Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to Write Better Dialogue

It's Dan today, and I want to talk about dialogue. Dialogue is one of the hardest parts of writing fiction, especially for those of us who have considerable experience in non-fiction writing. Narrative and exposition are relatively straightforward by comparison. When it comes to having characters talk to one another, the correct approach isn't always clear. This may be why dialogue is often a weak point among new writers trying to break in.

Earlier this year, Lisa wrote a great post on tired dialogue in books and movies. It made for a very useful discussion of what NOT to do. Today it's the other side of the coin: how to write better dialogue. Because I'm not an expert, I've collected some great craft articles from around the web and will share the highlights.

Basic Rules for Dialogue

First up is a nice article by Abigail Carter, 10 rules for writing good dialogue, in which she reminds us that:

  • Dialogue needs to have a point. It should carry the plot forward, develop character, and/or reveal inner motivations.
  • Good dialogue contains differing points of view, and each character should have a unique voice. 
  • Dialogue is not for long speeches (monologues) or explanations. It's tempting to fall into the trap of "As you know, Jim..."
  • Great dialogue builds tension. Characters argue, insult, or leave things unsaid. They lie to one another. When the reader knows this, but the other characters don't, it's a very tense situation indeed.
Fantasy Faction has an excellent guide on effective versus ineffective dialogue that illustrates some of these rules, and also notes that dialogue can do things to help the reader, like breaking up big pieces of exposition or providing a breather during intense action sequences.

Mechanics of Dialogue

This is another area where amateur writing shows, particularly in the use of dialogue tags and beats. Dialogue tags are often over-used or too visible, while beats (character actions that break up spoken parts) are often under-utilized. Michelle Hauck recently wrote an informative article on the difference between a tag and a beat. There's also a useful piece at BubbleCow on this topic. A lot of craft articles link to it, but the links are broken. I managed to find the correct URL, and here it is: writing effective dialogue

Punctuation is an important aspect of dialogue that's easy to screw up. In a show of pure serendipity, today's Daily Writing Tip was a gem on whether to place commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points inside or outside closing quotation marks. In brief:

  • Put the periods and commas inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Put question marks and exclamation points inside the quotation marks if they belong to the quotation
  • Put question marks and exclamation points outside if they belong to the framing statement.
Here's an example of that last point on usage:
Did you hear the inspector say, “Label all dangerous chemicals”?
Ha! And you thought punctuation always went inside the quotes!

Creating Character-specific Dialogue

One of the most challenging aspects of dialogue (the 202 course, if you will), is making each character sound unique. In other words, the things that are said should reflect the speaker. Melissa Donovan has a nice guest post over at Novel Publicity (note, I don't know anything about this company, so please don't consider this an endorsement) on 10 creative ways to write character-specific dialogue.  Among them:
  • Vocabulary and slang that reflect the character's background
  • Catch phrases, like Scarlett O'Hara's "fiddle-dee-dee" in Gone with the Wind.
  • Other-world sayings (for sci-fi/fantasy). For example, "May the force be with you."
I can't think of a better way to end this post, so now it's your turn. Where do you struggle with dialogue? If you have tips or articles to share, please do so!

Caitlin: Great points! I'd just add on one of my personal ticks: contractions. I usually write without them, which isn't good in a narrative voice but it's especially bad in dialogue. Even most "formal" characters will use some contractions while they speak. I know to look out for it now, but I still catch myself doing it a lot.

Karlie: LOL, Caitlin, I find myself doing the opposite. I write a lot of fantasy, and my kings and queens tend to say things like, "Okay, let's do that" instead of, "As you wish." So I have to walk a thin line between too formal and not formal enough. 
I really don't have anything to add - wonderful, informative post Dan!!

Lisa: In my role as editor on a writing website called Valorpen, I come across talking heads all too often. What I mean is I'm floating in white space while two characters are having dialogue back and forth with nothing in between:
"Don't kill the spider," Jill said.
"Why? Because they kill flies?" Henry asked.
Jill smiled. "No. Because it's pretty."
"You're so quirky." Henry turned to leave. "Let's go."
"Let me look a little longer."
Henry sighed. "Fine, but if you even think of scaring me with it, think again."
"Scaredy cat." Jill rolled her eyes.
"Cats aren't scared of everything," Henry said.

Can you picture this scene? Me either :) I have no idea where Jill and Henry are in relation to each other. I have no idea what the scene looks like, whether they're in a building our outside or even what the outside or building looks like. I'm in white space, reading words in a dialogue instead of imagining myself in the scene with these two people.
For the record, I think Henry is justified in keeping his distance.

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