Here’s an interesting article about writing dialog. I’m not sure I agree that ‘dialog is action,’ but I definitely think dialog should be succinct (Nothing like real conversations!) and ideally work on multiple levels at the same time (Advancing plot, developing characters, building conflict, etc.). I hope you like June’s article and would love to hear people’s thoughts. —Scott
Tips For Writing Dialogue
By June Trop
Dialogue is action. It moves the story forward and demonstrates conflict, the heart of every scene. Besides, external dialogue, a character’s speech to at least one other person, and internal dialogue, a character’s thoughts, reveal personalities and relationships more efficiently and convincingly than any narrated passage.
So how can you make the dialogue you write seem authentic? Just remember you’re not trying to imitate real speech. You are, however, trying to give the impression of real speech, which is much harder.
Real speech is often boring, full of small talk, false starts, and rambling repetitive phrases. Instead, make your characters get to the point directly. Strip their speech down to the essentials. Never mind whether a sentence is complete; fragments are often better. Besides, characters interrupt each other, especially when they’re in the throes of conflict. Just make sure the idioms, grammar, speech patterns, and vocabulary uniquely reflect each character’s social class, education, and age. Even without an attribution tag like “John said,” most of the time your reader should be able to infer that John is the one speaking.
Of course, you’ll need at least an occasional attribution tag when the conversation involves more than two people or when the exchange between a pair of characters is lengthy. So what about attribution tags?
The simplest attribution tag, “he (or Jane) said,” is best. Don’t worry about being m
onotonous. You want your reader to concentrate on the speech rather than the tag anyway. And at all costs, avoid using a tag that refers to body language not speech. For example, avoid tags like this: he snarled, she laughed, or John grinned. Instead, intensify the spoken words or add a gesture to emphasize the speaker’s emotion. Change “‘I think you are being silly,’ Jane laughed,” to something like this: “‘That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever—’ Jane said, choking with laughter.”
If you find yourself writing a solid paragraph of dialogue, then break up the passa
ge. For example, insert a sentence to call attention to a change in the setting, such as a door slamming or the afternoon shadows stretching, or a character’s facial expression, gesture, or movement. Another option is to rewrite the passage as a series of shorter exchanges between the characters.
Finally, read your dialogue aloud to check that it sounds natural, and rework the parts that don’t sound authentic. We read with our ears as well as our eyes. Hear your writing come alive as you use more dialogue and less narrative to tell your story.
About the Author:
June Trop and her twin sister Gail wrote their first story, “The Steam Shavel [sic],” when they were six years old growing up in rural New Jersey. They sold it to their brother Everett for two cents.
Now associate professor emerita at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she devotes her time to writing historical mysteries with a connection to early science. Her heroine, Miriam bat Isaac, is based on the personage of Maria Hebrea, the legendary founder of Western alchemy, who developed the concepts and apparatus alchemists and chemists would use for 1500 years.
June lives with her husband Paul Zuckerman in New Paltz, where she is breathlessly recording the story of her plucky heroine’s next life-or-death exploit.