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7 Dialog Basics That Can Help Tighten Our Stories

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I’m currently in the middle of judging entries for a national contest for unpublished writers. One of the basics I’ve been evaluating in the various entries is dialog techniques. I started jotting notes of some of the same issues that kept cropping up as well as areas I wanted to make sure I’m addressing in my own stories.

I came up with 7 dialog basics. They’re NOT hard, fast rules, but more like good principles we can apply in order to tighten our stories.

1. Don’t over-address characters in the dialog.

Over-addressing people makes dialog sound stilted.

Mother, won’t you please pass me the salt.”
“Oh, thank you, Mother.”
Mother, you’re such a dear. I just couldn’t live without you, Mother.”

We don’t constantly address people in real life. And in our dialog we need to be careful with how often our characters use each other’s names. Sometimes I throw in a name for dramatic effect or so that I can clarify to whom the person is speaking. But usually during editing I eliminate most (not all!) the names within dialog that aren’t absolutely needed.

2. Don’t forget to use contractions.

If we don’t use contractions, our dialog begins to sound too formal and unrealistic. Yes, even historical writers need to use contractions. In fact, when I was writing the first draft of The Preacher’s Bride I tried to avoid using contractions that weren’t yet “invented." But later during editing, I changed them to contractions because it was difficult to read.

If we have a good reason for not using contractions (whether for historical accuracy, voice, or formality of certain classes), readers aren’t going to know or care. They’re only going to know it sounds awkward. Sometimes I might give a formal character one or two un-contracted word (like "cannot") as a tag, but then I try to use contractions for the rest of her speech.

3. Don’t have large paragraphs of monologues.

In real life, we usually don’t speak for ten sentences straight without stopping (unless we’re monopolizing a conversation!). We say a sentence or two, take a break, and let someone else have a turn. Dialog in our books needs to stay succinct and our paragraphs short.

4. Don’t let dialog monopolize other story elements.

This is often referred to as “talking heads” where two people converse back and forth with nothing but dialog between them. In short bursts, this technique can work, especially in more tense, fast-paced scenes.

But most of the time we need to intersperse internal narration (the character’s thoughts and feelings) along with action beats and setting details that can bring the scene to life. I always like to have my characters acting out some aspect of the plot and talking at the same time. I try to intersperse important details amidst the talking so that my readers still feel grounded in the setting.

5. Don’t blatantly convey story information within dialog.

I give myself the rule that I won’t intentionally use dialog to convey story information (usually backstory). But if the information comes up organically during a conversation between characters, then I allow it. I also ask myself: Would my character really say this? Or is she saying it for the benefit of the reader? If so, then I need to look for ways to weave that information in elsewhere.

6. Don’t use dialog tags unless necessary.

By dialog tags I’m referring to words like: said, asked, repeated, shouted, whispered, etc.

We should always strive to make each character’s dialog sound unique. But there will still be plenty of times when we need to use tags, and the preferred mode is “character said” (in that order and with as simple a tag as possible). The reasoning for the simplicity is that it’s almost invisible in the story flow to the reader and therefore allows for a smoother read.

I often use an action beat before or after a line of dialog to help clarify who’s speaking. But we don’t want to stick random action beats in either, having our characters scratching their heads, nodding, and sighing every few minutes just to identify their dialog.

7. Don’t include chit-chat.

Our readers don’t need to know everything that happens to our characters in the course of the story. Yes, our characters will go to the bathroom at some point in the book. But unless it’s part of the plot we don’t need to include it. Right?

And the same is true of dialog. Our readers don’t have to have a word-by-word replay of an entire conversation. In other words, we need to cut out the chit-chat, the fluff, and get right to the meat of what’s important to the plot.

I rarely have my characters greeting each other, answering yes or no to questions, or chatting about peripheral issues that aren’t absolutely necessary to the story.

Summary: As I mentioned above, none of these are strict rules that will cost you a publishing contract. If your story is well-told and riveting, agents and editors won’t be counting your dialog tags or contractions.

But if we work at smoothing out the rough spots and tightening our prose, we make it all that much easier for others to fall in love with our stories.

What do you have the most trouble with when writing dialog? Have I missed any “rules” that you think are important for modern writers to consider when writing dialog?

35 comments:

  1. Good tips! I struggle with talking heads and over-addressing people. Still working on all that!

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  2. Ugh... Dialogue is the hardest part of writing for me. For some reason, I can't quite make it realistic. So then I try too hard to incorporate contemporary dialect, and... ugh (again)... it sounds all wrong. I'm always impressed when I read a novel with sharp conversation, yet it's like this intangible for me. I know it (good dialogue) when I see it, but I can't wrap my head around how to write it into my own story. :(

    Thanks for theses basics. I'll be checking back here to see what others suggest, too.

