Dialogue: 5 Tips for Dazzling Dialogue

Monday, April 09, 2018
As I work through the pre-writing on my mystery and get closer to actually writing, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to fiction. Truth be told, mostly, I’m obsessing because I’m getting really worried about writing dialogue for my characters. Because of that, I’ve taken a brief class on dialogue and been doing a lot of reading. Here is a small part of what I’ve learned.

Dialogue in a story does not sound exactly like two people talking. In reality, we say things like umm and uhhh. And we backtrack. We are needlessly wordy. When you are writing, you have to smooth at least some of this out. Only James Joyce could get away with a page that is a single flow-of-conscious sentence. Do not try it. No one will thank you. I read Joyce in college. We didn’t even thank him.

Dialogue is not a ping pong match. When we write a conversation, we tend to have Person A ask a question which Person B then answers. Person A responds and then Person B comes back with something else. Change things up sometimes. Person A asks a question and Person B says something, but it isn’t a direct response. Why? Because Person B has their own agenda and dialogue is a great place to let that show.

Dialogue for each character should be unique. Even if you have ten characters in your story, I should be able to read a line of dialogue and know who said it. Each character needs a voice. To achieve this, use your copy and paste functions to place all of one character’s dialogue onto a page. Do this with each character and make sure each has their own vocabulary, sentence patterns and more.

Dialect must be spot on. If you want to give a feel for dialect you can use a key phrase such as my grandmother’s “God Bless Him.” My family just saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Not for a moment did we think it was set in Missouri because the dialogue was wrong. Yes, they had dialect coaches but they obviously weren’t from Missouri either. And don’t use “God Bless Him” unless you speak fluent Southern. It is not a blessing.

Dialogue should be read out loud. I know, I know. I already said that dialogue shouldn’t sound exactly like a person speaking. But it does need to flow and the best way to test that is to read it aloud. All of it. Better yet, get someone else to read it to you and pay attention to where they stumble or look confused.

Dialogue done well can pull a reader into the story. Dialogue done wrong can send them for the hills whether those hills are real or as fanciful as Ebbing, Missouri.


PS.  I do recommend 3 Billboards even if it wasn't set in Missouri.

To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins May 7th, 2018.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I love your suggestion of a "change up" now and then, when it comes to dialogue. My daughter played softball--usually catcher or shortstop--so I know what a change-up is for the pitcher. It serves the same purpose (more or less) for the writer.

I also thought it didn't sound like it was from Missouri, but I also enjoyed it despite a few problems. And I'm not Southern, but I know that "God bless him/her" is a nice way of saying something very unkind.

Angela Mackintosh said...

I liked the movie Three Billboards, but I thought there was something inauthentic about the dialogue! Thank you for pointing that out.

These are all fabulous tips. Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write. I love the quirkiness of it all. I tend to base my dialogue on real people even when writing fiction so I keep the character's voices straight. I guess my imagination isn't that great. =/ That's a great idea to copy-paste one character's dialogue to a page to check for consistency.

Thanks for this amazingly helpful post, Sue! I will definitely put these to use.

Kay said...

I think having all the dialogue on a notes page sounds great- I'd probably just mix that in to my overall character profile documents, but having it all in one place instead of having to refer to bits of dialogue here and there in the manuscript during revisions seems like a great way to streamline the process. I like to actually write dialogue a lot like I talk, but I do skip the the wild tangents I personally tend to go on because that doesn't fit most of my character's personalities and wouldn't usually contribute to the plot or entertainment.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Thank you for your feedback, Ladies!

Using a real person as a model is a great idea. I've been known to do that myself. It gives me a starting place when it comes to character creation.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Sue. My husband is from Tennessee and nothing makes him crazier than when Hollywood assumes there is only one kind of "Southern" accent. (And the assumption that Southern accent generally equals uneducated and/or unintelligent.) So your points are very well taken! I like the cut and paste option too-- though my heart sinks a little at the thought-- but I KNOW you are right and I will bite that particular technological bullet very soon. Thanks again!

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