Tag Archives: Writing Natural Dialogue

The Great Dialogue Debate

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013We meet our friends on the street, or in a bar or a coffee shop and we talk talk talk.  And so do our characters.  Sometimes those wild and wacky imaginary friends of ours just won’t be quiet, and it drives us nuts. Other times they behave like a thirteen-year-old forced to go on the old family vacation,  sitting in stony silence staring at her signal-less phone, refusing to participate with those people who claim to be her parents and who dragged her off to the wilderness for something called ‘family time.’


But when they DO choose to participate in the conversation, how do we make them sound natural? There is a lot of argument in writers forums on this subject, but I go from the point of view of the reader. What is easiest for the reader to follow?

Take a good long look at the works of established writers whose dialogue is crafted in such a way that you, as the the reader, didn’t feel like you were reading it: you felt like you were living it. Did they get too fancy, and uber creative?

No, they kept it simple, and showed you the conversation.

First off–my pet peeve: people do not smile, snort, chuckle, or smirk dialogue. They don’t giggle it either, but they DO say it, they reply it, and many times they ask it. As long as you mainly stick to said, replied, answered, and asked, your reader won’t even notice the attributions are there. If you are writing genre-fiction, there is no need to get creative with your attributions, or ‘dialogue tags’ as we call them: stick to ‘John said’ (not said John, which sounds too old-fashioned these days.) Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Sarah uttered or a Paula retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest. Fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting.

You can skip using dialog tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and not for more than a few exchanges. Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue:

People do not snort dialogueBack in the office with the door shut tight, Junior and Pap plotted the special hunting trip for the nice tabloid man. Junior unbraided his hair and pulled it back into his customary long ponytail. Off came the blanket, which he told Pap smelled musty, and the headband. “Tell Johnny thanks for the loan of his buckskins,” he said as he stripped them off, stuffed them into a gym bag, and then pulled on a pair of slacks. “I’ll need them tomorrow for this picnic. That idiot wanted to leave at dawn! I told him after breakfast, so what do you think—about ten o’clock? I usually don’t go to bed until dawn.”

Beats or actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description.

Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

This means that when we add gestures and actions to the conversation we want it to be meaningful,.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied. This is why we don’t want to make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely—because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

verbal tic memeBut what about exclamations and verbal tics?

We frequently speak this way  in real life, but we don’t want it in our work so I recommend you avoid using them. When a character overuses exclamations, it is exhausting for the reader to wade through paragraphs peppered with instance after instance of “Ahhhh…” “Ugh!” “Yuck!”  “Blech!”

For example, have you ever met a person who drones on with a long “A-a-and a-a-ahhhhhhhhh….” holding conversations hostage with meaningless syllables? These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is what is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be such an ingrained habit the guilty party is unaware they are doing it. They’re often quite hurt if you try to hurry them along.

It’s a habit that we don’t enjoy in a conversation, and don’t want to read in novel, so I recommend you don’t begin more than a few sentences with thinking syllables like  “Ahh…” or “Hmmm….”

These are difficult speech behaviors to convey, because they are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read in a book. As a reader, I’ve come to feel your best bet when dealing with verbal tics is to give a brief instance of their speech pattern and after that, if it is important, mention occasionally the way their habits annoy other characters.

What about accents? Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, says “When writing for a character with an accent, it is tempting to render the character’s speech phonetically using nonstandard spellings. However, this practice is risky and should be avoided, unless you specifically want to emphasize how a character speaks. First, there’s the question of how accurate to be. The more accurate the phonetic spelling, the more frustrating it will be to read.”  

Don’t overdo spelling them out.  You have no idea how hard it is to wade through that:

490px-Henry_Singleton_The_Ale-House_Door_c._1790“Me lempsor’ ‘urt an’ oi’m feelin’ dead knackered. Oi nade ter kip for a while.”

Translation: “My feet hurt and I’m feeling dead tired. I need to sit and rest a while.”  I think you could get away with just using knackered and kip to convey the general idea, and not lose the reader’s interest. If you choose to replace ‘to’ with ‘ter’ for a specific character, be sure to do it consistently and consider leaving it at that.

I have walk-on characters who are minotaurs, and the physical transformation from man to minotaur affects their ability to speak, some more than others. They also come from a different world. This posed a dilemma for me. Because the lower ranked minotaur soldiers make only brief appearances, I can get away with a bit more of a dialect or a speech impediment. The higher ranking ones made it through the remaking with more of their wit and abilities intact, and therefore speak more clearly. I mention they have an accent and leave it at that.

More and more, I am leaning away from writing heavy accents into my dialogue. I recommend going light and limiting the use of misspellings, bad grammar, and vulgar accents especially if you are trying to point out that the character is uneducated or from a rural background.  Use only a few well-chosen words to convey the idea of the accent and use them in a consistent manner for that character in such a way that it isn’t incomprehensible. It’s very easy to go over the top with it, and then the character becomes a parody, a cartoon of a person, instead of someone who feels real.

This winds up my rant on annoying habits we don’t want to inject into our dialogue. Accents, dialects, verbal tics–these are things we need to convey, but we must be mindful of our readers’ supply of patience. Show a little, and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.


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How dining in Bedlam taught me to write dialogue

Days of Wine and Roses quote copyThe family I grew up in is a loud, all-talk-at-once kind of a family, with a lot of talkative members. Family gatherings are absolute bedlam–large, loud, full of life and great food, and long on opinions and ideas. We are comprised of musicians, artists, and authors, along with engineers and software developers.