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  3. I'm posting this on my wall today. I'm editing and rewriting and need to be paying attention to every one of these things. Thank you!

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  4. This is great. Thanks so much for the reminders.

    Teresa

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  5. Hi Jody,

    I realized after I finished the first draft of my WIP that I rarely used contractions during dialog (part of my "day job" consists of writing reports and contractions are a no-no). I had to go back, re-read every line out loud, and make the necessary changes. It was a valuable lesson. Now, when I'm writing something new, I'm mindful of this. I still read everything out loud.

    Thanks for your post and advice!

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  6. I struggle to reduce the ten lines of dialogue to three! It becomes harder when I know my characters like to talk a lot.

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  7. I always know I'll learn something new when I read your posts!

    It's good to know what a judge finds consistently wrong when judging a competition, so hopefully I don't make the same mistakes. It makes me curious, why do we all tend to make the same mistakes, especially when we're new at writing? Interesting.

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  8. Great stuff Jody. This gives me something concrete to do today as I work on my manuscript.

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  9. I have a tough time sometimes making dialogue feel natural between characters. I also have a tough time with knowing when it is ok to actually use a few tag lines.

    Great tips, thanks!

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  10. Emily, I just counted how many times I used a dialog tag on a single-spaced page of my current WIP. And I only used "he said" once on an entire page, and I used it as clarification and only because there wasn't a natural beat for me to use at that point. I'm sure some pages have more than one. But overall, I use sparingly. I also suggest browsing through a book by an author you love to see how they handle the dialog tags. That may give you even more ideas since I'm definitely not claiming to be the expert on dialog! :-)

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  11. Great tips!

    With the monologue issue, I find you can sometimes get away with the character saying more if you split it up with an action beat.

    Also, reading dialogue out loud can work well for making sure each character isn't going on too much.

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  12. Gabrielle, I think the longer we write, hopefully the better we get at writing tighter. But I still have to consciously go through my manuscript during the editing phase and tighten some of the things I mentioned in the post!

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  13. This is such a helpful post, Jody. It will be Bookmarked and pondered, with some note-taking involved. It all makes such good sense, but is hard to remember when writing.

    Thanks so much!!

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  14. Great tips, Jody! I like what you said about contractions. I've noticed some historical books skimp on them, so it was interesting to see you mention the historical accuracy of it. I agree that in those instances, a smoother read will make for happier readers than accuracy. :)

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  15. Good points all! Most say my use of dialog comes across realistic and believable despite struggling with #4 (overusing it--especially in short stories.)

    Thanks for the reminders!

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  16. Great reminders, Jody. Dialogue talks are something I constantly watch for. I like clean dialogue, but I'm always worried a reader will get lost in the conversation. I try to use action tags when at all possible.

    And very true about contractions. They are a big part of cohesive flow.

    Thanks!

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  17. Great tips! All things I've struggled with at one time or another, especially the over-addressing!

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  18. Thanks for this solid, concise list. I'm e-filing it away for future reference. Good stuff!

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  19. EXCELLENT post, and one I wish I'd read and taken seriously before I wrote my book (would've saved so much time editing!).

    I also wish several MAJOR published authors would read this! I find myself internally editing what I read because these things jump out at me now.

    Dialogue tagging is SO important right now. A crit partner told me this and I chose to ignore it, sprinkling tons of "saids" in there and doing sentences like "Get out of here," I said, turning to stoke the fire.

    My editor/agent helped me shorten things, eliminating those extra "saids" and replacing w/action. For instance (not the best example, but here we go), "Get out of here!" I turned to stoke the fire.

    It helps to read recent books (like yours, Jody!) and get a feel for how dialogue is done now. It sure isn't what we learned in HS/college.

    And the contractions are something I use, even in historical fiction. I figure, these people were smart like us, why wouldn't they have shorter ways of getting their points across (I can hypothesize a bit more b/c my time period doesn't have loads of documented writings). But it's easier to read, and makes us feel closer to the characters.

    Tweeting this for sure!

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  20. These are such excellent suggestions, Jody! I've learned many of these techniques from reading great books (yours included!)

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  21. Great advice, Jody. I tend to catch a lot of this stuff on my second, third, even fourth or fifth pass over a finished manuscript. A cooling off time of a few weeks or months makes them stand out so much easier, and I'm amazed at how few dialogue tags are needed.

