Writing Dialogue

Today for Writing Wednesday at the library, we’re talking about dialogue.  This can be tricky to write sometimes.  How much is too much?  How much is too little.  I tend to rely more on dialogue, because I’m not as strong with setting.  One of the first things I recommend to people is to think about writing a play or a script.  In a play, there’s no exposition, no narrative voice or tone.  It’s what the characters say that move the story forward.  So how does that work?

Dialogue reveals something about the story or the situation.

As with everything in writing, dialogue should move the story forward.  What a character says or doesn’t say reveals something.  If a vampire comes on scene and your main character says, “Oh, not again,” that tells you that she’s faced vampires before and, in fact, thinks they have become a little tiresome.  But if your character starts stammering or maybe says, “OK, take out the plastic teeth,” that tells you something else.

Dialogue should add tension.

While it’s important to have realistic dialogue, there’s a difference between ordinary dialogue and interesting dialogue.  In real life, we have to work through social pleasantries before we get to the meat of conversation.  But in fiction you can spice things up.  Would you rather read about two people making small talk?  Or perhaps one person is confronting the other?

It doesn’t have to be straight forward.

While dialogue should reveal, it doesn’t just have to be backstory.  In real life, people make snide comments, and that tells us about your characters, too.  Interruptions, commentary, and exclamations all add to interesting dialogue.  Everyone has their own agenda, so even if your character is looking for answers, other characters might be trying to get in her way.

There should be beats between dialogue.

Essentially, what makes characters are reactions.  And sometimes your character might react by not saying anything at all.  You also want to give your characters beats to react internally.  Just like in real life, your characters may be saying one things and thinking another.  This is one way to add tension.  It also helps to slow down the scene.

Said is silent.

The best way to tag dialogue is with the word said.  Tags are really only there to tell us who is speaking, and said is generally invisible to the reader.  Use too much of sighed, exclaimed, grunted, groaned, and more, and you will draw your reader away from the action of the scene. That said, sometimes “he groaned” is the perfect word choice.  Just use it sparingly.  This advice goes for adjectives after said as well.  I love adjectives possibly a little more than the next person, but used too much and they become tiresome.

EXERCISE: Try writing a scene in only dialogue.  This means you won’t be touching your character’s internal reactions so much, but it’s just an exercise.  For the beats between dialogue, write them in like you would in a play [beat].