Above all, we are avid gamers of all kinds, from old-school Super Mario, to Grid Autosport, to Final Fantasy X/X-2, to Halo, to Assassin’s Creed, to  Dark Souls 2, to Minecraft–and we love to talk, loudly and all at once, about everything we love. Somehow, we all manage to have our say and allow the others have theirs, but it’s like living in a blender at times.

We, and our friends, are loud and passionate and most people love it, but every now and then a visitor can’t handle the hullabaloo.  Sometimes, less outgoing girlfriends or boyfriends don’t get it, and the general din intimidates them.

In fact most people carry on conversations, where one person says something, and the  other one answers, and this goes on like a tennis match until everything has been said.

Huh. Who knew?

So, that is how we want to write our dialogue. We want it to sound natural.

Writers need to keep in mind that when people talk, they rarely follow any grammatical rules. Any English class that writers have taken will have stressed the importance of using proper grammar and punctuation in their writing. However, when we attempt to write dialogue, those same rules should be thrown out of the window. Many times people speak in broken sentences, with pauses, and even use incorrect words.

  1. Don’t overuse character names in dialogue. People don’t use each other’s names in every sentence they speak, because it sounds silly. (“Helen, your hair is lovely.” “Thank you, Ralph.” “Do you want to watch a movie, Helen? “Sure, Ralph, but stop touching my hair.”) When you do use character names in dialogue, use them early in order to indicate to whom the speaker is talking, and after that, be sparing with the monikers.
  2. Avoid writing dialogue that’s really an excuse for “speechifying” (I love that word ♥.)  Avoid giving your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of dialogue that is uninterrupted.  In real-life conversations, people usually alternate in conversation, and like my family, they often interrupt each other. It is your job to capture the rhythm of real speech–but don’t make it choppy.
  3. The dialogue of one character shouldn’t repeat what was said by the other, unless it is for emphasis in that one instance. “So Helen, what you are saying is, ‘don’t be repetitive.'” “Yes, Ralph, don’t repeat my every word.” “Don’t repeat your sentences.”
  4. DON’T explain your dialogue by adding too many descriptors, such as: John shouted angrily, or Garran commented sulkily. If the meaning is effectively conveyed in what your characters are doing as well as saying, adding these descriptors undermines the dialogue and disengages the reader. Try removing the explanation and see if the meaning is still clear. If it isn’t clear, it’s time to rewrite. By letting the dialogue speak for itself, by describing it less and showing it more, you make it more compelling.
  5. DON’T get creative with your attributions, or ‘dialogue tags’ as we call them: stick to John said (not said John, which sounds archaic in modern literature.) Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or Edwin uttered (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest. Fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting.
  6. And now for my pet peeve:  people do not smile, snort or smirk dialogue. I mean really–“That’s a lovely dress,” snorted Clara. (eeew. )  In fact, it is often best to do away with attributions altogether for a few exchanges every now and then, if:  A. you have only 2 speakers, and B. you have established who is speaking.
  7. Most readers hope authors will avoid trying to convey accent by altering spelling. It gets tiresome to read an author’s attempt to rewrite the dictionary to fit a cockney or an Irish accent, so use colloquialisms and speech patterns instead. That said, if the character is making a MINOR appearance, using an accent will give the reader feeling that they know that character, without resorting to an info dump.
  8. Feel free to break the rules of grammar if your character shows a blatant disregard for what’s correct. If he wants to say, “I seen that movie last week. It were a real dud,” let him.  That is a way to show the description of your characters.
  9. Miss a few beats. Beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John fell quiet and stared out the window. Marta turned and walked out the door. Used sparingly, these pauses serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They’re best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, because they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. Pauses are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are rattling pans, slicing apples or staring out the window between every line of dialogue, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact of the conversation can be lost entirely.
  10. Once in a while, it is okay to have your characters tell a story within the story, but do it as naturally as possible. Speaking as an older person, I admit that some older character will be just dying to tell the younger ones how it really was. Please don’t use that plot twist as a crutch to dump a chunk of boring background. No one in real life wants to hear an old duffer go on about the good old days at Bob’s Fish Cannery, even if Skyler Webbley did lose a finger that was never found and didn’t notice it until his shift was over when he discovered his driving gloves didn’t fit right. (Just sayin’.)

In regard to proper use of punctuation: it is important to follow the rules in the general narrative but punctuation has a different role in dialogue. There are times when it is used to create pauses in dialogue.

Oh, dear. What have I done? Breathe, Irene, breathe! Inhale…exhale…it will be fine–it’s dialogue, for the love of  Chatty Cathy…we want it to sound normal, not necessarily literate. (Oh, dear, she’s turning blue… . Line editor down! Quick! Someone fan her with the Chicago Manual of Style!)

Or you can properly punctuate your dialogue to your heart’s content.  It’s your book, and your style–you make the decision.

Anyway, to write natural dialogue, observe others around you, see how they talk, what they do with their bodies, and where they pause. These are what you know of them as people, and are what you want to convey in your writing.  What we want our dialogue to do is  give the reader a clear visual of the scene, the characters and their environment. A truly great book is clearly visualized in the mind of reader, so give those clues and hints, but let the reader see for themselves the beauty or horror you are describing though good dialogue and properly setting the scene.




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