Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools any fiction writer can use. From driving your plot, to offering clues about your characters, well-written dialogue can make your story speak.
The Writers’ Academy tutor Dr. Barbara Henderson discusses all aspects of dialogue – including dealing with accents and avoiding common problems.
Whenever I work with writers on the Penguin Random House Writers’ Academy courses, I always find some who are anxious about writing dialogue. I’d go so far as to say it’s most writers who feel this way – some even go out of their way to avoid using dialogue as much as they can.
But this is not recommended. Our fiction reflects real life, even if you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi – and in real life, talking is one of our prime means of communication.
So I hope that this webinar will help you to appreciate the importance of dialogue, why it’s essential to get it right and what good dialogue looks like on the page or screen.
We can use dialogue in all sorts of ways in our writing – to show character, to drive on the plot, to inform the reader of something that they have to know. And if you are writing for children or young adults, then know that research has shown that younger readers often skip paragraphs of text to get to the passages of dialogue – because that’s where they feel the action will really happen and where the story will move on.
Dialogue is fast and pacy to read. It makes us ‘hear’ the characters speak, so it makes them feel more real and alive.
Even Anthony Trollope said, ‘The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel’ – and I am going to tell you the rest of that quote later!
So what puts us off? We fear writing dialogue that sounds dull and mundane; and we fear writing dialogue that doesn’t sound natural.
So I’m going to start off by discussing what the best dialogue should do – what its purpose is. And this should help you to deal with the first problem – of being boring. And then we will move on to how to make it flow better.
Dialogue should always do one of three things – or perhaps it does more than one thing at once:
First, it should show character. Maybe your character says something directly about what they always wanted – or, even better, maybe it’s indirect – telling someone they envy their family or their great job. This can tell us about their motivation – which is important for readers to know.
Second, it should drive on the plot.
TIP: Check whether the reader will still be able to understand the story if the passage of dialogue was removed. If not, then that passage has a purpose and you should leave it in. If it’s unnecessary – take it out.
Does it increase suspense or tension? Does a character say something that makes the other worried or drop a clue to the reader about a future event? Then leave it in. To give you a simple example, let’s say a child asks his mother when his dad’s coming home. And the mother doesn’t answer the question – instead she says something like, ‘Never mind Dad – I’ve made your favourite burgers for tea.’ The reader will guess that something’s up here and wonder where the dad is.
Perhaps the dialogue changes the character’s situation. If, in a novel, someone says, “You’d better sit down – I’ve got something to tell you” then as reader we say to ourselves, “uh-oh – what’s about to happen?” Almost certainly something that’s going to change the character’s current situation, if not their whole life.
One of the key things to remember when writing dialogue is that it is an excellent way to show conflict between your characters. Of course, in real life, we exchange pleasantries and small talk all of the time –probably the majority of our conversations are of this nature, in fact. But in fiction, that’s would be very dull to read – so keep that to the absolute minimum.
The most exciting dialogue is when your characters are in conflict with each other. One wants something – the other wants something different. You can do that even with an everyday conversation – I saw a good example recently with a writer on the course where her two characters were talking about what they might have for breakfast. One tried to impose herself on her partner by insisting she made him breakfast, even though it was clear he was irritated by it and just trying to make a quick exit. Dialogue was used to really good effect to show how these two people related to each other .So giving your characters conflicting goals can really increase tension – and the reader will understand that there’s trouble ahead.
Let’s go back to what Anthony Trollope said about dialogue. The whole sentence went like this: ‘The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story’. Keep that in mind!
I said dialogue should do one of three things but I have only mentioned two. The third thing dialogue can do is give information. Think of how Hagrid was able to tell Harry Potter a lot of useful back story when he first took him on his journey to Hogwarts. It felt believable, because Harry was full of questions – and it was a great device for JK Rowling to be able to impart that information.
Just be careful not to have a character tell another something they would already know, such as “Our brother Joe has gone to the doctor’s again. He’s been suffering from that cough for weeks.” This sounds stilted and unnatural. The sibling would know who Joe was and why he’d gone to the doctors – and probably where the doctor was, too.
