He Said, She Said: Writing Dialogue

Cocktail Party GossipWriting dialogue is the heart of my writing. A scene always takes shape in my mind with two or more people having a conversation. I put the dialogue to paper and then add the physical setting, background details, emotions, inner monologue and body language. It’s the only way I know how to write. As I’ve confessed before, an outline doesn’t work for me and I’m very unstructured in my development of a story. For me, it’s organic and springs to life at its own pace. I sometimes use index cards, but that’s only to keep details organized as the novel progresses.

I love to muse over what my characters are going to do next. It’s my bedtime ritual. I snuggle into the covers under the blanket of darkness and let the door to my mind swing open. Or I do it on a long drive or when I ride the train into the city. I try not to do it when I’m in the company of others, but sometimes people call me out on it… “Where are you?” they say, “Are you hanging out with your characters instead of us?” It’s embarrassing.

The conversation always unfurls, usually by two characters having some type of conflict and the words begin to fly. My imagination picks the setting without me having to consciously decide and soon I have my scene. I write scene after scene like this, placing them before or after others within what becomes the time frame of the story. Sometimes I have to adapt the scene/dialogue to include backstory or details from other scenes once I have them in the proper sequence.Arguing businesswoman

When the story is complete I do a final read-through and make sure everything flows and the details are correct, the segue ways smooth. Here’s where I edit the dialogue and these are my rules:

  1. Avoid a dialogue tag whenever possible. Never use it if it’s just two people unless you want to convey who is the first to speak or you want to indicate an emotion or action, which you can usually accomplish without the tag anyway. Instead use action and body language to indicate who is speaking.
  2. Write the way people talk. This means using contractions unless you have a character who speaks formally, eg. a professor, boss or perhaps an older and wiser mentor. Craft the dialogue specific to each character. Reserve certain expressions just for them so the reader quickly identifies who is speaking.
  3. Keep it short and snappy. The use of overly long speeches usually bogs the reader down and if you work at it you can keep it punchy and informative at the same time.
  4. Use it to convey plot details and to move the story forward. It should increase the tension and detail the relationships between characters.
  5. Use indirect speech* or more creative ways of saying something boring. Instead of, “Sorry I’m late,” say, “I nearly had three accidents on the way here, the traffic was so bad.”
  6. Learn the punctuation. I recommend: http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/writingexercises/qt/punctuation.htm
  7. Don’t consider he said, she said as boring. It’s actually the preferred tag as most readers pass it by without stopping. Their eyes drift over it effortlessly, like punctuation. Be careful of tags such as gasped, sighed, or yelled. It’s overkill and wrong. What’s meant as a physical action shouldn’t appear as a dialogue tag. You can’t sigh, gasp, chortle, laugh and talk at the same time. The action happens either before or after a character speaks: She gasped. “You scared me half to death!  OR “I’m so tired.” She sighed. And why say she asked when you’ve got a question mark? Or say she yelled with an exclamation point. It’s redundant.
  8. Keep his mouth shut. Not every dialogue statement requires an answer. Sometimes what ISN’T said has more impact.
  9. Show don’t tell. Don’t have a character state that h/she is confused, angry, sad, or happy in the dialogue. Demonstrate it by what h/she says or insert a facial expression. Alexa frowned. “Why are you doing this to me?” When you show an action or indicate body language, the reader will know the next line of dialogue is by that character, so no tag needed.
  10. Show conflict. Dialogue needs tension, otherwise it’s boring. If not conflict, then at least some confusion. Maybe your characters are working together to solve a problem or one of them reveals a secret.
  11. Read it aloud. Or have a friend read it with you, as if you’re auditioning for a play. Or record it and play it back. Notice the flow and rhythm of the words. Your ears will tell you if it sounds authentic. You need not do this all the time, but just until you get the hang of it.
  12. Use starts and stops when writing an emotional scene, or portions of words, or perhaps the ellipsis (…) to show hesitation.
  13. Look for lists of dialogue tags online. There are tons you can print out and keep handy for adding variety. But beware that some are incorrect as stated above and don’t fall into the abyss of of what I call over-creative dialogue syndrome. Partake like fine chocolates. Savor them and consume sparingly.
  14. Read a lot. Note sections of dialogue that sing and use them as a guide.
  15. Listen to people talk. Take yourself to your local coffee shop or bar and record snippets of dialogue. (Not with a tape recorder, that’s creepy and illegal.) But take some notes. Embrace your inner covert agent.

Here’s an example of dialogue from one of my novels. See how many rules I incorporated.

             Alyx sat on the over-stuffed chair and propped her bare feet on the table. She wiggled her garish red toes and chuckled.

            “For your new sexy persona?” Matt pointed the neck of his beer bottle at Alyx’s toes. He smirked.

            “Might as well go whole hog if I’m going to be convincing.”

            “You’re scaring me. Who are you and what have you done with Alyx? I think some sex-crazed alien has snatched her body.”

            “It’s kinda weird. I waver between terror and excitement.”

            “Well, I came over because I was worried about you, but it seems like you’ve got this under control. But having kinky sex for a week with a total stranger … I don’t know.”  Matt seemed to consider the situation carefully for a minute. “Although, I could see where it could be kinda interesting. Like a fantasy.”

            “Exactly! That’s kind of where my head’s at. It’ll be…for the greater good. I have to admit, his body is like a god’s.” Alyx blushed.

            Matt laughed out loud. “Shit, Alyx, you’re hysterical! I think you’re actually looking forward to it!”

            Matt drained the last of his beer and slammed it down hard on the coffee table. “Well, I’m glad I stopped by. You’ve put my mind at ease, mostly. But if this whole thing goes south, call me. I’ll drop everything and come get you.”

            “Thanks, Matt. Sure, I know you always have my back. I’ll be fine. It’s only for a week. How much stuff could he do to me in a week?” Well, she’d already done the math on that and had concluded … a lot!

            Matt slipped on his jacket, pulled Alyx into a hug and kissed her forehead. “All right, I’m outta here. Jillian is going out with her girlfriends tonight and I’m on baby duty. Sure is nothing like my old Saturday nights. At least there’s a good game on tonight.”          

           They shared a wave goodbye as the elevator doors closed. The clock on her kitchen wall said 6:30. Yikes! She only had a half-hour to finish drying her hair, put on a little makeup and throw on some clothes.

Not a single dialogue tag. Yay me!

Good Luck! And follow the rules! I’m just sayin…

Up Next from Caryn: *Indirect Speech




Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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