Thanks for having me over, Kristen. I love what you’ve done with the drapes! And this is the first time I’ve been served my favorite coffee, Community Blend Dark French Roast with chicory—thank you!
Les was far too street smart to fall for the Free Candy van. But fortunately, he could be bribed with caffeine :D. Since many of you requested a post to teach you how to write great dialogue, I
unsuccessfully kidnapped recruited one of the Masters. Les Edgerton is a multi-published award-winning author and his craft books are a MUST HAVE. ALL OF THEM. Take it away, Les!
Dialogue is one of the most crucial elements of good fiction writing. For many of us, it’s also one of the toughest skills to master. Some writers have an instinct for writing great dialogue, but for others it takes hard work to achieve believable and interesting dialogue. But, no matter if it comes naturally to you or if you have to work long and hard to be able to create convincing dialogue, it can be achieved by almost everyone.
Because of space limitations, I won’t be able to cover everything necessary to achieve mastery, but will cover many of the main facets.
What Good Dialogue Isn’t—It Ain’t a Q&A
The worst form that a dialogue exchange can take is in the form of a Q&A. That: “Hi, how are you?”
“Fine, how are you?”
“Good. How was your day?”
“It was great. I went shopping and bought a new pair of shoes. What’d you do”
“Oh, I watched TV and took a nap in the afternoon.”
And so on, ad nauseum. On-the-nose dialogue. One of the worst forms it can take. Dialogue becomes even worse when it becomes an info dump. Try always to avoid direct question and answer responses. It’s one of the biggest killers of effective dialogue.
Dialogue is one of the elements in fiction that require lots of “white space” to work well. White space in this discussion refers to what is not on the page. The most important component in great dialogue isn’t so much what’s on the page but what isn’t.
The very best dialogue consists of the subtext. Successful screenwriters realize this probably better than anyone. In fact, one of the chief reasons screenplays get a pass instead of a consider is that the dialogue is couched in Q&A format.
One of the requirements of good dialogue is that it gives the appearance of real speech, not that it imitates it. Real speech is full of ers and ums and hesitations and going off on tangents and dozens of other elements that, if included would destroy its effectiveness.
Listen to a court reporter’s transcript of a trial or better, listen to the taping of criminals when they don’t know they’re being recorded. It’s almost impossible to sort through all of the extraneous baggage real speech carries. Fiction dialogue has to be much, much better than real speech and the aim is only to give the illusion of real speech, not to transcribe it the way actual speech is delivered.
Look at how two people who know each other well converse. It’s chockfull of subtext. Not to mention body language and facial expressions and other physical clues that inform the speech that can’t be delivered on the written page, at least not without coming across as cluttered at best.
Notice how people “talk around” things—especially those topics that are emotional landmines. They’ll say everything but what’s really on their mind. The proverbial “elephant in the room.” That’s subtext. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what subtext is is to provide an exercise I give my classes on that very thing (tomorrow). Writing teachers might find it useful in teaching dialogue.
Other Dos and Don’ts of Good Dialogue
1. Actor’s Business
Don’t give your characters what they call in the stage play arena, “actor’s business.” Don’t have your characters rubbing their noses, lighting up cigarettes, raising their eyebrows, wiping perspiration off their brows… unless it contributes to the scene and represents something other than just giving them something to do with their hands.
Basically, don’t just write things in just to vary the narrative. It’s obvious, it’s amateurish, and it does nothing but make the reader aware someone is writing the story, thereby interrupting the fictive dream.
2. Info Dumps
Don’t use dialog to provide info dumps. In other words, don’t have characters telling each other things they both already know. Real people don’t do that and neither should your characters. Find other ways to deliver necessary info and not via dialog. Also, it just sounds plain dumb… kind of like one moron talking to another moron.
3. Use “Said” for Your Dialogue Tag Verbs, 99.9% of the Time
This is very important. The word “said” has been used so often over the millennia, that it’s no longer seen as a word by readers, but almost as a form of nonintrusive punctuation. As a word it’s become invisible.
Using said for just about all of your tags allows the dialogue to work unimpeded and won’t make the reader aware that a writer is at work, which they’ll realize when they start seeing synonyms for said. Using other synonyms is a red flag to editors who realize they’re reading the work of an amateur and one who hasn’t kept up on the conventions of contemporary fiction.
Those synonyms also include verbs like asked, replied, answered and the like. The reader sees clearly that it’s a question or in reply to a question by the punctuation used and/or from the content or context of the dialogue. About the only exceptions to the word said are verbs such as whispered, shouted, yelled and the like.
And whatever you do, don’t use dialogue tag verbs that are physically impossible! Don’t have your speaker chortling words, for instance. Try to chortle a sentence out loud and you’ll see what I mean.
And don’t feel you have to use dialogue tags for every speaker, every time. Use emotional clues, physical clues, the context of the speech to identify the speaker as much as possible. But, do be sure the speaker’s identity is clear. There’s nothing worse than a reader in the midst of a longish exchange who suddenly doesn’t know who spoke the last line and has to stop and backtrack to figure out who’s speaking!
4. Use Contractions in Your Character’s Speech
Nobody speaks with perfect speech, not even Princeton professors. We all use contractions in speech. Nothing sounds more wooden than perfect speech. The only exception is when you intend to portray the character as a pendant, but I’d be careful even there. Such a character will quickly become boring.
5. Don’t Phoneticize Regional or Cultural or Racial Dialects.
The days are long gone from when Mark Twain phoneticized Jim’s speech. Not done these days. Today, we use an occasional idiomatic word or occasional particular syntax to convey a particular dialect. A word or two used judiciously is all that’s needed. The reader will fill in the blanks in their minds.
6. Don’t Include Housekeeping Details and Minutia in Your Dialogue
In phone conversations, for example, only include the one or two sentences that are important to the story. Don’t include the character dialing, or answering or hanging up the phone. Just end the conversation and only include the truly important dialogue and summarize the rest.
We just don’t need to see the “hellos” and “goodbyes” or the mundane social chatter some calls include. And then end the conversation with a bit of important speech. Don’t show them hanging up. As readers and people who talk on phones often, we kind of know they hung up the phone…
7. Read Authors Who are Renowned for Their Dialogue
Read those writers who are acclaimed for their superlative dialogue. Folks like Elmore Leonard. There’s a reason they have these reputations. Study what they do that makes their dialogue come alive and incorporate those techniques into your own efforts.
There are many other techniques to creating great dialogue, but space restricts how many I can cover here. See you tomorrow for Part Two!
Hope these help!
And, thanks, Kristen, for letting me visit. It was a gas!
Thanks, Les! And we will see you again tomorrow for Part TWO. I love hearing from you guys, so please ask questions or give us your thoughts. Maybe some suggestions for other authors who have amazing dialogue or just a quick THANK YOU to Les for stopping by to help.
ALSO, stay posted because Les is an instructor for WANA International and will soon be offering classes about how to begin your novel–HOOK them in and NEVER LET GO. I will announce when his class is open for registration.
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
Note: Due to Easter holiday/anniversary…okay video game marathon, I will be choosing March’s winner later in the week, so stay tuned.