A Conversation about Dialogue

I was in a two-session writing from prompts workshop recently and one participant mentioned that he was scared of writing dialogue. He didn’t like it and thought he wasn’t good at it. Turns out he wasn’t as awful as he thought and with some tips and encouragement, he began to feel more confident, even two short classes. His fear is not uncommon among writers I’ve met.

I love writing dialogue. I love to get into my characters’ heads and hear what they have to say and how they say it. So when I read a novel, short story or I critique a friend’s work, I’m particularly persnickety when the characters converse.

Here are a few of the points I keep in mind as I read and write, along with some cheesy, over-the-top made up dialogue examples.

Contractions in Action
Have you listened to yourself talk lately? My Five Writers colleague Emilia gave you permission to eavesdrop. I’m giving you permission to talk to yourself. As you become aware of your speech patterns, you may notice a few things. For one, you probably use a lot of contractions. For the most part, your characters should, too.

“I don’t want to go to the gym today.”

“Those aren’t grey hairs. They’re highlights.”

“We’ve passed that log four times. I think we’re lost.”

Unless your character is very formal, has a particular personality trait or educational background, or comes from a country or region where they’re not likely to use contractions, dialogue can sound very stilted.

“I do not want to eat the mashed potatoes.”

“I cannot read this without my glasses.”

“We have seen the Statue of Liberty. It is green.”

However, if your character is angry or impatient, you can imply the emotion through the uncontracted form along with their behavior.

“Do not touch that remote, Billy. I mean it.”

“I cannot tolerate her attitude, anymore.”

“We have tried to reboot, and it didn’t work.” (Sneaky one! “We have” conveys frustration. “it didn’t” goes back to casual conversation.)

Read your characters’ dialogue aloud, and if it doesn’t sound like it flows naturally, like you would hear in an actual conversation, rewrite. Get out of writer mode and get into actor mode: perform the parts out loud, feeling what your characters want to express. You may be surprised at what they tell each other. I’m talking in terms of contemporary fiction. If you write historical fiction or another genre in which characters may speak with a different syntax or use words we rarely hear today, you can still read aloud and act out the parts, but you’ll need knowledge of and a feel for the language of the period or location.

Refrag the Defrag
Okay, even I don’t understand that sub-head, but it cracked me up when I wrote it. Point is people speak in fragments. Spout phrases. Words all chopped up and not always in full sentences. Even if one of your characters goes off on a rant, they’re likely to sputter, stop and start then pick up momentum again.

“What you want me to do with the pony?”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“The pony. The one you bid on.”
“Yeah. Where’s your trailer?”
“There must be a mistake.”
“Michelle Remington?”
“Pony’s yours. That’ll be two thousand dollars.”

Uh-oh! Identity theft at the horse auction! Not the most stellar or compelling dialogue, but you get the idea.

A terrific tidbit I learned in a workshop (I think George Singleton taught it) is that people often don’t answer questions outright. So dialogue can take many twists and turns and each one reveals something the reader needs to know—which brings me to my next topic.

Avoid the Tell-all Character
Dialogue is not meant to convey narrative. However, it should reveal story, give insight into the characters or move the story forward. Huh? Isn’t narrative story? Well, yes. Check this out.

“I know you are my sister and we grew up together in a broken down house in a broken family, where mom and dad fought day and night and you hid in the closet behind my pink tutu, but that doesn’t give you the right to bud into my marriage to Ted, the best plumber in town who secretly wants to run for mayor and ogle interns.”

That is not dialogue, certainly not natural sounding dialogue, unless you’re doing a parody of a really bad soap opera. I haven’t made an improv correlation to fiction in a long time, so I’m due.

In improv, we’re creating characters and story simultaneously and spontaneously. I like to write like that, too, though, most times, I have a character vaguely in mind at the start. When your characters speak to each other, allow them to make assumptions and let your readers fill in the gaps.

“Saw your husband’s truck parked at Sara’s.”
“Another leaky faucet?”
“Don’t start.”
“That’s what Momma used to say when Aunt Lora came over. Asking questions. You know, the day after?”
“Like you would know.”
“Oh, I knew. I heard it all. Every word. Every night.”
“Ted and I don’t fight like that. It’s different.”
“Let’s go away for a weekend. The two of us. Like when we used to go up in that tree house out back at Aunt Lora’s.”
“Right. We’ll bring our Barbie dolls and have a pretend tea party.”
“I was thinking more like tequila.”
“I have to get dinner started.”

Of course, this lacks stage business, which would give further insight into what these characters are saying and sometimes even more important, what they’re not saying or what they really mean. If you want to read a great short story that’s written almost entirely in dialogue, check out Dorothy Parker’s “You were Perfectly Fine.”

Oh, one more thing. When I ran spell check on this piece, I kept getting the “fragment” grammar warning. It’s kind of like the GPS lady continuously annoying me with her “Recalculating,” alerts. We’ll get to grammar at another time, but dialogue plays by its own set of rules. It’s music: rhythm, tempo, melody, cadence. Listen to it. Speak it. Enjoy every word.

So let’s get a dialogue going. Share how you approach this craft in your own projects.

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  1. #1 by jarviswrites on November 13, 2012 - 11:02 am

    And here I thought that I might need to be committed because of how much I talk to myself… Turns out, I was just being writerly!

  2. #2 by wordimprovisor177 on November 13, 2012 - 11:57 am

    LOL! Yes, Jennie! It gets some odd looks from my dog and…uh people in my neighborhood, but hey, humiliation is a small price to pay for writing your story. 🙂 “Eccentric Writer-Lady in the Woods.” I wear that title proudly.

  3. #3 by Lisa S. on November 13, 2012 - 11:05 pm

    Great stuff, Darlene!

  4. #4 by virgowriter on November 18, 2012 - 10:13 am

    I now want to read the story where the characters pass the log.

  5. #5 by wordimprovisor177 on November 18, 2012 - 10:54 am

    LOL! I’ll have to write it! 🙂 The true story associated with that line is I was riding in Old Westbury park on LI with a friend and I was sure we were lost. She insisted we were not, but I recognized the log and said so! We were going in circles. When we let the horses have the reins, they got us back to the barn in no time. Boring, so I’d have to change it up, maybe make it some absurdist flash story. 🙂

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