The Writing Craft – Talking about Dialogue
For this week on the blog, I thought it might be time for another post about the writing craft – this time talking about dialogue.
What makes ‘good’ dialogue in writing? It can be a tricky balance of things to achieve. Aptly, the subject of dialogue sparks much debate. Should ‘said’ be used after most dialogue, or is mixing up better (eg muttered, murmured, replied, asked answered, etc)? How much should writers use ‘action beats’? These are lines describing an action rather than saying ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’. For example:
“It’s not fair!” He kicked a table leg.
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talking about dialogue. Really, a lot of it depends on the writer’s personal style. For example, I quite like mixing up ‘tags’ – so although I use said a lot, I’ll also pepper in tags like the examples earlier of muttered, murmured, replied etc.
Whatever your preferences, for me the best dialogue is authentic. As I read the words, I can imagine the characters speaking. The best writing has the reader being able to visualise the mood and mannerisms of each speaker – getting to know them as people through the words they speak.
Here are a couple of points that could be helpful for authentic, realistic dialogue:
1. Keep it short
Unless your character is actually presenting something, or providing an explanation to other characters – for example the scene when the detective explains everything at the end of a murder mystery – it isn’t incredibly natural to have long paragraphs of dialogue. Even if nobody interrupts (which usually happens in ordinary conversation) breaking up your dialogue with action beats or a couple of lines where a character notices how the sun has moved, or comments on food they might be eating, can be useful for the reader. This is because it helps them process everything that’s said so far and not get too lost in the dialogue if there are several long chunks of conversation.
2. Don’t be afraid to interrupt
We all do it conversations, even if we’re trying not to! Whether it’s because we disagree, or we want to ask someone a question, we can all naturally cut in on one another. None of us have perfect lines of uninterrupted dialogue during a conversation, so I try to bring this ‘imperfection’ into conversations between my characters. Personally I use the ’em dash’ to convey interruption, as seen below:
“So it was yesterday I went to the bookshop-“
“Was that after you went to the cafe?
Personally I prefer this over the use of ellipsis, as that implies the speaker trailed off before the other person spoke, e.g. “so yesterday I went to the bookshop…” which is slightly different to actually being interrupted. Again, this is just my personal style – other writers might use other tags or beats to convey interruption.
3. Use action beats
As I mentioned above, action beats are really helpful at conveying emotion through what the characters do, or heightening a tense scene. For me action beats are a wonderful way to use ‘show not tell’ – not just to keep the reader as an observer but to really immerse the reader into that scene (for more info on this topic, check out this blog post I did a while ago). For example:
A. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, alarmed.
B. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.” Her eyes were stretched wide, her curls bouncing gently on her shoulders as she shook her head.
The first example is fine as it conveys alarm. However I think the action beat used in B draws the reader into the scene more – we can imagine the way her eyes have gone wide, or see the curls moving on her shoulders.
4. Mix it up
It’s highly unlikely there will be one style of conversation or one tone of mood in any conversation. You may want to have a mix of tags, beats and add in lines of description to have realistic conversation. For example, show not tell is a great tool, but sometimes it is better to tell if the pacing is right. If a character is running away from danger but sees something sad before they do, it might well be more effective with pacing to simply say ‘he cried’ rather than ‘a solitary tear crawled down his cheek’. The second line is more evocative, but it might not suit the pacing if your character has to get out of somewhere very quickly.
So there are some thoughts about dialogue. What do you think? If you’re a writer, what are your personal preferences for authentic dialogue? If you’re a reader, can you think of some great examples of dialogue?
Shout out to Deborah Klee, the host of #frisalon chat every Friday at 4pm GMT on Twitter. There’s a great writing topic to talk about each week. The chat was about dialogue a couple of weeks ago which inspired this blog post today! 🙂 All the previous conversations on Twitter are on her website. Why not tune in this Friday, 4pm GMT, to join in the fun?
PS – Quick announcement! I’m in the middle of writing a Christmas short story to be included in the December edition of my newsletter. It will be exclusively for my subscribers, so sign up here or at the bottom of this blog post to not miss out! Hoping to do a cover and title reveal on my blog and on social media next week. Watch this space! 🙂
Till next time,