dialogue

Many beginning writers find dialogue daunting, so they try to avoid it, by not bringing their characters on scene. However, there are a few simple ways to strengthen the conversations your characters have, and make them believable to your readers.

Lewis Turco, in his book, Dialogue, gives an example of weak, overstated dialogue:

“Hello,” he croaked nervously, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been watching you for about an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.

Turco calls this an example of author intrusion—the reader is over-guided, and the illusion of reality is lost. Here are steps to avoid unbelievable dialogue:

  1. When giving dialogue attribution, generally use “said.” Occasionally you may use “added,” or “replied.” The “he said” and “she said” fall into the background—they guide the reader, but do not intrude.
  1. Sometimes tags (another word for attribution) aren’t needed at all. If the person speaking is already identified in the paragraph, you can eliminate tag, as in this example from my novel-in-progress:

Moss’s heart turned to stone in his chest. “Aw, jeez, no. Please! You know how I feel about this dog. I worked hard to save her; I want her to be my dog now.”

  1. Allow the strength of writing to eliminate most adverbs, such as “nervously,” “uncertainly,” and “blushingly,” in Turco’s example. Your readers are smart! If you handle dialogue well, they will glean subtleties that are only implied on the page. You can show those same adverbs with body action, instead.  For example, instead of “blushingly,” you could say, after the dialogue, Her face pinked up, or Her hands jumped to her face, now hot. Something like that.
  2. When you have a long stretch of dialogue, you don’t need to identify (tag, or attribute) who is speaking each time. Hopefully, each character has a unique way of talking that is identifiable. Include tags now and again, as in the example below #5.
  3. Start a new paragraph each time the dialogue switches to the other speaker.

In the following example from my own writing, notice how little attribution is used, or required, to guide the reader:

“Mr. Moss?”
“Carol?” A man’s resonant voice.
All her life, people had mistakenly called her Carol. “No, it’s Carolina.” She hated when people were careless with her name.
“Just Moss, no mister. Have you lost a dog?”
“Yes! Oh my God, have you found her?” Unsteadily, she slid down to sit on the floor.
“Describe her,” he said.
“Do you have her?”
“Tell me what she looks like. I have a right to make sure she’s your dog.”
“Let’s see. She’s impossibly tall and skinny, with a wiry, gray coat. Her hair hangs over her eyes. What else do you want to know?”
“Her name.”
“Zephyr. Her name is Zephyr. Do you actually have her with you?”
“It’s your girl. She needed surgery, and I’ve been nursing her.”
“What happened? When did she get hurt? We need to come, right away. My daughter’s been frantic.”
Pause.
“Daughter? How old?” His voice had stiffened a bit.
“It’s her dog. Rowan’s eleven.”
“Nope.” Lengthy silence. “You can’t bring a child here.”
His tone was implacable and … something else she couldn’t quite place.
“What do you mean, I can’t bring my child?” Carolina’s voice rose. “Are you a pervert or something?”
“No! Good heavens, nothing like that.”

Strong dialogue is much sparser than the way people actually speak—and yet it is the spare quality that makes it seem real. Also, dialogue is strongest when it illuminates conflict between two people, and avoids the trivial patter that is found in much human conversation.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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