Storyville: Writing Dialogue

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There are many components that go into a great story. You need to have a layered, vivid setting. You need to create a narrative hook that pulls your audience in and a story that keeps them interested. You need characters that are complex, flawed, and realistic. And you need dialogue that rings true.

FUNCTION OF DIALOGUE

Why do we use dialogue in our stories? Like everything else in your fiction, it should move the story forward, give us information, or reveal character. It can help to foreshadow events, reveal a vivid setting, and show us deep, layered relationships. If you aren’t doing some (or all) of these things with your dialogue, then you aren’t using all of the tools in your tool belt. So how do you do that?

LISTEN

Whenever you are out and about, or even watching television, movies, or listening to the radio, be more aware of how people talk. Most people are pretty casual about how they speak. Absorb conversations at coffee shops, write it down if you want. Take notes at bars and clubs, family gatherings. And watch how people react. You can put all of that into your writing, and your dialogue.

CONTRACTIONS

Most of the time you’ll want to use contractions in your dialogue. People aren’t as formal as you may think. See, right there. I said “you’ll” not “you will” as well as “aren’t” instead of “are not.” Now, if your character is an 18th century baron, maybe he speaks in a more formal tone, or if you are writing about a character where this fits, even in contemporary times, current day, by all means speak that way. But most of the time you should use contractions.

BREAK IT UP WITH ACTION

Long lines of dialogue are fine, but I wouldn’t go more than a few exchanges back and forth without adding in some lines that tell more of the story, reveal what is happening, describe physical action, use all five senses, tell the thoughts of your narrator or characters, etc. It’s also easy for your readers to get lost, even if you constantly tag your dialogue with he/she said or Bob/Mary said. When you show us what is happening, it does those three things I mentioned above: moves the story forward, gives us information, or reveals character.

Two people are talking about an affair a friend had, smoking cigarettes, drinking bourbon. We want to hear them say the words, “I knew she was fooling around,” but we also want to see a hand run through unkempt hair, fingers drumming on the table, eyes darting to the attractive bartender as she rubs a glass dry, over and over again.

TAGS

99 percent of the time, all you need is he said, or she said. That’s it. “That’s not my shrunken head,” he said. “Well, it’s not mine, either” she said, tossing the dry, brittle skull in the air, a grin spreading over her face.

ACTION TAGS

Dialogue and then action—or if you’re feeling brave, action tags. Now, I don’ t mean those horrible Tom Swifties. You know what those are? “We just struck oil!” Tom gushed. Or, “Pass me the shellfish,” Tom said crabbily. Those are terrible, right? But if you think you can handle it, and I challenge you to push yourself, add action tags to your dialogue—it can show you what is happening in a powerful way. But if you say, “I don’t know,” Jim shrugged, we get more on body, physical information. Those little beats, those breaks—revealing a blush of skin, a hand gesture, usually something physical—they will add to the scene, grounding the words in reality.

PUNCTUATION

This goes without saying, but know how to use your commas and quotations marks. I’m sure you all have it down by now. Refer to a guide, Strunk and White, if you need to. Make sure you capitalize where it’s needed, get your commas inside the quotation marks, all of that obvious stuff. Once you get used to it, you won’t even think about it anymore.

INTERRUPT

I personally hate ellipses…a lot. But find a way to interrupt your dialogue, because people do that. Think about the last fight you had with a spouse, friend or family member. Did you wait for the other person to stop speaking so you could have your say? Do children always wait patiently to speak? I’m a much bigger fan of fragments than ellipses.

“But.”
“Shut up, Roddy,” she said.
“Mary. Wait.”
“I’m not waiting anymore. For anyone.”
“But.”
“No but, no nothing. Not anymore.”
“Please,” he said. “Listen to me.”
“I’m done listening,” she said.

Something like that might work.

SLANG

Be sure to use slang, where appropriate. People use words like “dude, man, yeah,” all the time. Sprinkle it into your dialog. SPRINKLE, I say. Unless a character has a chorus, a voice that begs for it, you could end up sounding like Beavis and Butthead or Jeff Spicoli.

