Writing Dialogue

I love writing dialogue. My characters can say the most outrageous, witty or profound things. My heroes and heroines can shout in anger or whisper tender words of love. And sometimes what they don’t say is what speaks most clearly.

As fun as writing dialogue is for me, I always have to remember that dialogue in fiction has specific jobs to do. Making dialogue work and handling it in a skillful way can be the difference between a good story and a great one.

Revealing character through dialogue. We can often get an idea what a person is like by the things they say and by the things that others say about them. Dialogue should tell us something important about what kind of people our hero and heroine are.

Here’s an example from “To have vs. To hold” by M.J. Rodgers. This takes place close to the beginning of the book, just after the hero, Adam Justice, and the heroine, Whitney West, first meet. Both characters are lawyers. In this scene, Adam stops Whitney from jaywalking:

Adam firmly took her arm and steered her down the sidewalk toward the crosswalk.
She flashed him a surprised look. “It’s two blocks away.”
“Which is still a lot closer than the emergency room.”
“We would have made it.”
“We wouldn’t have tried.”
“You don’t jaywalk?”
“It’s against the law.”
“You’re not serious.”
“On the contrary, Ms. West. I’m perfectly serious.”
This little exchange tells us that Adam is completely by the book, a totally straight shooter. He won’t even jaywalk, a misdemeanor most people don’t take seriously. He is also caring; he protects Whitney from crossing the street in traffic. Whitney, on the other hand, is more ready to break a few rules and take a few chances.

At first glance Adam appears a little uptight, almost to the point of being anal. But is he? Sometimes dialogue is used to deceive other characters, or to keep the truth at bay. The hero or heroine might have good reasons to hide their true feelings.

Sometimes what other characters say tells us a lot about our hero and heroine. In Mary Balogh’s “Web of Love” Dominic and Madeline talk about Ellen Simpson:

“What surprised you about Mrs. Simpson?”
“I expected a pale, wilting creature,” she said, “or else a manly, insensitive Amazon. She seems sensible. Edmund and Alexandra were much impressed. What on earth is she doing married to Captain Simpson?”
He grinned again. “Loving him and caring for him, apparently,” he said. “He is one of the happiest men of my acquaintance.”
“Well,” she said. “I have to admire women like Mrs. Simpson. I’m afraid I am swayed a great deal by what a man looks like. Do you think that is one reason why I am an old maid, Dom?”

From this exchange we learn that Ellen Simpson is a devoted wife who cares little about her husband’s lack of good looks. She only cares about what’s inside him.

Using dialogue to further the plot.
Dialogue should further the plot in some significant way. If you have a piece of dialogue in which the characters are simply chatting about the weather, it doesn’t belong unless the state of the weather is vitally important to the plot. The test is if you can take out a piece of dialogue and it doesn’t affect the story one way or another, leave it out. The dialogue should help move forward the action in some way.

In “To have vs. To Hold” by M.J. Rodgers, the body of Adam Justice’s wife Patrice has recently been found after she had been missing for seven years. Whitney West attends Patrice’s funeral and gives Adam a letter from Patrice. They discover that it is a will. They are stunned to learn that Patrice had a different last name and birth date then the one she’d used when she married Adam. Whitney realizes that this means they were never legally married, and Adam owes her estate nothing. The best dialogue provides characterization while at the same time moving the plot forward. Here’s another example from “To have vs. To hold”:

“What the state does or doesn’t recognize has no bearing on my actions, Ms. West.”
“Excuse me?”
“The fact that Patrice lied to me about who she was does not invalidate the pledge I made eight and a half years ago. I will see to it that those she has designated as her beneficiaries receive half of the money I earned while Patrice and I were . . . together.”
“Really? You mean that?”
“I don’t say things I don’t mean, Ms. West.”

This tells us that Adam intends to carry out Patrice’s wishes, and sets the plot in motion as Whitney and Adam attempt to locate the beneficiaries. It also reveals a lot about his character. It reveals that he is highly honorable and ethical, not to mention loyal. He’s carrying out Patrice’s last wishes even though she lied to him in life. The scene also makes me ask some story questions. What kind of marriage did Adam and Patrice have? Did he love her? Did she love him? Why didn’t she tell him her real last name? Why didn’t she tell him about her will? Dialogue that makes the reader ask questions is dialogue that also engages the reader in the story.

