Friday, February 25, 2011

Dialogue Mechanics, part one

Here is the meat and potatoes of writing - dialogue. Good dialogue will not only move the plot along, it also lets us get to know the characters in a deeper way.

The first thing acquisitions editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission is dialogue. A quote from Browne and King's book says, "The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn't work, the manuscript gets bounced. It it's good, I start reading."

Characters come alive - or not - when they speak. But it's not easy to put the right words into their mouths. You don't want to write dialogue in the same way you talk, with lots of ums and uhs, but you still want it to flow and feel natural. There are tricks to avoid if you want your dialogue to read like the work of a professional instead of an amateur.

Something we tend to do is called "resist the urge to explain" or RUE. We don't even realize we're doing it. Here's an example:

"You can't be serious," she said in astonishment.

If you're like most beginners, you write sentences like this almost without thinking. What could be easier than simply telling the reader how a character feels? If she is astonished, just say so. It saves all sorts of time and trouble, right?

But it's lazy writing. And it patonizes the reader. Remember, "show, don't tell?" Having the character say, "You can't be serious" conveys astonishment. There's no explanation needed. When you explain something that needs no explanation, you're writing down to your audience.

Another thing; "You can't be serious" has a formality and coldness to it. You could also say, "You've got to be kidding!" Or "You pulling my chain, dude?" Who is your character? Male or female? What is their age? Where are they in society? What genre is your book? All these things come into play when writing dialogue.

So, take a look at your dialogue and see if you're explaining what the dialogue has made clear. Then let the characters speak for themselves. If you're not sure, give us an example and we'll talk about it.

Next week, we'll look at dialogue tags and beats.


  1. This is a topic I've read a lot about in books and in blog posts. I've read lots of arguments for three basic approaches.

    1) Just use 'said', maybe 'asked' or 'replied' once in a while.

    2) Don't even use 'said' very much - just put the dialog in and don't assigned it to a person if the context makes it obvious.

    3) Use lots of descriptive words like whispered, gasped, and yelled.

    I had been moving more towards number 2 in my own writing, then my son (7th grade) came home with a writing assignment. He was suppose to writer one page of dialog with out using the word 'said' even once. I figured the teacher was trying to get them to use number 2. I was excited that maybe I had pick something that my son's teacher might agree with.

    However, in talking with him it became clear that she was pushing them towards #3. She wanted them to only use descriptive words instead of 'said'. I bit my tongue and let him write the paper the way the teacher wanted.

    Here is an example of the tree ways.

    Bob walked across the room and sat next to his daughter. "Hi Jill," he said, "I hope you're doing well."
    "Yes dad," Jill said, then she smiled."

    Bob walked across the room and sat next to his daughter, "Hi Jill. I hope your doing well."
    Jill smiled. "Yes dad."

    Bob walked across the room and sat next to his daughter, "Hi Jill," Bob exclaimed, "I hope your doing well."
    "Yes dad," Jill smiled.

    Of course the last one doesn't even make sense because you can't smile words, but I've seen dialog written that way.

    I can't wait to see where you are going with this. THere are lots of cans of worms you could open.


  2. Yes, Doug, we'll be talking about this very thing next. I teach writing workshops to kids at the public school and I tell them writing for a school assignment is very different than writing for publication. They're learning the basics in school and school books are not focused on writing for an editor. But with the things I teach them, they can increase their chances of a better score on state/national testing.

    I do love a good discussion, so I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone thinks when we deal with tags and beats.

    Thanks, Doug!