STEREOTYPES

Be careful about writing characters that are dull and obvious—avoid stereotypes. Is every mafia don a fat Italian man? Is every inner city criminal a muscular black guy? Is every woman in distress a buxom blonde? Whatever your characters, try going against type. That’s why Mike Tyson is so hilarious, that high-pitched, lisping voice. It’s not at all the Barry White voice you’d expect from a boxer. But then again, a dock worker in Brooklyn or Baltimore may really speak in a certain way, with stereotypical language and word choices. So if you go that route, find a way to mix it up. A factory worker that always tries to use big words, that can become an amusing trait—or it can reveal a hidden intellect that shows us how dangerous he really is.

READ IT OUT LOUD

One of the best ways to check your dialogue is to read it out loud. Wherever you stumble, mark it, and fix it. Is it your word choice, the phrasing, the way you break the dialogue apart, does it need more/less tags?—all of that. Listen to the words you say and think about who is speaking. Does the mousy librarian say, “Get out of my fucking library, you assholes!” or does she say, “Get out of my precious library, you hooligans.” Think about region—are you in the north, south, east or west? Is your character highly educated or a dropout, living on the street? Their status, their history, their current situation (drunk, angry, dying, lost, scared) will dictate how they speak.

CONCLUSION

In the end, dialogue has to ring true. In addition to moving the story forward (“I slept with your wife.”) giving us information (“And that thing, with her tongue, did you teach her that?”) and revealing character (“I liked it.”) your dialogue has to be believable. It can’t pull us out of the story. It can’t break character, unless done really well. A cold-blooded killer that suddenly shows a soft side on the last page, scooping up a kitten and whispering sweet nothings in her ear—no, that probably won’t work. The same killer that early on quotes poetry in private, tends a flower garden, and helps at his church—then, at the end picks up that same kitten and mutters nonsense to it—that may work. Read it out loud, listen to the words, and ask yourself, “Does this sound right? Would I say that? Do I believe this?” Trust your instincts, your gut. In time, it will all be second nature.

Image of Writing Dialogue
Author: Tom Chiarella
Price: $6.89
Publisher: Story Press (1998)
Binding: Paperback, 176 pages
Image of Dialogue: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Effective Dialogue (Write Great Fiction Series)
Author: Gloria Kempton
Price: $15.97
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Jonathan Riley's picture
Jonathan Riley from Memphis, Tennessee is reading Flashover by Gordon Highland January 14, 2013 - 11:20am

Great column Richard. I have some stories that I need to rework the dialogue for and this insight will help immensely!

Alys B. Cohen's picture
Alys B. Cohen January 14, 2013 - 11:32am

I disagree with a period in an interruption.  Periods indicate a full stop and that the speaker has finished.  It's all right to wait a beat before the next character speaks, which isn't what's happening.  A hyphen indicates an interruption or stammering.  Ellipses usually inidate trailing off in thought or speaking.

This may just be personal preference, but I wouldn't use a full-stop for someone who is interrupted.

 

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On January 14, 2013 - 11:48am

Agreed with Alys. The example used above sans the ellipses or hyphens reads more as fragments nd run-ons than actual interrupted dialogue, which was the intent. I'll say that over-using them can become trite really fast, but they have their place.

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce January 14, 2013 - 12:06pm

When a character gets interrupted mid-sentence, I usually use an em dash, e.g.:

"Tom's a real jerk. I can't stand the way--"

"He's not a jerk," Mary said.

Is this okay? Or does it just annoy people? I'm curious.

Dawn Allen's picture
Dawn Allen January 14, 2013 - 12:31pm

This is why I adore you, Richard! I really dislike ellipse. See too many of them from my students. I think my pet peeve in dialogue is overuse of names. We rarely call people by name in conversation so it's odd when characters do it. Many beginning writers struggle with this.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts January 14, 2013 - 12:36pm

You guys are thinking of an em dash, not a hyphen. Interruption is pretty much solely what the em dash is for. The full-stop works though, just a matter of style preference and intent. See a lot of more darkly dramatic lit stories with the cut-off fragments than, say, moreso humorous literary stories where dialogue is more quickly exchanged.

 

Great column, Richard. Must've been tough to try to pack everything in there in a digestable way.

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines January 14, 2013 - 12:37pm

+ 3 for elipsis used where speech trails off and +1 for the Spicoli reference. 