Putting information clumsily into dialogue is sometimes called “expository dialogue” – in other words, dialogue containing too much exposition or information. Treat information with care in conversation – ask yourself how plausible it is that a character imparts that information in that way.
The opposite technique is a great idea: think about what’s not being said. You can have a couple argue about what to watch on TV – perhaps she wants an adventure film and he wants a documentary. And it tells us volumes about the state of their relationship. So using sub-text is a really good writer’s technique – and don’t worry, as readers are very smart. They will understand what’s going on.
One of the big worries about writing dialogue is that it can be hard to make it flow.
One of the first things I want to stress is that writers should avoid trying to find alternatives to “said”. It’s tempting – it’s a bit like being back at school when you were encouraged to use exciting speaking verbs like exclaimed or yelled or muttered. You can get away with one or two of these – but be aware that research has shown readers don’t really register the word ‘said’, whereas they notice those stronger ones and they can start to jar.
If you’ve ever read a passage in which characters all shout, opine, exclaim, roar, whisper or wail – you’ll know what I mean!
Another common error is to use a non-speaking verb to denote speech – such as “Look at him!” she giggled. In fact you can’t really ‘giggle’ and speak at the same time. So avoid all those things like laughed, giggled, spat, yawned etc. which are not speaking verbs.
Sometimes writers are tempted to use adverbs to denote how something is said. For example: “Get out!” he said angrily.
If you’ve had me as a writing tutor you’ll know how I feel about adverbs – they make me reach for my red pen. Why? Because they’re telling words, telling rather than showing the emotion of a character.
With “Get out!” there’s no need for an adverb as we can see from the words that he’s angry. And it’s better to use a bit of action or body language to show the emotion instead, such as “Get out!” He flung open the door.
TIP: Adverbs are those words ending in ‘-ly’ that come after a verb, such as quietly, angrily, nervously. Why not do a specific read-through of your work and strike out any adverbs. You will probably find that they were all unnecessary!
It’s a great idea to add in bits of action and description when you’re writing dialogue – this stops it from feeling too “ping-pong”, going back and forward in a sort of empty space.
Emma Darwin said: “For what it’s worth, I’d rarely let the speech run for more than a line and a half or so, without any necessary help.”
TIP: Go back through your passages of dialogue. Are there long stretches of ping-pong dialogue? Add in some action, body language or description.
Something else that makes dialogue flow better is to cut back as much as possible. Unless you really want to show that a character is particularly chatty or verbose, then pare it back so that you only keep the parts you absolutely need. Get rid of ‘redundant’ sections of small talk. Keep it natural by using contractions such as ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ rather than ‘can not’ and ‘will not’, as that’s how most people speak. And you don’t have to write dialogue in complete, fully grammatically correct sentences – as again, that’s not how most people speak. Just make sure the meaning is clear.
Another major problem for new writers is that all of their characters can sound rather alike. It’s a problem if your reader would not be able to tell who was speaking, with all the dialogue tags taken away.
So how can you make your characters sound different from each other? Authors use a number of tricks for this.
You can vary the length of their sentences. Perhaps one character speaks in short, clipped sentences when another talks at more length.
You can do this by knowing your characters really well. By knowing your characters, you will also know whether they would use a certain word – or perhaps it’s too intellectual for them – or whether if they’re a generally kind person they would say something sarcastic or snippy to another. Ensure their dialogue is in keeping with their personality and their background.
TIP: Eavesdrop on people’s conversations, particularly two people who are very similar in lots of ways: two office workers of a similar age or two teenage girls, for example. Note how they differ from each other. If you closed your eyes, how would you know which one was speaking?
Ask yourself who the character is speaking to. We all modify our speech according to who we’re speaking to: whether it’s our boss or our children or our best friend. So have the speech and the tone change accordingly.
TIP: Write a scene in which a character explains something difficult, first to their best friend and secondly to an authority figure such as a boss or a parent. How do they change the way they speak?
