Dialogue: the bare essentials

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Dialogue

Cool note: this is my 300th published post on this blog!

There’s so much to be said about dialogue. (Oh, wow—totally unintentional pun!) Some of us do it well naturally—we have an “eye” for dialogue. (And it drives us CAH-RAZY to see bad dialogue in published books.) But we all have different strengths—and we all have things to work on and learn.

The barest basics of dialogue are the simple mechanics, in no particular order. (Because, hey, we all have to start somewhere!)

  1. Make it clear who’s speaking.
  2. As a corollary for #1, change paragraphs when changing speakers. (Not necessarily every time someone begins speaking—see #4.)
  3. Use actual speech attributions (verbs like “said”) sparingly, and default to the near-invisible said and/or asked as often as possible.*
  4. Use action beats to help identify the speaker (among other important purposes). Keep those action beats in the same paragraph as the speaker, and if you involve more than one character in the thoughts or beats, make sure it’s clear who’s speaking.
  5. Do not use action beats as speech attributions. Or, as Annette Lyon put it in a guest post here, Stop smiling words.
  6. Punctuate thusly (American style): “I can’t do this,she said. [comma, followed by a lower-case letter for the speech attribution]

    “But you have to.He rubbed his hands together. [Always a period there! Always a capital next! This is an action, not a way to speak.]

    “Really?she asked. [question mark, lower case for the attribution]

    He nodded. “Really, truly, Johnny Lion.” [Again, use a period for the action.]

    “But” [Em dash, no comma or period—but if this was a question, you would put the question mark in. Just to make it hard on you.]

    “No buts. I knowhe glanced around furtively—“you wish you weren’t here.” [Although this one may vary depending on the house style.]

*This is actually one I don’t particularly follow. A couple weeks ago, I read something I wrote ten years ago, and I found almost no speech attributions. In fact, I only used speech attributions if the way someone spoke was important—and couldn’t be conveyed through the dialogue (i.e. whispering, sarcasm, etc.). But I’ve also taken that too far, and sometimes it’s hard for my readers to tell who’s speaking. So I’m slowly learning to slip in those little invisible saids without twitching. Too much.

Tomorrow: what goes between the quotes!

Is dialogue one of your strengths? If so, share your best technique, trick or advice—in a guest post!

Photos by Leo Reynolds

Is this how people talk?

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Dialogue

If you don’t have a natural “eye” for dialogue—and, let’s face it, even if you do—reading your dialogue aloud is the best way to tell if your dialogue sounds natural. In her EDITS system, Margie Lawson suggests reading all of the dialogue in a chapter—and nothing else (on that pass).

As you read, ask yourself: is this how people talk?

The following examples have been exaggerated to protect the imaginary.

“At this juncture, I firmly believe, from the bottom of my heart, that it would be most beneficial for us if you would open the door, proceed down the hall, and retrieve beverages of your choice for our consumption.”

Is it too formal? Tone down the formal language, use contractions, and/or cut out some phrases. In fact, we use elliptic speech most of the time in conversation—sentence fragments that are easy to understand in context. Do your characters use too many complete sentences? (“Why, yes, yes they do.”)

[in chapter 2]
“Did you steal the diamonds?”
“You know, I just think we shouldn’t go assigning blame for stuff like that.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go for a walk.”
“I like walking.”

Is this too direct—or not direct enough (see #1 above)? Real dialogue doesn’t always follow quid pro quo. Sometimes we’re evasive, sometimes we try to be pithy or clever, and sometimes we spent more of our time formulating our response than listening. (Of course, that last one doesn’t come across so well in fiction…)

“As everyone in this room knows, if the timer reaches zero, we’ll all die.”
“Yes, Jenny the doctor, we will.”

Do they discuss things that they wouldn’t really have to talk about? If everyone in the room already knows something—from the time on the timer to the characters’ relationships to their shared histories—dialogue isn’t going to be a natural way to clue the reader in.

“What do you think of irrigation reform?”

“Well, I hadn’t ever really considered it, but now that you mention it, I can see that irrigation reform is not only necessary but beneficial to all parties. I mean, so many farmers hog all the water—pardon the pun—and we have to use that same water supply for all the farms as well as the rest of us. Not to mention the frequency of farm-related spills and water contamination.”

