Sunday, October 28, 2012

Let's Talk: The Art & Craft of Dialogue

Good dialogue is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is deadly. -Stephen King

Of the many aspects of fiction writing — character development, plot, description, scene structure — dialogue writing is often considered one of the trickiest. I am lucky, I suppose, in that it’s an aspect I find relatively easy. I can tie myself up in knots over how to move from Scene 1 to Scene 2, but dialogue flows for me and is pleasurable to write. Unfortunately, for those who struggle with it, bad dialogue is easier to spot than other writing bugaboos, and is especially likely to make a reader turn away from a book. I read an interview with an agent who said dialogue is her primary litmus test. With each manuscript she receives, she skips straight to the first bit of dialogue, and if it’s bad—off to the slush pile it goes.

Lesson: it’s really worth brushing up on your dialogue-writing skills.

Why is dialogue so important? It’s fast moving, keeping readers engaged where long chunks of text will lose them. Dialogue visually breaks up a page, adding necessary white space. Writers can use dialogue to efficiently deliver exposition. Dialogue reveals character better than description, and often better than action. Dialogue is, when done correctly, fun to read. And if you don’t have a knack for it, never fear: it’s not magic. It’s a skill that improves with study and practice. The easiest thing to get wrong is also the simplest thing to fix: formatting. Hardly any articles, blog posts, or book chapters on writing deal with the mechanics of dialogue, which is a shame. Because very few beginning writers get it right — and they’re going to get rejected by agents. Let’s fix that.

She said:
“You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”

She said: “You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”

Still better:
She said, “You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”

“You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly,” she said.

Keep dialogue on the same line as the dialogue tag. (“Dialogue tag” is the “he said” part — more on this later.) See how the first example above had a paragraph return between the tag and the quote? That’s incorrect. Furthermore, do not use colons in your tags, and avoid starting with the tag. Note the final, “best” example. The speech ends with 1. a comma, 2. a close-quotation mark, and 3. a lowercase “she said.” This is the default, at least for American English. This is what you should be doing most of the time; obviously there are exceptions to these rules. Don’t think you can get away with the exceptions, though, until you’ve understood and mastered the rules. If you think you’ve mastered them already, do a quick check. I mean, really, right now: go look. Find a section of your own dialogue and note whether you are mostly sticking to the default — and when you have departed from it, ask yourself if you did so deliberately and consciously for a particular effect. Based on the number of first drafts I have looked over, and based on my own learning curve, I’d guess there’s some brushing up to be done.

Many dialogue rules are picked up intuitively by writers who do a lot of reading. If you are getting feedback that you’re formatting incorrectly, you may not be reading enough, or you may be reading stories with bad dialogue. I find the best way to train my writerly intuition is not to study the formal rules, but to find writers who do it well and literally copy them: pick up a book by one of these authors  and copy out dialogue-intensive passages. I will continue to repeat this advice, because I truly believe transcribing is one of the best tools to improve your fiction. Transcribing is an exercise that rewires your writing brain on a level much deeper than rule-memorizing will ever do.

“Do not,” hollered the editor, “ever have your characters holler scream, whisper, or moan what they could just say!”
The use and abuse of dialogue tags, beyond what I discuss above, is more subject to controversy. First, there’s the question of “said.” Most editors agree that this tag is preferable to any other tag, such as “shouted” or “sighed.” This latter kind of tag is called a said bookism, and editors hate those. Unfortunately, elementary-school teachers have for decades instructed students to avoid “said” and instead use bookisms, so a lot of us have to be retrained to go back to good old “said.” The reason editors recommend “said” is that it is less colorful: bookisms are terribly distracting, and interrupt the flow of dialogue. You can use them occasionally to break up the steady march of “he saids,” but you want “said” to predominate.

Almost as loathed as said bookisms are adverbial dialogue tags: “Take that!” she said scornfully. This is one I have a harder time avoiding, as I do love me my adverbs. We are told time and time again to keep our adverbs to a minimum, but they keep creeping back into tags — at least, into mine. Often these tags are redundant, as we can tell from the context how the speaker is speaking. If you don’t think it’s clear, consider finding another way to evoke the mood.