You can, if you wish, give your character’s little verbal tics or accents. But be very careful with this – reading too much in the way of an accent can be hard work for a reader.
If you’re ever read the novel of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting you will know what I mean: the dense Scottish dialect is very tough to wade through and a reader is likely to find themselves having to read it aloud to themselves. Contrast this with the opening to James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late:
“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head; then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.”
He just uses the occasional word – but we can really hear this character voice in our head. David Almond, for example, sets his children’s novels in the north-east of England but his dialogue is not full of Geordie words. Instead he uses the occasional word to give a sense of regionality.
With foreign accents, again, just the odd word or a different way of ordering the words in a sentence is enough to give a flavour – and by being careful like this, you avoid turning your foreign characters into comedy stereotypes.
FURTHER READING: Take a look at the best writers of foreign or regional dialects: Alice Walker in The Color Purple or Amy Tan in The Joy Luck Club. How do they convey the differences in speech and what can you learn from them?
What if you are writing historical fiction? This can cause new writers a lot of problems. We know that it’s hard to replicate the speech and conversational patterns of the past – if we’re writing in the long past, we don’t know how it would have sounded and even if we have a record – such as Shakespeare from the sixteenth and early seventeenth century or Oliver Goldsmith from the eighteenth – we’re asking an awful lot of a modern reader if we were to try to replicate it.
The best historical fiction writers these days have fairly modern-sounding dialogue. They just use the odd word here and there or they construct their sentences carefully to convey period. Avoid what Leon Garfield called “Gadzookery”!
And make sure to avoid anachronistic words or phrases! I remember a character in an early draft of my children’s novel The Serpent House using the phrase ‘turn back the clocks’. But that phrase didn’t come into use until 1899 – the exact year my novel was set – so it was unlikely that my character would have heard it.
TIP: Do read anything you can from the period you’re writing in, such as fiction from the time, letters or diaries. But remember you don’t have to reproduce them – you’re writing a novel, not a replica of a historical document.
FURTHER READING: Look at children’s historical fiction writing for good, easy to follow dialogue.
Try Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease.
Dialogue in fantasy novels can also cause writers problems. There’s a tendency to make it all very declamatory and medieval sounding.
But again – try to make it a little more natural and conversational, to avoid one of the biggest clichés in fantasy writing!
Now I want to mention a very important issue: punctuation. It’s always important, but especially so in writing dialogue. If you don’t get this right, it’s very hard for a reader to follow and understand your meaning.
There are some rules you simply have to follow: a new line means a new speaker, for example. So if you have a character sit down and then you have a line break before they speak, this will confuse a reader. But if a character has thoughts or action, then keep their speech beside them in the same paragraph.
Thoughts, by the way, do not have speech marks. You can put them in italics if you wish – this is something that comes down a publisher’s house style. And quite a nice technique to try is free indirect discourse, where a character’s thoughts are written so they sound almost like speech. For example:
Barbara realised she had turned up for the webinar without her notes. Oh no – could this day get any worse?
Jonathan Frantzen is a good exponent of this technique.
TIP: Get hold of a really good guide, such as The Penguin Guide to Punctuation.
Or keep a printed book open as you write and copy how they format it – noticing where there are commas and full stops, where the speech marks are and where the line breaks are.
What are the most common mistakes writers make with dialogue?
I think I have covered most of them, but they are:
Using too much boring, redundant small talk to sound realistic. Cut this out – it won’t be missed!
Telling, rather than showing – using adverbs and too many alternatives for ‘said’.
Using first names too often. In real life, we rarely use each other’s first names. Using them too often sounds weird – even a little intimidating.
Having characters sound the same as each other.
TIP: In your writer’s notebook, jot down snippets of conversation and practice writing in different character voices. And read it aloud! It’s very important for checking if your characters’ dialogue sounds natural.
You will always find writers who break rules and do it well. But with dialogue – know the rules and practice them first. And then you can experiment as much as you like!