“Yeah, but considering that water rights are used for political ends so often, I think there’s an even more important argument for irrigation reform that you’ve missed. Let me explicate it for you over the course of the next seven pages. You may speak, but only in single sentences, preferably phrased as questions perfectly timed to introduce the next tenet of my argument. And please wait for me to finish my sentence before you attempt to speak.”

“Yes, of course. How are water rights used for political ends?”

Is it realistic? Real people seldom spout off prepared speeches—or let other people make them.

Next time: Is this how people talk part deux, in which I totally contradict myself sort of.

What do you think? What kind of things do you see included in dialogue that shouldn’t be?

Photos by Akuppa John Wigham and Gillie, respectively.

Is this too much like how people talk?

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Dialogue

All too often, it seems, I hear something that isn’t working in fiction justified because “that’s how it is in real life.” That may be, but fiction is not real life. Fiction has to be believable, consistent and have a point. Oh, and be interesting. I don’t think my life has ever felt like all four of those things at once.

Dialogue in fiction has to be all of those things, too—and dialogue in real life seldom is.

“Hi. How are you?”

“Good. You?”

“Fine. Really coming down out there, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Nah, I’m good. What have you been up to this week?”

“Not much. Cleaned the basement.”

Is it boring? Let’s face it—we all have conversations like the one above, probably several times a day. And yet there’s almost never a place for something like this in fiction.

Much of the time, we can skip to the heart of the conversation. We don’t need the warm-up parts—and including them may be a sign we’re starting the scene in the wrong place.

[27 pages of the above . . . aaaaaaaaaaand scene]

Boring multiplied, yes—but more importantly, there’s no point, no conflict here. Conflict is necessary—something most of us try to avoid in real life conversations. As Nathan Bransford says:

A good conversation is an escalation. The dialogue is about something and builds toward something. If things stay even and neutral, the dialogue just feels empty.

Dialogue in fiction is like a symphony or a theorem. (Sounds appealing, eh?) A symphony will develop musical themes and work to a climactic point (often with a literal crescendo). Similarly, a theorem builds on each previous fact to reach its apex, the conclusion. Extraneous arguments and points aren’t included. Well-known theories can be summarized (AAS for triangle congruity) (oh, come on, you remember eighth grade math, right?).

“Vanessa, you drive me crazy!”

“Shut up, Jerica! Or should I say Jerk-ica?”

“I swear, if you ever pull that kind of stunt again, so help me, Vanessa—”

Okay, that looks ridiculous, doesn’t it? And yet when we’re really upset in real life, we do use the other person’s name surprisingly often. (Or maybe it’s just me; I’m pretty sure I’ve argued with my husband by only saying his name.)

These jump out when we read fiction. I read a book six months ago where the author apparently didn’t know this (though it wasn’t his first book). Entire scenes of dialogue had the characters calling each other by name in literally every line of dialogue—sometimes up to three times in a mini-speech. Even non-writers commented on this in the online reviews.

What do you think? What else doesn’t belong between the quotation marks?

Photo by Adam Bindslev

Dialogue and what goes outside the quotes

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Dialogue

Okay, I’m still firmly of the belief that a class on dialogue should focus mainly on what goes inside the quotation marks. But that doesn’t mean that what goes outside the quotation marks doesn’t matter. It still does—especially since what goes outside the quotation marks can (and will) impact the dialogue’s effect on the reader.

For example:

“So, how are you doing?”

Jenna weighed the question. Did Brian really care? Sure, he leaned forward and lowered his tone, but with a question like that, it was a bit of a stretch to assume that it was sincere.

Then again, maybe he did care. He couldn’t have known how she felt, especially after the stresses of these last few weeks. Her grandmother’s beloved poodle had passed away at the beginning of the month and it had been a steady downward spiral since then: paying for the funeral, moving with Grandma to a new pet-free apartment, selling her old house, changing her address at the bank, transferring the utilities, and so on and so forth.

It was too much of a strain to put on a 17-year-old, or a 70-year-old, for that matter. Grandma’s memory had grown dimmer every day since her move. What if she couldn’t take convince a court she was a fit guardian at the end of the month?