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  22. I don't know what you'd call it...but when writing dialog I tend to start off with WELL, OH, BUT etc. Later it's easy to go back and delete, but not sure why I tend to start dialog that way.

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  23. Great tips!! I sometimes forget to insert action or he/she said so that no one knows who's talking.

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  24. I LOVE writing dialogue...maybe too much! There's plenty of action interspersed, but I've always leaned toward mostly dialogue with setting, action, and introspection filtering in and around the dialogue.

    I agree that tags should be used sparingly, although I think about audiobook recordings, too, and use more than I might if not taking that into consideration: most audio performers don't do full-out different voices for each character; they might shade the voice a bit differently, but not always. For audiobook listeners, it might be worth having a few extra tags. Just my two cents!

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  25. Great post - and thank you for defining 'talking heads'. I have seen the phrase used and I'm old enough to remember the band, Talking Heads, but didn't really know what it meant (except that I knew it didn't mean the band).

    I'm interested in your point about the use of contractions in historical fiction. I understand your logic, but still think authors have to be careful with the use of vocabulary in historical fiction.

    For example, I've just finished reading a book set in the 1530's which uses very 20th century words like 'moxie'. I found that while the words expressed the correct sentiment, the words themselves pulled me out of 1530 and the world the author had created. I found this quite distracting, especially in dialogue. What do you think?

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  26. Excellent points! I'm especially fond of #5. Sometimes it's difficult to find ways to organically include backstory or physical description, and dialog is an easy out. But it has to make sense in the context of the scene and the conversation.

    Another terrific tip I learned is speech cadence. People don't talk in complete sentences most of the time, nor do they stick with one thread unless it's hugely important. People flit between ideas, stop and start, interrupt each other. Now, some of that has to be cut down for the reader to be able to follow, but it also needs to sound like real people.

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  27. Thank you Jody! Having someone else read my dialogue helps pinpoint where a tag is needed. I always know who is speaking, but someone outside my head doesn't, and that gives me helpful feedback!

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  28. Julia, Yes! I was going to bring that up earlier about having others point out to us where they were confused by lack of dialog tags. So thanks for bringing that up. Sometimes if we par down our tags too much, we need others to point out to us where they were confused and then we can add a few tags or action beats in to make it clearer who is speaking.

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  29. Iola, I agree. Aside from contractions, I don't think historical writers should use words that weren't "invented." I know words have slipped into my manuscripts inadvertently. But I try to catch all I can, and my line editor tries really hard too. Most online dictionaries will even tell when a word began to be used, so when in doubt I always look up the word. Same thing is true of slang words and cliches.

    But obviously, we can't replicate the exact speech patterns of those times. In my 1600's book, if I'd tried to replicate exactly how they spoke, my book would have sounded like one of Shakespeare's plays. And modern readers wouldn't be able to wade through it. So, like I mentioned, I take a few words from the time period and flavor the speech with them. But I definitely don't add in futuristic words (at least on purpose!).

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  30. Definitely great tips. Recently I've been curing my tendency for buried dialog.

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  31. Thanks for the advice. I find dialogue one of the most difficult parts of fiction writing (along with description, characterization, plotting etc.!).

    "Talking heads" are my biggest problem. I always have trouble finding meaningful things for characters to do between lines of speech. Having them act out some aspect of the plot and talk at the same time is a great idea.

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  32. All such good advice, Jody! I blogged on Savvy Authors my top 3 Do & Don'ts (okay, not 7, but still...) and people wrote me that they were shocked when I say not to lean on questions. If you have lots of "?" in your dialogue (or in your MS), you should revisit. They move the story backward, much like backstory, weaken characters, and subconsciously break the reader from the flow of the story. It's a great one to catch in the editing process.

    Anyway, loved your blog and your site:)
    Regards,
    Christine Fairchild

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  33. Great post! I'm judging at the moment too and one thing I've noticed is quite a few writers have a deep connection to using the ! mark. e.g. "Hi Jill! Isn't it a lovely day today! I'm having such a great time at your party!"

    To me that denotes someone either yelling, or saying something very emphatically. I don't know many people who yell in every day conversation so I advise writers to only use it occasionally so it has impact.

    My big problem with dialogue is that I get carried away with a great conversation between my characters and get to the end of it and realize that a witty and interesting as it may be it does nothing to move the story forward!

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  34. Christine, over-using questions can be a problem too. Especially as you said, putting too many together all at once. Thanks bringing that up! I was just judging an entry that did that very thing!

    And Kara, you're right about the exclamation points. I think most people know not to use exclamation points within the narration parts of our stories, but in dialog we can get away with it from time to time, but definitely should be used sparingly.

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