Making Dialogue Work for You

Proper dialogue will bring your characters to life, but poorly executed dialogue can kill your characters, and no amount of clever exposition or narrative can revive them.

Because dialogue in a manuscript is easy to spot, a potential reader can quickly skim your story and judge your writing skills. If you want to sell your book to that reader, you’d better make your dialogue work for you. Here are some pointers.

1. Use incomplete sentences. When we speak, we often use clipped sentences. Listen to other conversations and you will see what I mean.

2. Eliminate chit chat. Check out this piece of dialogue.
“Hi, Jane. It’s good to see you. How are you?”
“Good thanks. You?”
“Oh, can’t complain.”
“Anything new in your life?”
“No, just the usual.” Blah, blah, blah.

BORING! Yes, we often speak like that, but it will make a reader slam your book shut and put it back on the shelf. Chit chat words are empty words and they take up valuable space and time.  Good dialogue is purposeful. It reveals and helps move the story forward

3. Long dialogue speeches usually don’t work. Unless the speaker is giving a lecture, it is nearly impossible for the second party of the conversation not to cut in and add his own opinion. And doesn’t it drive you crazy when one person talks and doesn’t let you get a word in edgewise, sideways or upside down? I does me.

4. Even when the dialogue is simple, there is always a way to add interest and a hint of conflict (which also adds interest). Compare the following two dialogue snippets:

“Did you hand in your assignment?” Mr. Ericson asked.

“Yes, I put it on your desk this morning,” Mark answered.

“Oh right, I remember now. I hope you edited it,” he said.

“Yup, I always do” Mark said.

“Good then,” Ericson continued marking papers, while Mark waited. “Was there something else?” Ericson asked.

“Yes, I was wondering why you gave me such a poor mark on my last essay.”

AND now the second snippet:

“Did you hand in your assignment?” Mr. Ericson asked.

“I put it on your desk this morning,” Mark answered.

“Edited well?”

“Like always.”

Erickson continued marking papers, while Mark waited. “Was there something else?”

“Why did you give me such a poor mark on my last essay?”

THE second piece is more interesting because:

a. some of the cooperative words (“Yes”, “Oh, right” and “Good then”) were eliminated.

b. a question was answered by asking another question.

c. some dialogue tags were removed.

DID you also feel a wee bit more tension or conflict in the second passage? Conflict keeps the reader reading. It doesn’t have to be an out-and-out fight.

5. Dialogue tags (he demanded, she murmured, he pleaded, etc.) can often be eliminated. Tags should only be used when it is unclear who is speaking. There are ways to get around using tags.

a. Use an action to show which character is speaking, but be sure the action suits the dialogue. If a character throws a pot across the room, he isn’t likely to say, “I love you.”

b. When there are only two people talking, just by starting a new paragraph, the reader will know there is a new speaker.

c. A character’s style of speech will reveal who is talking. “Aye, he was a mighty fine lad.”

6.The best dialogue tag to use is “said.” It disappears on the page, unless the page is peppered with it. That would be a no-no.

7. A character cannot laugh dialogue. “And then he fell off his chair,” he laughed. “I knew he was drunk.” This needs to be changed. How’s this? “And then he fell off his chair,” he said, laughing. “I knew he was drunk” Or: “And then he fell off his chair.” He laughed. “I knew he was drunk.”

8. If you want a character to hiss something, you’d better have some “ss” sounds in the sentence. It’s pretty hard to hiss this comment. “That man killed my uncle.”

9. Don’t overuse proper names in dialogue.  Here’s an example of name overuse.

“Tell me, Jim, what were you thinking?”

“To tell the truth, Bill, I wasn’t. I just reacted.”

“Then may I suggest the next time you get yourself into such a predicament, Jim, think first.”

“Bill, you’ve got my word on it.”

THIS might be a good time to do a little name dropping. Really, as in drop the names from this dialogue!

EMPLOY a few of these techniques and you will soon be a dialogue dynamo!

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Becky Lower
    Oct 17, 2013 @ 23:15:33

    Carol, This is so well-done, I’d like to send it to our RWA chapter newsletter editor and possibly include it in our newsletter. With your permission, and of course, with proper credit paid to you.

    Let me know.

    Reply

  2. andrearcooperauthor
    Oct 18, 2013 @ 02:34:59

    Love your post and examples.

    Reply

  3. Elke Feuer
    Oct 18, 2013 @ 14:16:43

    This is a great post, Carol! Very thorough with great examples! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  4. michellejoycebond
    Oct 19, 2013 @ 06:57:50

    Soooo with you about removing dialogue tags!

    Reply

  5. Carol Ritten Smith
    Oct 19, 2013 @ 18:45:31

    Thanks for reading my post, ladies. Hope I reinforced what you probably already know.

    Reply

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