Dialogue was one of the first aspects of creative writing I looked at on this here blog, and since then much has been learned on this crucial aspect of the craft. In this return article, we’ll look at what dialogue in fiction entails and the ingredients necessary for making it the most effective it can be, before finishing up with a few helpful editing tips.
A good starting point is distinguishing 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 everyday exchanges. 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.
And here we arrive at our first lesson. According to master editor Sol Stein, dialogue ought not to be a recording of actual speech, but rather a semblance of it.
What is this semblance of dialogue we should try and achieve?
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, their motives. This all comes 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 such things 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 obliquedialogue. It’s indirect, evasive. In using oblique language we’re revealing a bit about the characters and the plot, namely that Belle could be a bit shifty and up to something unsavoury. Oblique language can help to characterise and advance plot.
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 key ingredients—characterise and develop the 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 info-dumped in unsubtle ways, characters revealing details known to each other but said for convenience. Once or twice fair enough, but it was consistent enough for me to notice. 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 in the conversation. 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.
So, in quick summary, try and think of ways to factor in the two main ingredients of dialogue: characterisation and plot. Using oblique language is a helpful means of advancing them both, as well as making for more engaging exchanges.
For the best advice a good person to turn to is a master editor. In his book on the craft of writing, Sol Stein provides a very helpful checklist when going over your 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 what the words in your exchanges mean.
“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 want to 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, for example, 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?”
Stein 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. It left me feeling like I’d been bashing my head against the desk for the entire time.
Thanks for reading. I hope it’s been of some use. For more writing tips and guides, head here.
A quick heads up about what’s to come this week on Fantasy Friday. I’m looking at medieval buildings, namely houses, inns, and the like, as well as roads and boring shite like that. Why write about it if I think it’s boring? Because it’s important boring shit. How could you get bored with my writing anyway? Criminal.
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