Back to Advice.
Dialogue is an important aspect of a fictional story. And one of my favorites to read and write! Like any writing technique, there are dos and don’ts involved, good examples and bad examples, and some guidelines. Below is what I’ve discovered about dialogue.
Why use dialogue?
- Interesting to read – we all love to eavesdrop on conversations. If you’re a writer, it's a job requirement. :)
- Advances the plot by giving information.
- Increases the pace of the story.
- Shows character. You can learn a lot by listening to someone speak – their age, emotions, thoughts, views, background etc.
-> Dialogue is a great way to give the reader needed information about the plot or characters. Mysteries use it all the time when the detectives question witnesses and suspects. It is also useful when something important happens off-screen when the main character isn’t there to witness it.
-> Here’s an example of giving information in dialogue from my book, Magic Study. In this scene Master Magician, Bain Bloodgood is explaining to Yelena why her mentor, Irys is so upset by giving Yelena information through dialogue.
“But you are not in the north anymore. Here you have friends, colleagues, and others to guide you and to help you. Sitia is very different from Ixia. No one person rules. We have a Council the represents our people. We debate and decide together. This is some thing you need to learn, and Irys needs to teach you.
When she [Irys] understands why you acted as you did, she will not be so upset.”
“How long will that take?”
Bain smiled. “Not long. Irys is like the volcanoes in the Emerald Mountains. She might emit some steam, spit some lava, but she is quick to cool. She probably would have visited today, but a messenger arrived from Ixia this afternoon.”
“A messenger?” I tried to get out of bed, but my legs wouldn’t hold my weight. I ended up on the floor.
Bain tsked at me, calling Hayes to help me into bed.
When Hayes left, I asked again, “What messenger? Tell me.”
“Council business.” The magician made a shooing motion with his hand as if the entire topic bored him. “Something about an Ixian Ambassador and his retinue requesting permission to visit Sitia.”
An Ixian Ambassador coming here? I mulled over the implications, as Bain, anxious to translate the killer’s tattoos, hastened to leave the room.
“Bain,” I called as he opened the door. “When are the Ixians coming?”
“I do not know. I am sure Irys will tell you when she comes.”
-> While dialogue can be used for imparting information, you have to be careful of the dreaded info dump and the “As you know, Bob” syndrome. Info dumps are when your character starts to sound like a professor lecturing in front of a classroom in a monotone.
BORING! Big chunks of info in fiction should always be avoided. Instead, drip in this info through dialogue, internal thoughts and narrative. I use the rule of three for most things. Three tidbits of info and then move on (same with physical descriptions – three things max so you don’t stop the story with a head to toe physical description).
-> “As you know, Bob…” is another dialogue no-no. If both characters already know the info then there is no sense repeating it in dialogue. Instead, give some new info. For example: “As you know, Bob the Queen is coming to town.” Bad! Instead, try: “Bob, what time does the Queen’s flight arrive tomorrow?” Better.
And also avoid using names in dialogue – most people don’t say the name of the person they’re talking to more than once (unless you’re a certain host on a home improvement show who drives me crazy with saying the person’s name constantly!).
-> Dialogue increases the pace of the story. Open a novel to any page. What do you see? Lots of black lines? Big blocks of text? Or do you see lots of white space? Lines of dialogue? Which is more compelling to you as a reader? My answer is the white space and dialogue.
Those pages are easy to read and go quickly, and before you know it, you’re turning pages –rapid-fire plot, action and information. Look at the books that are called “page turners.” See how much white space you find in comparison to blocks of text. Interesting isn’t it?
-> Here’s an example of how dialogue can up the pace in your story. In this scene, Yelena has a knife to Cahil’s throat – she has woken him and surprised him in the middle of the night.
“Don’t move,” I said. “Your sword is out of reach. I’m not that stupid.”
“So I’m learning,” he whispered.
I felt him relax.
“What do you want?” Cahil asked.
“You stop trying to drag me to the Citadel in chains and I’ll accompany you there as a fellow traveler.”
“What do I get out of the deal?”
“You get Goel back and my cooperation.”
“You have Goel?”
I dangled the manacles’ keys over his face.
“How can I trust you when your brother doesn’t trust you?”
“I’m offering a truce. So far, I’ve had two opportunities to kill you. You’re a real threat to Ixia. If I were a true spy, your death would make me famous in the north.”
“And if I renege on this truce?”
I shrugged. “I’ll escape again. But this time, I’ll leave Goel’s dead body behind.”
“He’s a good tracker,” Cahil said with pride.
“If I say no to your offer?”
“Then I’m gone, leaving you to find Goel.”
“Yes.” I bluffed.
“Why come back? You took care of Goel. He was the only threat to you.”
“Because I want the chance to prove that I’m not a spy,” I said with frustration.
-> Show character traits by writing dialogue that rings true. Have the character speak in their voice and not the voice of the author. How to do this? Word choice is very important. See the dialogue examples below about a dirty rug:
- ”That is filthy. It ought to be cleaned.”
- “That needs washed.”
- “That’s gotta be cleaned.”
- “That needs a washing.”
- “Nice. Sandblast that thing.”
- “Yuck. I’m not touching it.”
Can you imagine a different character for each dialogue? The first one sounds like a snotty upper class woman, the second is a regional dialect in Central Pennsylvania (they avoid the verbs “to be”), the third is a city dweller, the fourth uses a regional dialect from Maine, the fifth
is a wisecracking young man and the last is a kid. Each sentence gives the same exact information, but by paying attention to the words used, you can give both information and character!
-> Here are a few guidelines for dialogue:
- “Use quotes around the dialogue.”
- Each speaker gets their very own paragraph to avoid confusion.
- If using dialogue tags (he said, she said) use a comma – “I’m sick,” he said.
- Avoid using adverbs with your dialogue tags – “I’m sick,” he said loudly. Bad. Instead: “I’m sick.” His loud cry echoed in the bathroom.
- If you have only two people talking, you don’t need dialogue tags for every exchange.
- What for tags that are impossible – “I’m sick,” he hissed. Can you really hiss and talk? No. Instead, write this: “I’m sick.” He hissed. Make it two sentences and use a period after sick.
- Use action instead of the tag – “I’m sick.” He vomited into the toilet. No tag necessary.
- Avoid small talk – having two characters discuss the weather is Boring!
-> Done right, dialogue can work double time for your story. Not only are you showing character traits, emotions, you’re giving information and increasing the pace of your story. So one day your book with be reviewed as a bestselling “page-turner!”