“You can also leave off tags entirely.”
“How do you know who’s speaking, then?”
“Let readers sort it out from context.”
It’s fine to skip tags occasionally when you’ve got a long page of dialogue; you don’t need “he said” after every line. Some schools of thought go further and treat tags as if they were volatile little bombs: icky things you use only when absolutely necessary. You know these authors: you flip open a book and it’s just this endless wall of dialogue. You have to go back three pages to sort out who’s speaking, and then count lines to keep track. Cormac McCarthy not only does this, but foregoes quotation marks altogether. Hint: unless you are Cormac McCarthy, do not write dialogue like Cormac McCarthy. Use dialogue tags. And punctuation.

To move from the abstract to the concrete, let’s take a look at some dialogue from an actual published novel. I’ll flip open Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate At the Stairs, because it’s chock full of excellent examples:

“So,” said Mrs. McKowen, “have you met the birth mother?”
“Yes,” said Sarah.
“And you’re sure you want that woman’s child?”
Edward began to cough. “Excuse me—is there a bathroom I might use?”
“Why do you say that about the birth mom?” asked Sarah.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mrs. McKowen. “I guess, well, the lady’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

In the first sentence, we see how Moore uses the dialogue tag in the middle of the sentence: this is my own preferred way to tag, at least for dialogue that’s longer than a dozen words or so. The second speaker, Sarah, has the default tag: statement, followed with a comma and simple “she said.” Edward arrives on the scene without a true dialogue tag, but rather introductory action: he does something on the same line as his dialogue, so we know he is the speaker: this is another good dialogue option, which you can use more frequently as the defaults become automatic for you. (Use a period, not a comma, in this construction.)

When Sarah speaks again, she gets the tag “asked Sarah” because it’s a question: notice that “asked” is lowercase. Many writers understand that “he said” is lowercase because they see the comma, but when there’s a question mark they mistakenly revert to capitalization. However, the formatting remains as if it were a comma: remember your defaults, which here is, “use lowercase with dialogue tags.”

Finally, the last line repeats the middle-of-the-sentence dialogue tag, with the default “she said” but in reverse. “Said” should generally be the second word in a tag, not first, but you can use this construction for variety.

Variety. Look how well Moore plays with the default. She shifts her tags around from beginning, to middle, to end, and back. Why? Because of flow. If you always place your dialogue tags at the end, your dialogue can sound programmed and monotonous. The default is a good one: dialogue tags at the end, stick with “he said,” but Moore shows how variation can ensure flow.

If you feel overwhelmed by the technicality of this explanation, don’t worry. You will pick it up intuitively if you study good dialogue. Remember, though, that you’ll get much more out of the masters if you copy out their work, word by word and comma by comma, than if you simply read it.

“I was thinking, um, that, well, maybe, you know—” The writer fiddled with her earrings.
The editor scowled. “Get to the point!”
“But this is, like, kinda, how people—how people, actually, you know, talk.”
“That nice,” he said. “But it’s not how writers should write.”
Drilling further down into style: There’s an irony of writing good dialogue, in that the most natural-sounding written dialogue is not much like actual speech. Read an exact transcript from a radio or television interview to see what I mean: note all the stammers, ums, self-interruptions, start-overs, and banalities. When I was a journalist and did interviews, I had to clean this sort of thing up for the final product; all journalists do this, which is why you don’t see “uhhh” and “I mean” in written interviews. You don’t see the stops and starts as the interviewee finds her point. This is even truer for fictional dialogue: Your characters should speak more economically than people actually do. The flipside of this is that dialogue shouldn’t be too clean. The grammar in dialogue can be incorrect, and should be incorrect when that’s true to your character. You can get away with “gonna” and “woulda” in dialogue; you can say, “Me and her gone shopping” if that’s how your character — say, a three-year-old — would speak. You clean up the distractions, the ums and stumbles; you don’t hide personality, age, or education. Here’s an example from John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men”:

Aw Lennie! George put his hand on Lennie's shoulder. “I ain't takin' it away jus' for meanness. That mouse ain't fresh, Lennie; and besides, you've broke it pettin' it. You get another mouse that's fresh and I'll let you keep it a little while.”

George is a migrant worker with little formal education. Note that while his grammar is true to his character, Steinbeck has kept his speech economical. No unnecessary words are used. (Bonus points if you noticed that Steinbeck does not use a formal dialogue tag here, but uses a line of action to indicate the speaker, as Lorrie Moore had her character Edward do in the earlier excerpt.)

