Sure, everyone has heard the basics: don’t overuse names; don’t rely on cutesy dialogue tags (“he chortled”); avoid clichés; use contractions; observe grammar and punctuation conventions, and of course—show don’t tell. If a guide to anything involving writing doesn’t throw that last bit of golden advice in, it’s not worth its weight in—gold? (That’s what I get for using a cliché.)
One of my pet peeves as an educator is that so often writing advice is framed in either very specific and suffocating “do not” statements or obnoxiously vague “do” statements.
In contrast, this post will offer some specific dialogue considerations I’ve gleaned by reading thousands of student essays, participating in numerous critique groups, and most of all, revising my own work. I’ll also attempt to frame my advice in the positive.
Tip 1. When writing dialogue, you are always balancing authenticity vs. readability.
Your job as an author is not to write “exactly how a character would speak.” It’s to represent, with a good degree of authenticity, the cadence, features, and timbre of realistic speech. To do this, imagine that your characters’ genuine spoken words are revised and improved before being offered for public consumption.
Here’s an example of a passage in need of revision:
“Huh. I guess.” Jake said, sipping his coffee. He thought for a while. “I never thought of it that way before. But now that you say it, I can see that I should probably have believed my sister when she told me that guy was stalking her. Wow. What a creep. I just thought she was a drama queen, as usual. Just looking for attention.”
Honestly, I was bored just writing that. But that’s what first drafts are for—discovering our story and thinking through what our character would authentically say in a certain situation. Upon revision, we want to make speech less realistic but more interesting and succinct. As writers, we’re fascinated by wading through our characters’ streams of consciousness. Our reader probably wants to keep their socks and shoes on with the condensed, polished version. After removing redundancies and qualifiers, the result is:
Jake nodded before sipping his coffee. “I should’ve believed my sister when she told me that creep was stalking her. I just thought she was being a drama queen, as usual.”
Many beginning writers, and even those popular writers whose publishers greenlight in a hurry, use repetitive dialogue. But if your characters are essentially saying the same thing twice, choose the most effectively phrased version and nix the rest.
Ex: “I don’t know,” he said. “I really haven’t had much of a chance to suss it out.”
The second statement contains the idea presented in the first statement. There’s no need for both. And “really” already qualifies the verb, so you don’t need “much of” also.
“I really haven’t had a chance to suss it out,” he said.
Tip 2. Make sure your characters speak distinctly from each other.
Here’s a scenario I’m faced with often since I write mostly YA and MG: three or more teens in the same age range, in a café. Our speech patterns often vary based on education level, age, and region, but in this case, likely these demographics are similar. Now let’s move away from YA—what if you have several characters all from the same region of your fantasy world? In either case, how do we make sure their speech is not interchangeable?
Quicker strategies for distinct dialogue: diction, accents, easily identifiable vernacular, slang. Remember, if you choose these options you need to be consistent for 80,000 plus words. You also need to avoid lapsing into stereotypes and clichés. If your character has an actual speech impediment, you’ll need to work hard to balance readability vs. authenticity.
More in-depth strategies: characterization, motivation/situation (these of course overlap)
Who asks questions? Who gives orders? Who tries to lighten the mood with jokes? Who demonstrates confidence, insecurity, irritability, joy, sarcasm, or hopefulness? Who would be interrupted, and who would do the interrupting? Who usually controls the conversation/situation? Who is quick to apologize or qualify? Who needs to show off their knowledge? Who sits back to listen in a group conversation? Who likes to give advice? In short, does their speech accurately represent the elaborate characterization you’ve developed for them?
Who wants the subject changed? Who might be hiding something, glossing over something, fooling herself, or rationalizing? Who’s stressed out by conflict, and who dives headlong into it? Who is preoccupied? Who is having an emotion specific to this scene’s conversation—exhaustion, exultation, despondence, blind faith, boundless optimism? In short, does their speech accurately represent each characters’ motivation and backstory?
Who just got caught having an affair and is likely really defensive? Who hates weddings and is surlier than usual inside the tent? Who got stung by a bee and is trying to pretend he doesn’t need his epi pen? Who needs to take charge during this kind of crisis? Who falls to pieces when they see the furry spider? Who has been waiting to say, “I told you so” about her mother’s kitten-kicking addiction for ten years?
I recommend a mix of both speech pattern and characterization strategies, but as you can see, dialogue inspired by characterization reflects a deeper understanding of your characters’ complexities, and thus inevitably results in a better story.
Tip 3. Find your patterns and break them. (I’m probably going to tout this rule in every post on craft). Do you always use speech tags at the end, beginning, or middle of a sentence? Do you constantly follow speech with action, instead of the other way around? Is your dialogue frequently interrupted by action? Do you often use speech tags and action tags for the same dialogue? No one strategy is better than another, but mix them up so the writing doesn’t feel repetitive. Worse yet, it might even look repetitive, and if the reader stops to notice a pattern of text vs. white space, you’ve lost their attention.
Tip 4. Some things are less interesting when told through dialogue (I’m trying really hard to frame this in the positive!)
It’s uninteresting when characters think out loud for too long to work their way through a problem or examine their thoughts. Avoid monologues and speeches in fiction. I’ll let the brevity of this entry speak for itself.
It’s also uninteresting when characters too frequently stammer, hedge, stall, or say, “um,” “er” or “well.” Sure, you want to use those occasionally, but don’t aim for realism here. If you use these common expressions repeatedly, they’ll carry little weight. When your confident British detective protagonist is truly stumped and says, “Erm. I don’t know yet,” we want that “erm” to mean something.
And for the love of god, avoid “like,” and “you know.” Although they’re realistic, they’re flat out annoying in real life! Just like the neighbor’s dog barking as I write this …. Use “like” and “you know” very sparingly, if at all. We all say it, but we don’t want to be reminded.
Tip 5: Avoid small talk. Small talk is boring and unnecessary unless you’re constructing it in such a way as to further plot or characterization, in which case, it’s probably not small anymore. Sure, it works in “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that’s a short story predicated on the idea that small talk hides a big secret, and if we had to listen to the couple bicker for more than three pages, we’d put down the book. Trust the reader that you don’t have to give every conversational exchange or blow by blow. It’s understood that if a character orders food at a drive through, a verbal exchange ensued.
Tip 6: Too much sarcasm or skepticism is a turn off. Save the dry comments for when they’re really funny, and don’t assume that making your character constantly irritable translates to a real personality. Not only is sarcasm cliché, especially in YA, but it’s boring to read after a while. A sarcastic voice is funny when the sarcasm stands out and is surprising, not when it’s the norm and we’ve become clinically depressed by reading it. A good friend pointed out this error in one of my own works, which is why I’m coming down so hard on it!
Exercise: Pick at least three characters for whom you have a good understanding of their personality and motivations. Write them into a scene, or take a scene you’ve already written, and try to remove all the speech tags. I’m not saying you need to keep your scene this way, but the exercise will force you to develop new strategies and apply the techniques above. Make sure to share it with a friend. Can that person tell who’s speaking?
(Thanks for being my audience! Writing this post—thinking this through—is bound to make me a better teacher and writer.) I’d love to hear your feedback on how the exercise went for you!