As you may or may not be aware, I’m in the process of drafting ‘A Fantasy Writer’s Handbook’, a non-fiction guide to writing fiction, fantasy fiction in particular. The book is split into three parts: fiction writing, fantasy writing, and what to do when the writing is done. Today, as a little midweek treat, I thought I’d share one of the chapters from part one: Dialogue.
If you enjoy this teaser chapter, why not stay in touch by filling out the form below? Before the book is released I’ll be sharing some others, plus there’ll be opportunities for you to win copies of the book. Everyone who subscribes to my mailing list also receives a free ebook on the craft of writing, lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction, a list of book reviewers, and a few short stories.
One of the writer’s most effective tools is dialogue. A story with little or no dialogue can sometimes make the eyelids flicker. Too much dialogue may leave the reader breathless. There seems to be one pervading guideline when it comes to writing dialogue, and that is clarity is king. Let’s have a look why.
Writers have different stylistic preferences when it comes to dialogue. The best approach I’ve found, and by best I mean the approach readers find clearest, is to use speech marks (“) as opposed to a single apostrophe (‘). Why? If, for instance, a character is speaking and quotes someone else, a single quotation mark can be used within the speech marks, therefore avoiding any confusion, for example:
“I can’t believe she called me ‘an ungrateful cow.’ She’s got some nerve.”
Another helpful approach to maintain clarity is to begin dialogue on a new line whenever a new character speaks. For instance:
“Who was at the door?” Nick asked.
“A couple of Mormons,” Sarah said.
Similarly, if a character reacts to something another character says or does, to maintain clarity, pop the reaction on a new line, followed by dialogue. So for example:
“We’re all sold out,” Dan said.
Jim sighed. “Have you not got any in the back?”
An attribution, also known as an identifier, is the part of the sentence that follows a piece of dialogue. For example: “John said.” In his creative writing lectures, Brandon Sanderson shares a few useful tips.
- Try to place the attribution as early as possible to help make it clear in the reader’s mind who is speaking. This can be done mid-sentence, such as: “I don’t fancy that,” Milo said. “What else do you have?” Breaking like this works well if a character is going to be speaking for a few lines or paragraphs. You can also use an attribution before the dialogue, though there’s something about this which I find jarring. Used sparingly it works well, but too often just seems annoying and archaic. It’s all personal preference though.
- Try using beats, but not too many. What’s a beat? A beat is a reaction to something said or done. So for example facial expressions like frowning, smiling, narrowing of the eyes, a biting of the lip, hand gestures such as pointing, clenching fists, fidgeting. And then you’ve got physical movements, like pacing up and down, smashing a glass, punching a wall.
- Don’t worry about using ‘said’ and ‘asked’. To the reader, these words are almost invisible. What they care about is who exactly is speaking.
- When a character first speaks refer to them by name, but after that it’s fine to refer to them as he or she, provided they’re still the one speaking. It’s even desirable to use the pronoun; repeating a name over and over can irritate a reader.
Something I’ve noticed some of my favourite writers do, James Barclay and George R.R. Martin in particular, is, when possible, avoid using an attribution altogether. Less is more, as they say. If just a couple of people are talking, it may already be clear from the voices and language of the characters who exactly is speaking.
Again, to aid clarity, if there are a number of people involved in a conversation, it helps to use an attribution whenever a different character speaks. Nobody wants to waste time re-reading passages to check who’s speaking. I don’t enjoy it and I’m sure others don’t either.
A repetitive use of attribution may grate on a reader. It can suggest a lack of trust in them to follow the story. It helps when editing to look for moments where it’s unclear who’s speaking and if necessary add an attribution.
A brief point on the styles of attribution. If you read a lot, you may notice some writers prefer the order “John said,” and some prefer “said John”. Sanderson is of the view that the character’s name should come first because that’s the most important bit of information to the reader. But the likes of Tolkien adopted the latter version. It’s all personal preference. Why not mix and match?
A useful distinction to make is that between everyday dialogue and the dialogue we find in fiction.
