Learning the Basics of Dialogue

000000Engaging in Dialogue

by Miss Katz

Writing believable dialogue can make or break a story. By the time you finish reading this article, you will understand good dialogue rules… and when you can break them.

Dialogue is an essential part of every story. Properly written, it will move the story forward, bring characters to life, reveal their quirks, and engage your readers.

The Encarta World English Dictionary defines dialogue as “the words spoken by characters in a book, a film, or a play, or a section of a work that contains spoken words.”

Dialogue has several functions:

♥          To express through conversations what the reader must know so they can understand the character’s actions, motivations and thoughts.

♥          To convey character which shows the reader what kind of people make up the story.

♥          To give the reader a sense of time and place through speech patterns, dialect, vocabulary and rhythms of certain kinds of people.

♥          And finally to develop conflict.

Effective dialogue is all about the natural flow of conversation. Sticking to the rules of grammar will make your character’s speech stilted and dry. Dialogue should flow as easy as conversation between two old housewives gossiping over a fence. Here are some simple guidelines.

♥          People speak in partial sentences and phrases.

♥          They don’t always speak with proper grammar.

♥          Use words and word patterns that reveal your character’s age, gender, region, ethnicity and/or historical time period.

♥          Give your characters individuality and personality through their spoken words.

♥          Write dialogue as you hear conversations in real life. Too much description can be very distracting. To avoid this over zealousness, keep it simple.

Let’s look at the scene between Mammy and Miss Scarlett in chapter five of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

“Now, Miss Scarlett, you be good an’ come eat jes’a lil.  Miss Carreen an’ Miss Suellen done eat all dey’n.”

When you watch this kind of scene in a movie, it is good acting, but when a reader has to wade through pages of it, it’s plain murder. Try reading “Brer Rabbit” some time!

Far and few between are times when an experienced author should write this type of language. Irish brogue, for example, is a monster to read. Stay in the well-defined terms of simple dialogue and your readers will thank you.

While it is true that people talk for hours on end without stopping to admire scenery, it doesn’t work that way in writing stories. As a general rule of thumb, you should insert a break that describes scenery, setting, or builds a character every three or four paragraphs of dialogue.

Use good taste in your dialogue. Long scenes of children arguing won’t keep your reader interested, although children do argue in real life.

To write believable dialogue, sit in train stations, buses, or a restaurant and listen to people talk. Take notes when you can (keeping in mind that you’ll stay healthier, longer, if they don’t see you doing it).

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How to Write Dialogue Tags

Advice for Setting Up Meaningful Story Dialogue

by Deborah Owen

Dialogue tags are the short insertions that identify the speakers in a written conversation. Without them, the reader would be lost.

Dialogue tags are quick signposts that keep the reader on the right path. When you change paths to another speaker, it is not always necessary to place a tag. Sometimes you can use characters’ speech patterns and the natural flow of conversation to identify a change in speakers.

Modern style dictates that all dialogue tags identify the speaker first, and then the action. In other words you should write, “Jason said” rather than “said Jason”. If you are selling your work, little things like this show you are up on the latest writing trends.

Don’t use tags such as, “Jack said mysteriously,” or “Crystal said wryly.” Avoid the use of adverbs that end in –ly. Stick to the same ole, same ole, mundane, “Jack said.” The reader’s subconscious mind will pass over this without realizing they have read it.

Readers expect to see tags. They flow with the story and don’t distract from the action.

When you introduce conversations into your stories, narration and exposition will become dialogue. And with that change will come an exchange of emotion, pace, conflict, and the actions of the characters as they progress through the theme.

Challenge yourself to give life and energy to speech. If you want to know what natural dialogue sounds like, quit talking and listen. Eavesdropping will become your best friend. Eavesdrop everywhere you go. Restaurant talk is fabulous. That is conversation at its best!

Can you hear what your character would say in your mind? If you can’t, you don’t know them well enough. Make a list of 50 things about your character, and you will know him/her inside out. When you can hear them speaking in your mind and can view them as real people, it will be easier to hear their normal conversation.

Always address the following questions:

  • Does the dialogue reflect the speech of real people?
  • Does it bring the reader into the emotion of the scene?
  • Does it flow naturally?

The most common failing of authors is to write meaningless, or too much dialogue. The reader’s mind requires frequent rests to absorb the action and for that reason, you need to break the dialogue into groups and sprinkle short scenes of settings throughout. You can do this with just about anything.

Avoid conversations that are one or two-liners, like this:

“How are you?” Jane asked.

“I’m doing good,” Jack said.

“So, what’s new?”

“Not much.”

This kind of conversation is boring and has no purpose. Dialogue should provide backstory, add to the character, reveal a clue, further the plot, or introduce new material. If your dialogue is there just to make conversation, edit it into something useful.

What is your favorite way to use dialogue? Let us know in the comments below!

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