Writing Dialogue

Creating good dialogue is probably one of the more challenging aspects of writing.

Dialogue has to feel authentic – the kind of things the characters should say to one another.

It also has to be relevant and necessary, conveying the greatest amount of information to move the story forward, yet within the smallest amount of words necessary to do that.

And it should really not sound like two humans talking in real life.

Humans in real life do not talk like characters in books.  Think of book dialogue as a much more condensed way of saying whatever it is that people would say to one another in real life.  Hit the highlights, keep it relevant and authentic, and make it interesting enough that someone will read through it.

Every character should have a “voice,” and their voices should be as easy for the writer to grasp as the reader – because if the writer can’t distinguish these voices from one another, neither will a reader.

Good dialogue can move a story forward and add depth, or simply add nuances – little brushstrokes that fill out a character.  And what characters say to one another, and how they say it, goes a long way toward tying the elements of a story together.

A common pitfall of dialogue is to over-use it to “explain” things.  There’s nothing wrong with a character in the know who informs other characters – as well as the reader – about a new wrinkle in the plot and what it means.  That’s partly what dialogue does best.  But there’s a fine line that can get broadly crossed when a character launches into a tell-all soliloquy.  With dialogue as with much else about writing, sometimes less is more.

Dialogue should flow well.  Anyone who has written dialogue should make sure that they read those sections aloud with great attention to how it actually sounds.  To be honest, the entire manuscript should be read aloud.  You tend to catch problems throughout a manuscript when you read it aloud that you wouldn’t otherwise notice – awkward phrasing and stilted sentences being typical.

Dialogue should be dramatic, rather than melodramatic.  The latter has hints of falseness that many or most readers will pick up on, and the only question will be how forgiving they’ll be.  Every writer has sifted out some less-than-perfect dialogue.  If it’s just a bump in an otherwise smooth road, a reader will probably hesitate, and then move on.  If all or most of the dialogue is melodramatic – there’s a problem.

Dialogue needs brevity because people get tired of reading long, boring he-said, she-said back and forth.  You can write a scene for an entire one-hour meeting with just a few lines of dialogue – if those pieces catch the highlights.  And you can make up for the empty space by prefacing with a short descriptive paragraph establishing the meeting, and something along the lines of:  “Everything had been going smoothly, with all in agreement, until the subject of X came up.”  And go from there into enough concise dialogue to get the point across – and no more.

Regarding the use of dialogue tags (“said” and “asked” being the main ones) – some lines of dialogue will not require any tag whatsoever.  There will often be back-and-forth exchanges where it’s obvious to a reader who is saying each line.  Eliminate tags for any portions of dialogue where this can be safely done without any confusion.

Until the last few decades, you often encountered the “expanded” range of dialogue tags – with such examples as “exclaimed, inquired, declared,” and a multitude of others.  You should typically use “said” in almost all cases – other than when omitting tags entirely.  “Said” can even be used in place of “asked” most times and a reader won’t pay much mind.  When you’re reading, you tend to skip the familiar filler of “said” while eyecatching variants like “blabbered” make you pause, possibly not in a good way.  The main exception would be any declarative sentence ending in an exclamation point.  “Said” doesn’t translate too well in those instances.  Either use no tag at all – since the exclamation makes it clear how the dialogue is being conveyed, or use a simple “yelled, shouted, or screamed.”

There really isn’t much wrong with a now-and-then sparing use of a few of the alternatives – as long as their ability to convey how something is being said is very necessary and cannot be inferred from context alone.  And these alternatives should be common ones, not the inventive variety (see “blabbered” above).  So “whispered” is pretty straightforward, as is “blurted” or “demanded.”  The goal is not to impress readers with the writer’s ability to use a creative abundance of tags.  The goal is to make the dialogue flow in the reader’s inner voice and not to distract with unusual tags.

There’s been a movement the past few decades to wage all-out war on adverbs.  Apparently (heh – used an adverb), some writers were over-using adverbs and a consensus arose to try to veer in the other direction.  There are some writers who will eliminate every adverb in their work, stomping them out relentlessly (heh – used another one).

Part of this backlash probably (another one) stems from excessive use of adverbs to modify dialogue tags.  “he said slowly,” “she said softly,” plus many inventive adverbs that seem designed to impress a reader with the writer’s grasp of obscure adverbs.  Just as every piece of dialogue does not require tags, and almost all dialogue can get along quite well with just “said,” so can most dialogue do quite well by not using an adverb to qualify how something is being said.

I don’t see anything wrong with sparing use of adverbs.  I’m not in the “all adverbs must be eliminated” crowd.  Nor do I necessarily (ha – did it again) think they’re just a cop-out from using the “right verb.”  Writers – including most of those considered great – have produced works over the years that are generously (did it again) filled with adverbs.  And somehow for all that time, people didn’t have a problem.  But again, part of that is because what was once reasonable became excessive.  Plus, writing rules change over time.

The problem with the backlash is that it can lead to making some text more wordy than the compact adverb once allowed – which sort of flies in the whole face of the “eliminate excess words” rule.  You can certainly say, “I’m sorry,” he said softly. to contrast the normal tone a conversation has taken up to that point when it’s necessary to convey how you see that scene unfolding.  Or you can do it this way – He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I’m sorry.”  Or some other variant.  Since over-use of adverbs originally stemmed from some writers’ desire to showcase their creativity, asking a writer to creatively (did it again) bend text into a pretzel to avoid every single adverb may be missing a point.

I do feel adverbs should be used sparingly (or “in a sparing manner” or “as little as possible,” for those who don’t mind replacing “sparingly” with four words.).  But again, I don’t see the need to eliminate them entirely (once more, for the road).  I’ve studied three languages aside from English, and grazed through others, and I feel that language is meant to be used and not avoided.  When you have a toolset, use the tools in it.  Just remember that a hammer doesn’t have to be wielded for every job.  And adverbs are like a hammer.

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