Dialog Do’s and Don’ts

It’s possible that Jack London may have written a few stories with no dialog at all, because one of his fascinations was man in the wilderness. For most writers of fiction, though, dialog is a central concern.

There are no rules for how to write great fiction. Whatever works, works. Whatever fails, fails. But aspiring writers may find a few rough guidelines handy. Below are my personal guidelines for dialog.

First and foremost, does the dialog move the story forward? At the end of a passage of dialog, as with any other type of scene, something should have changed. If two characters are walking along discussing the weather, seriously consider deleting the scene.

As a corollary, using dialog to let the reader know something that the characters in the scene already know is a Very Bad Idea. If there’s a fact that the reader needs, but there’s no reason for the characters to mention it in dialog because they know it already, just write a damn declarative sentence. Making the sentence an interior monolog by one of the characters is perfectly okay — something like, “Jack had known for years that the old house was haunted.” See how easy that is?

Second, having two characters disagree is fundamentally more interesting to read than having them agree. If A is reassuring B about something, have B not believe the reassurance! If B says, “Oh, thank you. I feel so much better now,” the tension has leaked out of the scene. If there’s no tension in the scene, the reader is likely to put the book down and go see what’s in the refrigerator.

Third, when two characters are conversing, every third speech should have a dialog tag or a bit of stage business to remind the reader which speaker is which. (If the speeches are short and the conflict sharp, one mention of the speaker every 5th speech is enough.)

I’ve seen how-to-write books that tell you you shouldn’t need dialog tags in a two-person scene, because the reader should be able to tell just from the content of the dialog who is talking. But as a reader, I find it annoying to have to hop back to the top of the page (or to the previous page) because I’ve lost track of which speaker is which. I like being reminded. Periodic reminders are a painless courtesy to the reader. Besides, disembodied voices floating in the air are not vivid. I want to see the characters frown, grin, shrug, stare at the ceiling, clench their hands into fists, or whatever. Gestures, facial expressions, and other visual cues are an important part of almost any conversation! Omitting phone conversations, of course, but if I were writing a phone conversation, I’d be tempted to interject sentences like this:

Joan made a disgusted face. She was glad Barbara couldn’t see it.

There are also how-to-write books that will tell you the emotion and verbal tone in the dialog should be apparent from the spoken words. You shouldn’t need, we’re told, adverbs like softly, sarcastically, and so on. But this is clearly bad advice. In natural dialog, a single short sentence might have three or more quite different meanings, depending on how it’s spoken. If you don’t believe me, you might want to make a short list of the possible ways a character could say, “I believe you.”

The goal is not for the writer to force the spoken words to convey all of the necessary information; the goal is to make them read in a natural, speech-like manner, and fill in bits of extra information where needed.

As a corollary, be very careful of words like “laughed.” This is wrong, horrible usage:

“I’ll be getting up early tomorrow,” David laughed.

Why is it wrong? Because you can’t laugh an entire sentence. Try it if you don’t believe me. If you want David to laugh, do it this way.

David laughed. “I’ll be getting up early tomorrow.”

Now “laughed” is in a separate sentence, where it belongs. A speaker can growl or whisper an entire sentence, but he can’t laugh or hiss it.

Descriptive verbs such as “admitted,” “complained,” and “agreed” are usually wrong in dialog tags. Here, the reader should be able to tell that the speaker is admitting something, complaining, or agreeing with the previous speaker. The word “said” is invisible. No matter how often you use it, it will not get in the way or annoy anybody. Use it freely, and often. Just not in every speech paragraph. That would be deadly.

Fourth, never start the paragraph with a dialog tag unless you’re in a complicated scene with three or more active speakers — or perhaps if there has been a long pause in which the two characters are doing something silent, and you need to let the reader know who is starting the next bit of conversation. In general, when two characters are talking, you should put the dialog tag at the first convenient pause in the speech rhythm. You can also wait until a later pause in a longer speech, if there’s a clear break in topic at that point, or a longer pause, or if the speaker changes emotional stance.

If you have several active speakers, then please start each paragraph with a tag. Don’t wait until after the speech has started, because then it’s too late. This type of construction may look a little artificial, but trust me, it will work:

Kevin said, “I’m not sure, Bob.”

Dave shook his head firmly. “Ignore him, Bob. Go right ahead.”

Susan touched Dave’s arm. “Please stay out of it, darling.”

Think of it as a script for a scene on stage or in a movie. While watching a scene, the viewer can almost always tell who’s speaking. At least, you hope so. In prose, the writer has to do the work of the camera.

Fifth, don’t try to faithfully emulate the way people actually talk. Real conversation is filled with — well, you know, somebody doesn’t always say, uhh, you know, they don’t always get it right, I mean, what they wanted to say the first time, okay?

A little of this type of thing goes a long way. When the character is in the grip of a strong emotion, having them stammer a little is useful, but if you find that you’re beginning every speech with “Well,” or “Oh,” or “You know,” ruthlessly delete these meaningless words and see whether the dialog doesn’t flow just as nicely without them.

Now, about dialect — nah, let’s save that for another time.

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1 Response to Dialog Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Pingback: Low Intensity - 1 - Jim Aikin - Amazing Stories

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