Not exactly Steinbeck, but really. Is this not fabulous dialogue?

In addition to Steinbeck, one of my favorite writers of dialogue is John Cheever, who manages to create sparkling characters with pinpoint use of dialogue. Let’s meet Mrs. DePaul, a character from John Cheever’s short story “Christmas Is A Sad Season for the Poor.”

“Oh, Charlie!” Mrs. DePaul was a stout woman with an impulsive heart, and Charlie’s plaint struck at her holiday mood as if she had been caught in a cloudburst. “I do wish we could share our Christmas dinner with you, you know,” she said. “I come from Vermont, you know, and when I was a child, you know, we always used to have a great many people at our table. The mailman, you know, and the schoolteacher, and just anybody who didn’t have any family of their own, you know, and I wish we could share our dinner with you the way we used to, you know, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.” 

She carries on like this for another few sentences. Her repeated use of the phrase “you know” is as much a representation of her character as her stoutness and her impulsive heart. It gives us a quick, intense impression of her, like a black-and-white photograph with a few details colored in. The repeated phrase would be maddening in a novel if she were a primary character, but Mrs. DePaul is a sketch. Cheever can use this device with her because this is a short story, and she only has a few lines. Another dialogue-savvy author I’d recommend is Flannery O’Connor. When I do my transcribing exercises, I usually pick Flannery. (I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that these writers are both from the mid-20th century: perhaps that was a heyday for dialogue writing.)

“I don’t know. It just started shuddering and then steam —” I began.
“Eee, cabron, I told you she was a girl!” the woman shouted at her husband, interrupting. “Sorry, mija,” she added to me. The man stepped back, looked me over skeptically, shrugged, then went back under the hood.
Ready to drill a little deeper? The next step is to get your dialogue to perform multiple functions. In the above excerpt, from one of my works-in-progress, the viewpoint character is dealing with a broken-down car, and the dialogue appears to be focused on that. But if I did it right, I also let the reader know that this setting is not your typical American setting and that the point-of-view character is a girl who looks like a boy. We also can see that in spite of being a tomboy, the viewpoint character doesn’t know cars,  that the shouting woman is kinder to strangers than she is to her husband, and that the husband is not much of a talker. My intention was to pack a lot of information into a small bit of dialogue—without the reader noticing what I was doing.

Your characters will sound wooden if you give their dialogue only one job, especially if that job is “transfer info to reader.” Your characters are not robots. They are, or should seem like, real people. They need dimension. As your character delivers plot information to the reader, she should also be delivering other subtextual information, such as her personality (is she bubbly? Clipped?), her relationship with the person to whom she’s speaking (does she love him? Fear him?), and her reaction to the events around her (is she excited? Bored?). As you add these layers, you’re going to find yourself excited at how real your dialogue suddenly sounds. Your characters will have more life than you’ve ever given them. One exercise you can do right now is to look over a few pages of your dialogue and rework it to reflect the speaker’s unique personality. Look at the Moore excerpt above: See what Edward is doing? He coughs, then tries to flee the room. He is startled by the previous comment, and uncomfortable with conflict. We learn a lot about Edward from this tiny bit of dialogue.

As much as I’ve covered here, I’ve only touched on the basics of writing dialogue. Entire books are written on the subject; courses are taught. You can read the books, you can sign up for the courses; you can memorize everything I’ve written here. But if you want to write dialogue that sings, that will grab the attention of every agent out there, read the works of excellent writers. Read closely. Transcribe, and while copying out their work, notice what they are doing. Think about what they were thinking about when they chose those words. Smoke that stuff, get it into your bloodstream, into your DNA, and it will become your own. You’ll have the skills to let your own voice — what is uniquely yours — come through.
Jan Švankmajer, "Dimensions in Dialogue"


  1. Dialogues used to be my forte, but setting them up was not, and it felt when I began writing. One of my recurrent doubts about tags is not where to place them, but when to skip them. Some manuals claim that even if it sounds repetitious one should not skip the “He said,” “Anne says” tags.
    I understand that '”You should see his face,” he chuckled”' sounds impossible. One can’t talk and laugh simultaneously, but sometimes the “Grandma said” does sound boring.
    Thanks for the tips!