The chatter we hear in real-life is full of rambling, repetitive sentences, grumbles, grunts, ‘erms’ and ‘ahs’, with answers to questions filled with echoes (repeating a part of the question posed, e.g. “How are you?” asked A. “How am I?” B answered).
When we think of the dialogue we read in books, it contains little of the things we find in these everyday exchanges. According to Sol Stein, there’s a reason for this—it’s boring to read.
If it holds no relevance to the story, we don’t care if a character’s cat prefers to eat at your neighbour’s house instead of your own, or if they think their nail job isn’t worth the money they paid, or if they think the window cleaner isn’t cleaning their windows. There are some snippets we overhear on the street that are interesting—an unusual name, a section of a story we want to know more of. Rare diamonds in a mine miles deep. I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to achieve realistic dialogue and it makes for drawn-out scenes and boring exchanges.
According to Stein, dialogue ought not to be a recording of actual speech, but rather a semblance of it.
What is this semblance of dialogue why should we try and achieve it?
The Ingredients of Effective Dialogue
When we scrutinise a person as they’re talking (all the boring stuff aside) we discover a lot about their character: who they are, what they believe in, and sometimes, if they reveal them, their motives. We glean all this from word choice, sentence structure, choice of topic, their behaviour as they say something.
It’s these little details we as writers must dig for, so when it comes to writing our own dialogue, we can use them to help characterise our own characters and, if possible, develop the plot. The key to mastering dialogue, according to Stein, is to factor in both characterisation and plot.
How do we do it? Let’s look at some examples:
Milford: How are you?
Belle: How am I? I’m fine. How are you?
Milford: Well thanks. And the family?
I had to stop myself from stabbing my eyes out with my pen. This example is mundane, riddled with echoes, and gives us no imagery about the characters involved. How about this version?
Milford: How are you?
Belle: Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t see you there.
Milford: Is this a bad time?
Belle: No, no. Absolutely not.
See the difference? Milford asks Belle a question, which Belle doesn’t answer. This is an example of oblique dialogue. It’s indirect, evasive, and creates conflict. Our character is not getting answers. Oblique language helps to reveal a bit about the characters and the plot, namely that Belle could be a bit shifty and up to something unsavoury.
As a little exercise, try and think of some oblique responses to the following line. I’ll give you an example to start. Remember to factor in the Stein’s key ingredients—characterisation and plot:
Exercise: “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
Example: “Did you say the same thing to that blonde girl behind the bar?”
In this example, we get a response which avoids answering the statement. She could quite easily turn around and say “Thank you,” but that’s boring. Instead, we’re wondering about this man and what he’s about, and a bit more about the woman too, namely that she’s observant.
For another example of oblique dialogue, we can look to the new Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. If I’m brutally honest, I thought much of the dialogue in this film was poor. It was far too informative, revealing details known to each character but said for the convenience of moving the plot along. However, there was one good instance of dialogue in there, which went something like this:
Luke steps inside the Jedi temple where Rey is looking at a number of books upon a stone dais.
“Who are you?” Luke asked.
“What are these books?” Rey said.
It’s this avoiding of the question that sparks a bit of tension. Is Rey hiding something? We don’t know much about her and now we want to know more. The plot is advanced too, because our attention is now on these books which may have some bearing on the rest of the story.
A character’s voice is an important factor in dialogue. Nobody speaks in the same way. Some people have lisps, some people say their ‘r’s’ like ‘w’s’, some people don’t enunciate properly, say words differently, speak in accents, have a nasal twang. There are so many variables.
Introducing these features to some or all of your characters can help to make them more memorable and distinct.
Linked to voice is the use of language. A person from a particular region might say words unique to them or that area. People from Liverpool, or scousers as we’re known, often refer to their friends as “lad”, for example, “Hello, lad. How’s it going?” Or we also often use “sound” instead of “good,” for example: “How are you?” “I’m sound, thanks.” It can add more layers to your story. But a few words of caution. Don’t overcook it. Clarity is always king. Make sure it’s easy to follow.