“Been better,” Jenna finally said.

Okay, did you give up before we got to Jenna’s answer? When she finally got out of her head and back into the real world, did you even remember what the question was? At that point, Brian was probably thinking she wasn’t going to answer at all. (In fact, I envision him wandering off somewhere around the time the poodle comes in.)

This is a case of narration undermining dialogue. The dialogue isn’t actually important here (boooring), but the narration makes a bad situation even worse. Even the characters aren’t interested enough to keep up the conversation.


“How have you been?” Brian leaned forward. Was that a glimmer of concern she saw in his eyes?

He couldn’t know—and she wasn’t about to let him. Jenna gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Been better.”

We have to work to balance narration—be it description, internal monologue or action—and dialogue. That’s not to say they have to be equal—most of the time they won’t be. One element is going to be more important: the interaction between the characters or what’s going on outside the quotation marks.

And yes, sometimes the narrative is more important 😉 . In an action scene, for example, we don’t need a full conversation between punches. Here, extensive dialogue slows the scene down. In a verbal argument, however, excessive focus on the character’s thoughts or actions can have the same effect. On the other hand, we’ll probably need at least a little insight into the POV character’s thoughts as s/he argues, or the character will look like a psychopath, incapable of emotional connections and reaction. We also need to ground the characters in the setting and in general, so we don’t devolve into talking heads. And of course, gesture can be an important way to convey subtext (which we’ll talk about later this week!).

What do you think? How do you manage what goes outside the quotation marks?

Photo by buhreee

Enter late and exit early in dialogue

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Dialogue

I’m not even going to pretend to point fingers. I’ve fallen into this trap myself. “Hey,” I think, “I’m good at dialogue. Dialogue makes scenes go faster. Dialogue is a great way to show conflict and characterize and keep things moving. We’re supposed to show not tell, right? And readers like dialogue. So I’m going to show the entire conversation.”

And two thirds of the conversation is the exact sort of boring warm up we talked about last week.

Just like we need to do in our overall stories and in our scenes, we need to enter a lot of dialogue late and leave early. Skip the greetings and the small talk, and get out of there before the conversation dies out.

I found one way to avoid this in Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden. I’ve mentioned it before:

Flat-out editing can help—especially for phone calls. (Eesh. I hate those!) Roerden uses the example of a phone call from a novel where the protagonist is in her car, realizing she needs to get a clue from her husband. She’s already thought about the context—when they heard it, what bit of information it is exactly—so why show that in a phone conversation? Indeed, after the words “she called him,” the author skips right to the husband’s answer: “‘Yeah, I’ve got it right here. . . ‘”

We can do this in other types of conversations as well—jump into the scene once the dialogue gets to the good part. Like Elmore Leonard, we want to leave the boring parts out!

What do you think? Do you try to enter late and exit early in dialogue? When would you not do this?

Photo by Trevor Devine

Indirect dialogue

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Dialogue

Sometimes the ability to write good dialogue becomes a crutch. We feel like we should show all possible dialogue—but it’s just not the case.

Sometimes, the story—the pacing, the conflict, and most of all the reader—is better served by summarizing dialogue. This seems to be the case in stories where one character is telling another about actions the reader has already seen. Most of the time (unless we’re going for a Rashomon effect), the reader stands to gain nothing from rehashing an event that the other character needs to hear about.

It’s really not a sin to write something along the lines of “She related the whole story of X” or “He caught her up on the status of the battle.” If the POV character is the one telling the story, the reader probably needs very little cues. If the current POV character is listening to the story (i.e. we saw the scene from another character’s POV before this), we might get into some more detail with the POV character’s reactions and interpretations.

This might also work well if the readers haven’t seen the event in question—but they’ve already heard about it. For example, in a mystery, a detective or PI might interview half a dozen witnesses who all saw essentially the same thing. We definitely don’t need to see every single full conversation—the pertinent parts (like the details only one person saw, or the red herrings, or whatever) are all we need.

