Designing Dialogue: Real Words for Real People

Good dialogue is vital to good writing for a number of reasons:

  • It shapes character without an intrusive narrator telling the reader.
  • The conflict between the speakers can move the plot along.
  • It can provide vital exposition for a reader’s understanding of backstory.

Because a character’s speech is such an important part of developing depth, it’s very important to do it well. Here are some hints to follow when performing your book editing:

  • Pay attention to mannerisms in speech. A person who is uncertain might open a statements with “Well,” as a matter of course. A more extroverted person might use “I” often, signaling his/her sense of importance.
  • Pay attention to dialect, especially regional. This can be like Twain’s Huck Finn, or merely the use of contractions (can’t instead of cannot) or even a general dropping of the “g” at the end in such words as tryin’ or callin’. Sometimes this can indicate a sense of class or education, so make use of what it suggests.

There are some caveats, though, about dialogue:

  • When trying to capture speech, sometimes too much reality can be distracting. A modern teenagers really does use you know or like a great deal in a given line of dialogue. While this should be represented, too much can suggest a lack of eloquence and draws attention from the speech to its problems (unless, of course, this is your intention).
  • Again, dialogue can be great exposition, but make sure it’s natural. For example, the following is slightly clunky:

“Hi,” said Rachel.

“Hello,” said Jason.

“You must be Jason,” she said, “Sarah’s friend, the one who works for a Wall Street firm and volunteers at a homeless shelter on the weekends.”

There are a few issues here. First, while this is important information about Jason, Rachel mentioning it seems forced. Such detail might be teased out later in conversation. So resist the urge to tell what can be shown. Also, be wary of repeating “said” too often. Instead:

  • Use more descriptive words. Perhaps Jason whispered or muttered “hello,” depending on his mood and character. While this can be overdone, if you find yourself writing “said” over and over again, variety can save the prose.
  • If there are only two speakers and they are alternating lines naturally, it’s possible to leave out the “said” altogether. So:

“Hello,” said Rachel.

“Hello?” Jason’s head jerked around.

“Jason? Sarah’s friend?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Rachel. Sarah’s roommate. I saw you at the shelter yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Jason responded, still hesitant.

This dialogue is more natural: brief questions and even briefer, halting answers as people first meeting each other might use; no need to use “said” when “ventured” suggests a bit more abouthow Rachel speaks; and leaving out the speakers’ names since it’s clear who is saying what and this focused our attention on the dialogue rather than on names.

Dialogue format:

Formatting dialogue is relatively simple. Indent as you would for a paragraph each time there is a shift in speaker. Also, use a comma before the closing quotation mark and the verb: so, note the commas in the example above before “ventured” and “Jason responded.”

Indirect Discourse:

A neat way of avoiding too much dialogue is the use of indirect discourse. This is when one character (or the narrator) relates in a summarized fashion what another character has said or is saying. For example,

“I’m Rachel. Sarah’s roommate. I saw you at the shelter yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Jason responded, still hesitant.

Jason politely nodded as Rachel began to confide in him about why she hated being late for work, the laziness of the super, and Sarah’s surprising choice of turning down the role.

It’s not necessary to relate all the dialogue, and we get a sense of the character through this as well. Think like a book editor and experiment with your own dialogue.

–Dr. Dan, www.edit911.com

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