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Writing Authentic Dialogue

I ran across a piece written by Valerie Allen concerning the basics of dialogue that I’d like to share with my fellow writers. Her background is extensive, she is a veteran author and director of several book fairs in Florida. She is also a popular speaker at writers’ conferences, and is co-founder of Authors for Authors. Below is her advice on creating dialogue.

bigstockpeopletalkingThere are no absolute rules about creating good dialogue, but some guidelines help shape a story. Well written dialogue goes unnoticed by the reader because it sounds right. It is not stiff. It is not artificial. It is written to sound as if someone is speaking.
Dialogue has three main functions:
1. Reveal more about a character
2. Establish the relationship of one character to another
3. Move the story forward
Some basic guidelines for using good dialogue include
  • Create a new, indented paragraph every time a different character speaks
  • If more than one speaker is involved in the conversation use his/her name to clarify who is speaking
  • Use the noun-verb form (Valerie said not said Valerie)
  • If it is a statement the tag is said (“Valerie is here,” she said.)
  • If it is a question, the tag is asked (“Valerie, where are you?” she asked.)
  • Use movement, a gesture, or a tag instead of said/asked (Valerie opened the door. “Here I am.”)
  • Use vocabulary appropriate to the age, education, and culture of the speaker, as well as the context of the story
  • Write conversation as it is spoken, not structured as standard written English
  • Dialogue is primarily about what the speaker believes his/her problems or conflicts to be
  • Punctuate so it is easily read without confusion
(George, the alligator bit me.
George, the alligator, bit me.
George! The alligator bit me.)
  • Do not have characters continuously address each other by name
  • Do not have characters giving each other information they already know; use exposition (Not: Valerie, I remember on your birthday, July 20th, we went on a picnic.) Valerie likely knows when her birthday is!
  • Avoid dialects; use just a few telltale words to give the flavor of the dialect and then return to standard English
  • Contractions make dialogue more natural (It’s; I’ll; We’re)
  • Use apostrophes for missing letters (don’t, you’ve, goin’)
  • Incomplete sentences are common in dialogue
(“Where are we goin’?”
“Out.”
“Where out?”
“Quiet, or you’re not goin’.”)
Good dialogue should mimic common speech patterns to keep the story believable and fast paced.

Dialogue Tips

English: Exclamation Colon
English: Exclamation Colon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dialogue Tips

 

  • Dialogue should do one of two things: move the plot along or reveal character
  • “Said” and “asked,” are better than the multitude of other dialogue tags such as responded, agreed, etc.
  • Better still, use the character’s action as a dialogue tag instead. “No way.” Dan pulled out his gun.
  • Or use description as a dialogue tag. Cynthia’s silk skirt swirled around her long legs. “Are you coming or not?”
  • Go easy on the exclamation points. If the dialogue is exclamatory enough, an exclamation point is unnecessary. An Exclamation point should never be used in narrative. Elmore Leonard said, “Use only one exclamation point in a novel.”
  • Don’t ever have a character tell someone something that they already know to get information across. Maybe it is something that ought to be in narrative, but be careful of an information dump.
  • Though you want dialogue to be realistic sounding, don’t copy how we really talk such as: “Hello, how are you.” “I’m fine, and you?” Leave all this greeting stuff and comments about the weather out (unless it’s important to the plot).
  • When writing, start a new paragraph every time a new person speaks or does something. This will help the reader follow what is going on.
  • Even if the conversation is between two people, put a dialogue tag in every so often so the reader knows who is talking.
  • Never have one person speak for long periods of time. When we’re talking to one another, we interrupt, change the subject, etc.
  • Be sure the reader knows where the dialogue takes place.
  • Lastly, beware of talking heads. We need to see the characters and what they are doing during the conversation. No one sits or stands perfectly still while talking, and this brings you back to the fact that you can use an action as a dialogue tag. “Phil scratched his head. “What do you expect me to do about it?”

Courtesy of Marilyn Meredith, author of the Rocky Bluff P.D. series, under the name F.M. Meredith, and the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. http://fictionforyou.com

 

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