Great column, Richard Thomas! 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts January 14, 2013 - 12:46pm

I think the using names in dialogue is sort of a subtle thing a student would have to figure out later on in the development of story mechanics. We don't use names in dialogue in real life that much but then in prose fiction we really only have one source of sensory input, through interpreting language, rather than actual visual or auditory cues. You have to put those senses in there somewhere with it still looking like intelligently written prose. Someone new to it might not have the grasp of why to do something though, just that that's sort of how it's done, so they overuse it.

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce January 14, 2013 - 1:24pm

Personally, I use people's names in conversation all the time, particularly when I first meet them (shocking memory, only way I retain names is if I repeat them enough). So I really have to make sure I don't overdo it with dialogue.

Alys B. Cohen's picture
Alys B. Cohen January 14, 2013 - 1:32pm

Using names more than we do in real life is sometimes necessary when characters are in groups unless you want to mention every time someone turns to look at someone else.  The balance is to use them enough to not let readers be confused about who dialogue is directed to without using so many names that it's distracting and odd.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 14, 2013 - 3:16pm

Glad somebody got the Spicoli!

Yes, you can use... or— to show a sentence trailing off into nothingness, or an interruption. I didn't mean to suggest that you couldn't/shouldn't. I just hate ellipses. I do use a lot of em-dashes and if I had to pick on that's the way i'd go i think...wait what's that noise, good lord, no—

I disagree with a period in an interruption.  Periods indicate a full stop and that the speaker has finished.  It's all right to wait a beat before the next character speaks, which isn't what's happening.  A hyphen indicates an interruption or stammering.  Ellipses usually inidate trailing off in thought or speaking.

yeah, i guess this reads better, i just hate them :-):

“But...”
“Shut up, Roddy,” she said.
“Mary...wait.”
“I’m not waiting anymore. For anyone.”
“But...”
“No but, no nothing. Not anymore.”
“Please,” he said. “Listen to me...”
“I’m done listening,” she said.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list January 14, 2013 - 8:39pm

I love this. Such great advice. I always apply speech patterns of my friends or family to my characters. It's helped me a lot. Working in a high school also helps. Teachers have a certain way of conversing and the students do to. You never realize how racist/homophobic/sexual a single sentence can be, until you work with high school kids, ha ha. They like to see how many taboo words they can drop before they get into trouble. Listening to conversations at restaurants is also fun. Went out to dinner and sat beside a couple who met online. Very entertaining dialogue and interaction there. People sing their praises when they're on dates, yet if you read between the lines the truth is there. Discourse analysis is the best. Small part of the conversation overheard:

"I've been divorced for three years, but I am the best father," the guy said.

"How often do you see your kids?" the girl plays with her menu instead of looking at him.

"Oh, you know, once a month. I do the fun things with them though. We play video games and go camping and stuff. I've just been really busy writing a children's book lately. I was told by my friend's agent that the stupider the book, the better it sells, so I've been trying to dumb it down as much as possible," he says, looking at his reflection in the mirror behind her head.

I love people watching. I'm such a creeper ;) hahaha

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Zombie Bake Off by Stephen Graham Jones January 15, 2013 - 2:34am

Great column, Richard.

Thanks.

Kristi's picture
Kristi from Connecticut is reading Anything I can get my hands on! October 14, 2013 - 7:17am

This is a great column! I have been dubbed by my editor as the queen of ellipsis. It was actually a note in the margin! I am now going to try to implement all that this article has offered and stop with the "..."

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies October 14, 2013 - 11:49am

lol...well done,kristi (see what i did there?) 

Kristi's picture
Kristi from Connecticut is reading Anything I can get my hands on! October 15, 2013 - 8:26am

Yes... very nice! I suppose this could go non forever! ;o)

Gary James's picture
Gary James December 15, 2016 - 1:36pm

I'm editing a book where we have two characters, Joe and Jane, talking back and forth. I'm trying to figure out how to use commas, for example: 

Joe: That's right, Jane, I think you hit it out of the park. 
Jane: Thanks, Joe, but do you think... 

Joe: In reality Jane I don't think I need to use the commas. 

Jane: You might be onto something Joe, but I think you need one here. 

 

That's the dilemma. Do I offset the names with commas all the time? Can I just put a comma in after the name if there is a clause afterward that should have a comma? Or can I mix it up? 

Thanks in advance. Anxiously await your response. :-) Gary 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 14, 2017 - 10:49am

I would. They tend to disappear. May feel like a lot, but any time you pause, put one in.