Keys to Superb Dialogue

by P.C. Zick

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Dialogue in fiction is essential, and good dialogue is crucial. Nothing kills a book for me like poor dialogue. The plot might be intriguing, the characters worth getting to know, and the setting gorgeous, but if the dialogue is stilted and poorly executed, I’m ready to put the book down. I want to read and write dialogue that sings.

Here’s my best advice on dialogue: Use it, but do not abuse it. All writing benefits from strong dialogue. It moves the plot along, and it develops character better than any other technique in the writer’s toolbox. However, many novice writers abuse it by not understanding how to write it.

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about writing dialogue.

Learn the mechanics of dialogue. This helps the reader understand. Some contemporary authors are trying new techniques for displaying dialogue with novels, but it only confuses me and causes me to pay more attention to the punctuation or lack of it than to the pleasure of reading a story. Here is a correctly punctuated line of dialogue:

“Leave me alone,” she said.

Avoid dialect to characterize characters. It only detracts from the reader’s understanding. It’s been done superbly, but unless you know you can do it, leave it alone. I attended a writer’s workshop several years ago with Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek, a book set in the Appalachian Mountains one hundred years ago. He said rather than use the dialect of the time and setting, he had the characters use certain words that gave their speech distinction rather than using gonna, goin’, ‘bout. For instance, the character would most likely use the word “fetch” instead of “get.”

Do not put a “he said” or “she said” after every line. If two people are speaking, it becomes clear to the reader which character is speaking the alternating lines. Interject after several lines to remind the reader. Here’s an example of two characters, Simon and Caroline, in conversation in my novel Trails in the Sand:

“No easy days in sight,” Simon said.
“That’s very true, but we’ve weathered worse,” Caroline said.
“Like the time we capsized the canoe and lost our oars?”
“I have never been so cold in my life.”
“You should try ice fishing in Pennsylvania in January. Then tell me about cold.”
“That’s just unnatural and the very reason I live in Florida.”
“So you wouldn’t move back to Pennsylvania with me?” Simon asked.
“Not on your life,” Caroline said.

You can go for a bit without using the names and “he said/she said,” but don’t go too long without injecting it or the reader becomes lost. I read a novel recently where they didn’t use any designations about who was speaking. The reader was left to guess who was speaking. It guessed me right out of continuing to read the book

“He said” and “she said” are the best to use, if not overused. Do not add qualifiers, such as “he said with a smile on his face.” Also, don’t use adverbs to describe how it was said: “Leave me alone,” she said sternly. Write the dialogue so it is clear that the speaker is smiling or speaking sternly. Let your words show the story without you telling the reader.

Leave out interrupters such as “Well,” “uh,” “um,” etc. It slows down the reading.

Listen to others speak. We rarely speak in complete sentences. Listen to the differences in speech patterns with different speakers. Try to distinguish your characters by their speech. Perhaps there is a phrase they use or a way of speaking that not only distinguishes their speech, but also creates characterization. However, be careful with this technique. If it’s overused, you’ll surely annoy the reader.

Read your dialogue aloud. Would real people speak in the way that you have written it? Using the dialogue of real people is certainly easier than fictional characters, if you really listen to them. We usually create characters that come from composites of real people, so why not create dialogue that comes from real people as well.

Your goal in writing is to make the reader forget they’re reading. You want them lost in the story and if your dialogue sings, they won’t even notice the agonizing pains you took to make it so.

I know there are many other techniques out there. I learn every day I write, and I’d like to learn from you as well. What makes dialogue sing for you?