D is for Dialogue


Today’s class was all about… three guesses? Yup. In a shock move after last week’s homework, it was all about dialogue. If you guessed that, you get a prize. Only a small one, though. It wasn’t rocket science. The basic message was ‘dialogue is good’. In fact, apparently certain agents and publishers won’t take manuscripts that don’t have dialogue in the first two pages. Be warned.

Dialogue does tons of things. It shows the reader the characters, the setting and what’s going on – crucially, showing rather than telling. It dramatises the scene, adding emotion and conflict much more subtly and easily. It can also show a contrast between what’s being said and what’s being thought, which gives a rounder view of characters and adds internal conflict.

It’s important to note how people talk, though. Men, women and children all speak differently, with different emphasis and words to convey things. Listen to the people you know and get a feel for those differences – they’re subtle and important. Also note that people don’t talk about things in a straightforward manner. They talk about nonsense when they actually are dancing round a bigger subject. They repeat themselves, change subjects rapidly, use broken or rambling sentences and interrupt each other. The length of a sentence says a lot about a character – their age, temperament, current emotion, etc. Do they ramble or are they reserved?

Using colloquial versus formal language also conveys a lot. Of course, using a colloquial language isn’t that straightforward. You need to get a balance between realistic colloquialism and something readable. Too many broken sentences gets irritating – use it right and you draw the reader in. You can also do fun things with different languages, old languages and foreign phrasing. If, for example, you’re writing a person supposedly speaking in French, use a French idiom.

The final piece of dialogue advice was to read a script. Script-writers have to get dialogue right – it’s their bread and butter. Listen to real people and read scripts.

There were a couple of other things that came up which weren’t related to dialogue, which I’m just going to bullet point here:

  • When editing, remove ANYTHING you’ve heard before in terms of phrases/clichés. It means that your original voice will stand out much more.
  • When writing fantasy, use normal things to ground it and make it relatable to your audience.
  • Be careful to present information in the way your narrator would think of it, rather than slipping into omniscient.
  • ‘Cut your sentences until they bleed.’

2 responses »

  1. The weird thing about written dialogue I find is the best written dialogue doesn’t really sound anything like how people would actually talk, but more how we ‘think’ people should talk.

    In real life there’s a lot of meandering, small talk and pleasantness. In good dialogue though I find it always cuts straight to the heart of things. There’s very little “How was your day?” in books, even if there’s plenty of that in real life. There’s almost no Um’s and Ah’s.

    Which isn’t to say everyone is blunt and direct, as you said they dance around the issue. But as long we know they’re dancing it’s okay, it’s when the chat is pointless that I’m tempted to just skip it.

  2. Pingback: Style vs. Substance | everwalker

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