On the other hand, if the readers haven’t already seen the events being described, it might be better—and often less confusing and simpler—to write out the character’s full run down. If it turns into a speech, break it up into a conversation, or at least add reactions from the POV character. (I can’t think of a time the POV character would give one of these speeches. Maybe for backstory? Ack.)

Now for the third hand. I haven’t decided if I like this technique, but every so often, I see something like this:

Billy and I moved on to the next painting.

“That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.” He curled his lip in disgust.

Well, I thought he was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, and told him so. “And also, you stink. But most of all, your taste in art stinks.”

Now, this would never work for me if the second paragraph said Well, I thought he was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. “You’re the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. And also, you stink. But most of all, your taste in art stinks.”

But for me the jury’s still out on the first version. I’m a dialogue lover, so I would tend toward just putting it in dialogue, and cutting the “Well, I thought . . .” part—I mean, if you say it, the reader’s going to figure out that they’re thinking it, right?

What do you think? How does that example of indirect dialogue work for you? How else might we use non-dialogue for dialogue?

Photo by the Michigan Municipal League

What dialogue can (and should!) do

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Dialogue

Okay, this totally almost qualifies as a guest post. My friend, author Annette Lyon, mentioned the many purposes dialogue can serve in a comment here, and then on Monday, after a question from Kathleen, Annette posted about six things dialogue can/should do.

In a scene, dialogue isn’t just there to pass the time or fix the pace. Dialogue needs a purpose for the story, or it’s just fluff. Annette outlines six purposes dialogue can serve in a scene, to help us keep our writing (and the story) moving forward.

It’s hard to pick a favorite part of Annette’s post, but this is one paragraph that really made me think:

Sometimes, even the people we’re with affect how we say things. I know I’ve lapsed into an almost teenage-style of talking around friends I know from that era, while I’ll use a more formal register with, say, the school principal. When I’m talking with my sisters, I sound very different than when I’m talking to my kids. And so on.

Annette also gives good advice on what to do and what not to do when writing dialogue, and how to portray each of her six purposes in your dialogue. So check it out!

Subtext: it goes without saying

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Dialogue

Subtext is one technique I consider more advanced in dialogue and storytelling. The basic definition is an element that carries a second level of meaning. A symbol might be considered a type of subtext.

In dialogue, it’s when a character says one thing, but the reader can infer another layer of meaning. Maybe the character doth protest too much; maybe his gestures show her anger despite his reassurances that he’s okay; maybe the reader knows this character acts like he’s the one when she’s with her friends, but plays hard to get when he’s around.

As editor Alicia Rasley puts it (emphasis mine):

Subtext is like a gift to the astute reader, an additional layer of meaning implied by the text but not accessible without a bit of thinking. And it gives a chance for the writer to deepen the theme and characters in a subversive way, inviting the reader to interact and thus become more involved in the story. . .

Subtext exists all the time in real life, and so to do justice to our characters, we can create the opportunity for the reader to find shadings of deeper meaning in our stories.

You’re probably already doing this- I think subtext is nearly inevitable once you accept that characters have inner lives.

So, how can we use subtext in our dialogue? A few ideas:

  • Use the character’s body language to clue the reader in that something’s off. Some little tell in the character’s behavior shows us that he or she is shifty and untrustworthy when reporting a fact, covering insecurity when bragging, aggressive when saying something passive.
  • Use dramatic irony. The readers saw the hero pacing as he worked up his fragile ego to call the heroine. When we switch to her POV for the call itself, she doesn’t know that his cockiness (a major turn off for her) is all for show. This can also be applied on a “macro level,” as Alicia Rasley calls it. She cites the example of Casablanca being set just before Pearl Harbor. The audience knows the events that are coming though the characters don’t, and that adds another layer of meaning for the reader.
  • Dance around a topic. Make it clear there’s something the characters aren’t saying or won’t think about.
  • Carefully craft the dialogue. (I know: duh. Easier said than done.) Choose words or build phrases that can carry more weight. Split hairs. Have other characters misinterpret, seeing only through their own particular filter.

Alicia’s article on subtext goes in depth on these and other ways to craft more subtext into your dialogue and your story.

What do you think? How else do you convey another level of meaning in dialogue?

Photo by Ludovic Hirlimann