The Rentable Writer

Sunday, June 11, 2006

On dialogue ...

The Purpose of Dialogue

In my opinion, dialogue serves two main purposes (though it does have a number of smaller uses). The two main ones are:

1. To tell the story and move it along
2. To improve your writing

When a story has much dialogue, it is called "loud"; when a story has little dialogue, it is called "quiet." (Personally, I'd rather read a loud story, but it all really depends.) An example of an extremely loud writer is J.K. Rowling, whose series with upwards of 3,000 pages has maybe two hundred pages where dialogue isn't present. But then there's also José Saramago, a Portuguese writer known for his award-winning book Blindness. He is an extremely quiet writer, with maybe no dialogue at all in his book.

There's nothing wrong with being quiet or being loud. It really matters on the feel you're going for in your story. A darker story may want less dialogue because it will provide a feeling of loneliness and seclusion. A lively story may want more. Again, it depends on what you as the writer want. Great dialogue will make a story a bestseller; good dialogue will personalize your ficition. But bad dialogue will befoul your words and make you look like the amateur that you very well may be. The only way to write good dialogue is to practice it, and write a lot of it.


When writing dialogue you think sounds fake, go back and think about what you're trying to make your character say. Then, pretend you're in your character's situation. Say the information your character must present. Do you hear an enormous difference between the way you speak and the way your character speaks? If so, that may be a good thing. Every one character should have his or her own voice. It'll make him/her appear more real. Try to incorporate some of what you said into your character's dialogue, if it fits.

Also, remember this: Dialogue is clipped. People don't speak in full sentences, reminding each other of the subject. When people in fiction speak of a subject they both know, yet constantly remind each other of the facts, the dialogue is greatly, greatly diminished. Example:

"Bob, did you get me that latte with extra sugar and bit of half-and-half that I asked you for over twenty minutes ago?" asked Mary.

"No, Mare," said Bob. "I'm sorry. I got side-tracked on my way to the kitchen because I saw that someone was having trouble with the copier and I decided to help. Your latte completely slipped my mind."

Of course, Mary didn't believe his lie. They had a rough relationship, and she figured Bob was the farthest thing from a friend. In fact, he hated her. Mary had never even expected Bob to get the coffee; she'd only asked him as a test, to see if he really didn't like her. She had sworn to herself that if he hated her, the only way to make him feel her pain was to kill him.

(That's a terrible example of character development, but just overlook it for now. Mary's clearly a bit paranoid, but other than that ...) informative dialogue is an obvious ploy used by a writer who is lost in their story. Do you honestly think anyone talks like that? No one does. I hope. After reading that, a knowledgeable writer would likely go into a speech about "showing vs. telling." Remember: actions speak louder than words. If you can get a message across in actions, then do. It will have more impact. The above dialogue would be better written like this:

Mary and Bob had a rough relationship, and it wasn't getting any smoother. She knew Bob hated her, and it tore her apart. She had feelings for him — strong feelings — and she didn't know what she was doing to make him hate her. But he did, and it hurt Mary to be hated. In the seventh grade, she had made a voodoo pillow of Becky Sanders — the most popular girl in the world — when she had started a slambook against her. In a completely unrelated incident, Becky's body was found two weeks later, on the side of the tracks. She was sliced to bits, with over forty wounds in her back and chest. Mary didn't think it was such a tragedy. She hated to see people get hurt, but when they had hurt her first she didn't mind them suffering a bit for her. Bob's hate for Mary was proven the other day, when Mary had asked him for a latte:

"Did you get me it?" she asked Bob.

Irritated, he said a quick hell no, and walked away, unaware of the disaster that he had just brought upon himself.

Now, that's not a masterpiece, and it's on the quiet side, but can't you see how it works better? I informed you, the reader, of the situation, and then I wrote realistic dialogue, because I didn't have to fill the reader in on the situation through the character's words. Try it.


Tags are trivial. They mean barely anything. Most writers fear tags and the way they sound, but they shouldn't. When a reader is going over dialogue, they are paying little attention to the tags. He said, she said work best, and it seems that some writers try to over-compensate for their bland dialogue by making their characters "chuckle" dialogue. Raders barely notice tags, especially he said, she said, so don't try to make characters snort something. He said, she said work just fine. Every now and then you can mix it up with "screamed," "yelled," etc, because they may be more effective, but don't be too worried about tags. Examples:

"When are we going to the movies?" questioned Sarah.
"Don't know," interjected James.
"It's got to be soon," stated Robbie.
"Any minute now, I guess," Laura supposed.

