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Great dialogue tips from Writers Circle Associate Director, Michelle Cameron:
Writing dialogue is a critical aspect of fiction and memoir, and many writers struggle with it. So in a recent class, we considered what factors could comprise a successful section of dialogue. As we do in many of these more technical discussions, we deconstructed a few passages of published work. We’ll use some of them in this post to help us extract some guidelines for writing dialogue:
Dialogue should never happen in a vacuum.
“Oh, I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do with that child!” She took a deep breath: “I’m absolutely at the end of my rope.” She gave the shower curtain an x-ray like look.
– Franny and Zooey,
J. D. Salinger
Note how the speaker gives that shower curtain a piercing glance. Placing your characters in a setting – and reminding us of that setting with simple cues, like sipping from a coffee cup or turning to look out a window, will keep us grounded in the story.
Your character’s personality should infuse the way he or she speaks.
“Your new friends must be damned smart – they’ve managed to saddle you with their responsibilities in less than two months.” He shook his head – pitying me for being so gullible.
I just stared at him.
“She’s a cute kid, but she’s got no claim on you, Juliet, and you’re going to have to be firm about it. Get her a nice dolly or something and say good-bye, before she starts thinking you’re going to take care of her for the rest of her life.”
Now I was so angry I couldn’t talk. I stood there, gripping Kit’s porridge bowl with white knuckles. I didn’t throw it at him, but I was close to it. Finally, when I could speak again, I whispered, “Get out.”
– The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
The man speaking above is an American in a British novel – he’s sharp, cynical, and caustic. We always know when Mark comes on the stage.
Consider also that silence sometimes speaks louder than words. In natural life, we often don’t reply when we’re talking to someone – and our silence can suggest so many things: anger, resentment, confusion, pain… Juliet’s hand curves around that porridge bowl and we know what she’s feeling, without the author having to provide her feelings via dialogue.
I finish chewing and ask, “Do you know who the secretary of state is?”
“And see? You’re still allowed to vote.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Jen drains her beer and laughs.
“I think I get it.”
“Go to hell, Jen,” Rhonda says icily. “One beer and you’ll roll over for anyone.”
– Fragile Beasts, Tawni O’Dell
Use tags – he said, she said – sparingly.
You don’t need to identify who is saying what if it is clear to the reader. Note the exchange above – the swift back and forth over the secretary of state. By eliminating tags and just focusing in on the dialogue, we center our attention on the brief argument – akin to keeping your eye on a tennis ball during a swift volley.
Use tags, however, when it is necessary to identify who is speaking. When a third party is introduced into a dialogue, for instance, or when there is any doubt who is saying what, you need to make sure we know who is talking. Note, however, how skillfully Ms. O’Dell introduces Jen above: because she has just drained her beer and laughed, we know the unidentified “I think I get it” is her statement.
Watch the use of adjectives and adverbs.
Too many of them can dilute what you’re trying to express. But use them when they will convey emotion better than anything else. Strong verbs can and should carry much of the burden of the story, but this doesn’t mean a good adjective or adverb can’t help out once in awhile. When Rhonda says “Go to hell” icily to Jen, we’re left in no doubt as to how she’s feeling. But it’s because that’s the one and only adverb in the entire conversation that it works so well.
Let your characters think before they speak.
“I don’t believe I feel like it just now, Amanda.”
“Did I ask you if you felt like it?”
He spread his fingers and looked at the bitten nails, not answering. Speak sharply to Jeremy and you will bowl him over; he can’t stand up to things. You’ll get further being gentle with him, but I always remember that too late. He puts me in a fury. I can’t see how he could let himself go the way he has. No, letting yourself go means you had to be something to start with, and Jeremy was never anything. He was born like this.
– Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler
Give your characters a chance to reflect on what is being said, to consider what it might mean to them, and even to change their minds about it mid-thought.
Also remember that what our characters say can sometimes hide the truth of what they really feel. “Language was given us to conceal our thoughts,” as Talleyrand said at the Congress of Vienna. In this passage and throughout the book that follows, Jeremy’s silence covers a myriad of emotions and thoughts. Sometimes a little misdirection can add suspense and engage the reader in trying to discover the truth.
And one final note – dialogue should sound natural but not be studded with the pauses and stuttering that we hear in everyday speech. Use your craft to hone in on any mannerisms that might be important to convey character – but make sure it’s not slowing down the passage unnecessarily. As with the passage above from Fragile Beasts, a single “huh” can go a long way.