writing stories must carry weight and must serve a purpose, or the readers will lose interest. There’s no talking about the weather in fiction unless the weather is a major plot element. If the tornado is about to blow Dorothy’s house away, then a comment about the weather would be appropriate.
Effective Use of Dialogue Tags in Writing Stories
Attendees of writers workshops are also often taught that the word said should be used infrequently. Instead, writers try to find synonyms for said, or they try to incorporate movement and action into the dialogue tags. This is fine, but only up to a point.
Too many dialogue tags slow the story and bore the reader. Many readers will skim through long dialogue tags and descriptions. The word “said” is practically invisible to the reader, but words such as reiterated, declared, disclosed, alleged, and others will jerk the reader out of the story flow.
The same will happen when a writer has character put a hand up, put a hand down, walk here, walk there, or engage in otherwise useless activity. Of course, writers must always be careful not to have body parts doing the impossible.
“Her eyes rolled around the room.” Really? Did they fall out of her head and start rolling across the floor? A good critique partner or mentor can help a beginning writer avoid this type of mistake.
The focus should be on the dialogue more than the tags. The exception to this would be when a character is doing something important, and the conversation is a diversion. Tags should be used sparingly, just enough so the reader knows who is speaking.
Example of Bad Writing Dialogue
This example of bad writing dialogue comes from the Caro Clarke website, in her article Beginners’ Four Faults.
"More tea, Vicar?" Angela asked, taking his cup and placing it on the tray beside her.
"Don't mind if I do," said the Rev. Phelps.
"That was two sugars, wasn't it?" she asked, pouring the fragrant liquid from the heirloom pot into his cup and stirring in the milk. When he nodded, she dropped in two sugar lumps, stirred again, and handed him back the cup.
"Thank you, my dear," he said, accepting it with a smile.
This boring dialogue does nothing to advance the plot or the scene goal. No one cares to waste time reading about someone stirring tea.
Example of Good Writing Dialogue
This next piece of dialogue comes from Holly Lisle’s website, author and teacher of many online writing workshops and online creative writing classes. In this scene, the woman’s mother has just died and the hospital couldn’t reach her.
But he was saying, "The hospital reached you? God, I'm sorry. That's why---"
Now the scared feeling was worse. Different. But worse. "The hospital?"
"They called me when they couldn't get you."
"I don't understand."
"Your mother. You said ---"
Notice the lack of movement. No one is shifting, moving, or stirring tea. The lack of dialogue tags forces the conversation to advance the plot and heighten the emotion and tension. One focus of the scene is on telling the woman the news about her mother. It’s evident from the conversation that the hospital never got the message to the woman. Emotions heighten as the scene progresses and the dialogue reveals an even deeper conflict.
When writing dialogue, remember these four key points:
- Know what the scene goal is before writing the dialogue.
- Dialogue should always advance the story plots and scene goals.
- Dialogue should never be about boring, everyday things.
- Dialogue tags should be used sparingly, and only to advance the plot or deepen characters’ emotions.
Keeping these points in mind while writing stories will tighten the prose and create better fiction.