  2. "When to skip" can vary from author to author (as I noted, Cormac nearly always skips), but what I've observed is that you can skip quite a lot of the tags if you have only two people talking and you give the first person a tag. The reader can sort from context who is speaking; also, if your characters have a verbal tic (like Mrs. McKowen's "you know"), then you don't rarely need the tag for that character.

    I was reading John Scalzi's "Red Shirts" recently, and it was going fine. Then I switched to the audio edition and all of a sudden I noticed all the "he saids." Scalzi has them after every bloody thing everyone says. It was so annoying I had to stop listening and go back to the written edition. The funny thing is that I didn't notice it at all when it was on paper. I have heard that "he said" becomes invisible to readers; but I'm not sure I believed it until I had this experience!

    On "he chuckled": You can use that as a dialogue tag as long as you don't have the comma + lowercase construction. So:

    "You should see his face." He chuckled.

    Then it's the same as any other "action" tag, like Edward's cough, George putting his hand on Lennie's shouler, or my writer fiddling with her earrings.

  3. Reading outloud, that is the acid test, when the flood of dialogue tags bothers the ear. So the tags can get infuriating in audio versions, but most readers who just digest the info in their brains glance through the "He said/she said" with no problems.

    1. I wish Scalzi had done that! I have a hard time reading my own work out loud. I feel like a massive dork. I don't feel that way reading anything else out loud (I read to my kids, after all) but it's just awful reading my own stuff.

    2. I can't bring myself to read my stuff out loud either!

    3. As to reading it out loud -- At first I hated doing it, but I do it so much now, that I've gotten used to it. One thing it's good for is prose. You can feel the flow of a scene and see where and adjective or description, or verb doesn't work very well. I suggest doing it until you're comfortable enough and removed enough from the text to hear and see what a reader might pick up on and just cringe at.

  4. I agree that reading your dialogue out loud is a must -- heck, read your whole manuscript out loud! You can see how the dialogue flows or where it sputters out when you hear it.

    I've tried to get through Cormac McCarthy in the past, but his complete omission of vital tags and punctuation makes him too irritating to read.

    I'd say my biggest issue when it comes to dialogue is the whole deal with the question mark. I don't know how many times I've capitalized after using one and then I go through my whole manuscript and find one I've forgotten!

    Great tips, Steph!

    1. Thanks! I did love The Road, once I got used to his writing style. But it just seems so precious, you know? Like he's trying way too hard to be Mr. Different.

  5. My favorite book about dialogue is "Writing Dialogue" by Tom Chiarella. He's hilarious, but aside from that, he gives really good tips on how to create authentic sounding dialogue. One of his tips is to eavesdrop conversations around you and take notes so you learn how "real people" talk. He does a lot of brainstorming-type exercises to find the "voice" and mannerisms of a character, among other things.

    Although it's useful to study good dialogue (such as the authors you mention here) it can be detrimental to emulate dialogue from other fiction, specifically TV shows. (I know this from experience! Soap operas, anyone?) This venue tends to be super melodramatic and fake sounding. And speaking of fake, it drives me crazy when a character constantly says the name of another character in dialogue, or when the conversation is too trivial (the weather and such). And how about when a writer uses dialogue as an information dump? ("As you know, Bob.")

    Excellent post, Stephanie!

    1. Yeah, I remember being warned against that specific sin: the character repeating the name of the person to whom he's speaking. I would definitely not look to telenovelas or other soap operas for dialogue tips! I think it's essential to study how dialogue is done from other authors, but only from authors who do it well. :)

    2. I don't think it's done on purpose (emulating TV dialogue). In my case, I think I did it "by default", the same as when one uses cliches in a plot or character because we've seen it so much that we assume it's the way it has to be and/or the first thing that pops into our heads. (I may write a post on this!)

    3. We are definitely trained by what we're most exposed to. Whatever we see done regularly becomes our default. I think we can turn that on its head by deliberately exposing ourselves to excellent writing. Would love to see you explore these ideas further! :)

  6. Love the monkeys in the video!!

  7. Stopped by the "Bookisms" article...

    "ejaculated Alice" (?????)


    1. I know, right? :) TV Tropes is such a fun site.


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