The same goes for the use of accents, like “Am goin’ for a smoke. Ye comin’?” The last thing you want is to leave your reader frowning. Instead, you could describe the way they speak rather than express it. Sol Stein also warns against spelling out pronunciations, and after reading H.P. Lovecraft, I’m jumping up and down seconding that motion. Here’s an extract from Shadow over Innsmouth:
“Told abaout an island east of Otheite war they was a lot o’ stone ruins older’n anybody knew anything abaout, kind o’ like them on Panape… Nobody cud git aout o’ them war they all got the stuff, an’ all the other natives wondered haow they managed to find fish in plenty even when the very next islands had lean pickin’s.”
This type of dialogue goes on for about six or seven pages. I don’t quite know how I got through it.
Dialogue has a knack for increasing the pace of the story. Readers can find themselves tearing through pages laden with dialogue. As if with all tools of the craft, it pays to know how best to use it. Literary agent Noah Lukeman said a writer must learn how to use restraint when it comes to dialogue, “to sustain suspense and let a scene unfold slowly.”
Again, it’s all a matter of preference.
Passive Voice Is Okay
You’ve probably heard that you ought to avoid the passive voice as if it were the leprous hand of a beggar. We’ll explore passive more later. When it comes to dialogue passive voice has a place.
In reality, most people when they speak use passive language, the above words in particular. If a character speaks in a passive voice, it can be more real, genuine. Take this example:
“I was going to come over to your house but I wasn’t sure if you were in.”
In his book The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman says that one of his biggest reasons for rejecting a manuscript is use of informative dialogue. In other words, using dialogue as a means for conveying information, or info dumping. He says it suggests the writer is lazy, too unimaginative to convey the information in a subtler way.
Sometimes dialogue will give us no information at all. Sometimes snippets. Often if you overhear a conversation between two people you’ll find you understand little of what they discuss. It’s the little details they reveal that are most interesting. Take the example of someone mentioning they went to the hospital. The person they’re with may know why they went, but you don’t. Give the reader pieces of the giant puzzle and leave them wanting more.
Lukeman suggests a few solutions to mend instances of informative dialogue. One is to highlight pieces of dialogue which merely convey information and do not reveal or suggest the character’s personality or wants. Break them apart and find a way to let them trickle into the story.
For sound editing advice a good person to turn to is a master. In his book on the craft of writing, Sol Stein provides a very helpful checklist when going over passages of conversation:
- What is the purpose of this exchange? Does it begin or heighten an existing conflict, for example?
- Does it stimulate curiosity in the reader?
- Does it create tension?
- What is the outcome of the exchange? Builds to a climax, or a turn of events in the story, or a change in relationship with the speakers?
One additional step Stein recommends is reading dialogue aloud in a monotone expression. Listen to the meaning of the words in your exchanges.
“What counts is not what is said but the effect of what it means… The reader takes from fiction the meaning of words. And above all, they take the emotion that meaning generates.”
There’s another question you can ask yourself: are the lines of each character consistent with their background? Everybody speaks in a different way: accents, phrases, sentence order. One way to show this variation is with the use of speech markers—signals in dialogue which the reader can quickly identify. For example:
- A well-educated person may use long, jargon words.
- Throwaway words and phrases. These could be used as a verbal tic.
- Tight or loose wording. An example would be “Beat it.” The shortness suggests character traits to the reader.
- Run-on sentences. Useful when characterising a chatterbox.
- Omitted words. Used in novels to portray lower classes. “What you doing?”
So these are a few things that I’ve found helpful when it comes to writing dialogue. Perhaps the most important advices I’ve taken away from them all is to always maintain clarity while using obliqueness to give dialogue that snappy, enticing edge. It’s easier said than done, mind.
If you enjoyed this teaser, why not stay in touch by filling out the form below? Before the book is released I’ll be sharing some others, plus there’ll be opportunities for you to win copies of the book. Everyone who subscribes to my mailing list also receives a free ebook on the craft of writing, lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction, a list of book reviewers, and a few short stories.