As you can clearly see, the over-use of descriptive tags decreases the quality of the (already lacking) dialogue. Here's that same example rewritten:

"What time are we going to the movies?" Sarah asked.
"No idea," said James.
"It's got to be soon," Robbie said. "If I don't leave now, my mom's making me babysit."
Sarah said they should leave now, then, and they all agreed that was best.


Avoid writing cliches in dialogue like the plague. I mean cliches as in "gonna," "wanna," "shoulda," "coulda," "cuz," etc. It just looks and sounds bad. Don't do it.
(EDIT: I may have exaggerated. These cliches can work differently in different characters' mouths.)

Hope this helped, and Gringy would like me to add that he's still alive.


  • A lot of good advice here. I've gotten into a bit of trouble with my lack of tags, though. Turns out I went a bit too sparse at times, but the reader in me prefers a tag that inserts action, has the speaker snarl, stomp across the room, whatever, than just sticking 'he said'/'she said' on the end.

    By Blogger Sandra Ruttan, at June 12, 2006 4:53 AM  

  • That was some very useful, most excellent information. It is my personal opinion, however, that Mary was in the right -- Bob needed killing. I'm glad to hear that Gringy still lives, but could we see a photo, just to be sure?

    By Blogger Serena Joy, at June 12, 2006 8:19 AM  

  • I know what you mean about tags, Sandra. I think I go against my own advice often, because tags can help a lot, but it's better if readers don't notice them. Another thing might be to use a more descriptive tag so you don't have to write:

    "I hate you!" Martha screamed, as she stomped across the room.

    You can write:

    Martha stomped across the room.
    "I hate you!"

    I didn't even use a tag. With something like, "I hate you!" tags may be unnecessary, unless you have to identify the person saying, or unless that person is saying it jokingly.

    Simpler tags mean the reader will go over words quicker and feel that the book has a faster pace. Of course, two words aren't going to kill your writing, but they can be distracting at times.

    serena: I'll get Gringy to post a description of himself. He's camera shy. (And you would be too, if you looked like him ...)

    Oh crap, he saw me write that.

    Now he's gonna start makin' idol threats....

    By Blogger The Rentable Writer, at June 12, 2006 11:17 AM  

  • Rut-row! I hope your Gringy has a better disposition than my Spot.:)

    By Blogger Serena Joy, at June 12, 2006 3:24 PM  

  • Well ... the first threat was to lacerate himself, but then I told him that would affect me in the most minimal of ways ... and he'd be doing himself more harm. So then he threatened to bake an enormous chocolate cake and eat it all himself. And I told him that was okay, that I didn't care. He got mad and threw a lightbulb at me. He missed by about six yards. I started to laugh. He got even angrier. Pulled a knife ... and quickly put it down.

    The thing about Gringy is that he's an imaginary friend that no one wants anymore. He's been rejected by over a thousand potential real friends, child and adult alike. I took him in a couple years ago after his three week stint in a mental institution (they had a hell of a time catching him). Right now, he's a recovering celery addict.

    By Blogger The Rentable Writer, at June 12, 2006 6:31 PM  

  • Hmmm. Well, clearly, the first thing you need to do is put Gringy in Celery Rehab. Perhaps they'll help him with his anger issues. If not, just hide the lightbulbs and other projectiles when he gets out.

    I think, however, that his main problem might be protein deprivation. I had the same problems with Spot. He was down to bones, claws, and fangs when I tried feeding him soneone who was annoying the hell out of me. He loved it. So what if he has a bit of a weight problem now? He's happy and it's working out really well for me.

    It was very good of you to take him in when no one else would. Just change his diet and you'll have one happy, grateful pal. You'll be happier, too, with this neat, efficient method of, um, disposal.

    By Blogger Serena Joy, at June 13, 2006 6:55 AM  

  • Thanks for the advice. I'll give it a try. Gringy won't be too happy, but ... it's for the best.

    By Blogger The Rentable Writer, at June 13, 2006 12:56 PM  

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