Imparting Information
Dialogue is an excellent way to drop tidbits of information into your story in an unobtrusive way. In “Web of Love” by Mary Balogh, Captain Charlie Simpson is speaking with his wife, Ellen Simpson about his regret in not having had children during their five year marriage. Charlie is just about to fight, and die, in the Battle of Waterloo. Their conversation plants information that is crucial later when Ellen finds herself pregnant. We know, and Ellen knows, the baby is not her late husband’s:

“It must have been that injury I had the year before I married you,” he said. “That is what the old sawbones said anyway, Ellen. I can’t think why else. I’m sorry about it, though. For your sake, I would have liked…”
Dialogue Do’s and Don’ts

Do make each character’s voice unique. Go back and look at the dialogue example for “To have vs. To hold”. Notice how when Adam speaks, he sounds quite formal. He calls Whitney Ms. West. Whitney’s dialogue, on the other hand, is casual and more colloquial. That in itself reveals something about their characters.

You want dialogue to sound believable, the way real people would talk. Teenagers don’t sound the same as grandmothers. Men often don’t use as many words as women, especially when anxious or worried. If you had a long speech from a man explaining his feelings, it may not ring true. For example, in her book Writing Romance Vanessa Grant gives the example from her own book “Pacific Disturbance”. It was one of her early books and she says she now sees many things wrong with it, especially the dialogue of the hero, Max. When Max remembers aloud how Lucy first approached him asking for a job he says:

“Ever since you started working at SCS, I’ve been thankful you didn’t let me send you away. These last few months we’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed possible. We work well together.” He reached across the table and touched her hand. “I believe in hanging on to my friends too. We are friends, aren’t we, Lucy?”

Ms. Grant says that now she believes this sounds more like a woman’s speech than a man’s. She’d do it differently today, probably something like, “You’re doing okay. I’m glad I hired you.” Brief and to the point.

Do read between the lines. Since people sometimes don’t want to reveal too much in their words, we have to pay attention to their non-verbal cues. Body language speaks volumes in real life and also in fiction, and what it tells us is often contrary to what the person is actually saying. Consider the following example from Vanessa Grant’s “After all this time”:

“I always knew you’d leave one day.”
She whispered, “What? You always knew I’d leave? Why would I leave?”
“Inevitable.” He pushed his hand into his pocket. “I’m no fool, Carrie. It was inevitable that once you realized you could make it on your own, you’d want to try.” His voice was slow, casual, but his jaw jerked, the single sign of tension.

The speech of Charles, the hero, is calm and rational, as if he’s talking to Carrie about a business matter rather than a personal one. But his body language, the jaw jerking with tension, gives him away. He feels a lot more then his words reveal. Romance relies a lot on body language because it’s not always clear to one character how the other feels. Sometimes characters try to hide their true feelings.

Do watch dialogue tags and “beats”.Dialogue tags are the “he saids” or “she saids” that are often tacked onto the end of a piece of dialogue. The purpose of these tags is to let the reader know, without disturbing her too much, who is speaking in order to avoid any confusion. “He said” and “she said” blend into the background and become almost invisible. But when a writer uses a lot of “he growled” or “she cried” or “she screamed” it can jar the reader, taking her out of that “reader’s trance” that a good book will put you in. Such dialogue tags should be used sparingly.

Sometimes the best way to present dialogue is without using any tags at all. If you remember the dialogue from “To have vs. To hold” there were long passages of dialogue between the characters where no tags were used. This dialogue flows so naturally and the pace is very fast without us ever getting confused over who is talking. Ms. Rodgers accomplishes this by having each character have a distinct way of speaking.

Another kind of tag that should be used sparingly is the kind that ends with an ly adjective. Examples of this are “he said angrily” or “she said happily”. By doing this the writer is telling the reader how the character is feeling, but it doesn’t work very well because the reader doesn’t really see or feel the emotion. Show the reader how the character feels by her words and by her actions within the dialogue. These actions within dialogue are called “beats”. Take this example. Here’s the same piece of dialogue, first with an ly dialogue tag and then with a beat:

“I don’t care what you say,” she said angrily. “I don’t believe he’d cheat on me.”

“I don’t care what you say.” She slammed the door, her eyes blazing and her hand trembling. “I don’t believe he’d cheat on me.”

Showing emotion always has more impact then telling us about it.

Don’t endlessly repeat. When real people talk they don’t always repeat the name of the person they’re talking to, at least not in every piece of dialogue. They don’t say “Bob, what are you doing today?” “How’s your wife Bob?” “I think you should look at this Bob.”

Another kind of repetition is known as the “As you know, Bob” syndrome. This is when a writer tries to use dialogue to give the reader information, but misses the boat because the characters are talking about something that would be obvious to both of them. Consider this example:

“As you know, Bob, since your wife died and left you with two young children to care for by yourself, you haven’t had much time to go fishing with me like we used to.”

This is an extreme example. Sometimes our dialogue does this in more subtle ways. Be on guard for repetitions and stating the obvious.

Dialogue is a powerful tool for writers. Used wisely it can give life to your characters and verisimilitude to your story. Happy writing.