Friday, December 18, 2015

I Can’t Believe She Said That! The Art of Writing Dialog by Joan Young

copyright 2015 Joan Young

Some novels contain very little dialog, others have pages and pages of it. But, no matter how much or how little, if it’s not believable, dialog can ruin the flow of a good story line.

Most fiction includes both descriptive passages and conversations which include two or more people. If more than two, there are special challenges for the writer.

Let’s start with two people. Who are these people? Are they your main characters? If so, you’ve probably got a solid idea of their personalities, and the words they use and emotional tones you have them project probably reflect that. But what happens when you add peripheral characters?

I recently listened to two audiobooks by a popular and established author. Somehow, listening to the words, rather than reading them, highlighted how poorly the secondary characters were differentiated. Many of them used the same catchphrases. Their words didn’t reflect their cultures or economic status. I’m not saying the audiobook readers did a poor job, or that they should have been able to read with accents; I’m saying the author gave these characters words that made them all sound pretty much alike. True, these peripheral players don’t carry major roles, but if they are not believable in their small spaces the reader can be jogged out of the story. I’ll bet you’ve felt this yourself. You’ll be reading along, and a character says something that makes you stop and say, “This person wouldn’t say that; it doesn’t ring true.” Don’t write in such a way that your readers will do this.  

Would Henry Higgins say “Oh so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin'-lutely still?”  Of course not (unless he were mocking). But you recognized immediately that Eliza Doolittle would. If we move to secondary characters in the same story, you would still have little trouble distinguishing whose parent says “You stand on your own two feet. You're a lady now, you can do it. Yeah, that's right, Eliza,” and which one says, “Well, of course, dear, what did you expect? Bravo, Eliza.” Alfred P. Doolittle (Eliza’s father) is the speaker in the first instance, and Mrs. Higgins (Henry’s mother) is the second. Even with two or three sentences, the character’s social status and phraseology are clear.

Sometimes these differences are all you need to identify the speaker, and you can carry several lines of exchange without adding “So-and-so said,” to clarify who is speaking.

Now we get to the “he said, she said” part of the equation. The word “said” is supposed to be the standard for speaker identification. When one reads, the word more or less disappears. The reader’s mind simply notes the character who is speaking and doesn’t pay any attention to the word “said.”

However, here’s a big however. I’ve also recently listened to two audiobooks by another famous author. One whose stories I love. A series by him has been made into highly successful TV mini-movies. But I’ll never listen to another of his audiobooks again. He’s taken the “he said” to such literal extent that I wanted to throw the CD out my car window from aggravation. After almost every single line of dialog was the tag, “J___ said,” “S___ said,” etc. I don’t know how the narrator managed to record the book without going insane. So, keep in mind that your book might be read out loud, or even recorded. Provide variety in your descriptors.

For example, here are a few lines, pulled pretty much at random from a John Grisham novel.

“Where the hell is she?” Trevor barked down the hall just after two.
“Maybe she checked around, got some more references,” Jan said.
“What did you say?” he yelled.
“Nothing, boss.”
“Call her,” he demanded at two-thirty.
“She didn’t leave a number.”
“You didn’t get a number?”
“That’s not what I said. I said she didn’t leave a number.”
        (from The Brethren, by John Grisham)

The conversation is between a sleazy lawyer and his secretary. But before I told you that, you could already tell it was between an employer and subordinate because of the use of “boss.” This also serves to identify who is speaking. Other words used in place of “said” are “barked,” “yelled,” and “demanded.” The reader gets the tone of this exchange without any further description. Jan’s sarcasm is clear without the author writing “Jan said sarcastically.”

This brings us to “ly” words. They are currently considered to be pretty much a no-no. It’s almost always better to show an action rather than label a feeling. For example, is it better to write, “‘I’ll miss you,’John said longingly,” or “‘I’ll miss you.’ John’s eyes followed Megan to the door and lingered there even after she had closed it behind her?” Easy answer, right?

That said, sometimes an adverb gets the job done just fine. Don’t overdo it, is all.

Do be sure the reader can tell who is speaking. We’ve all read dialog where after three or four lines we have no idea who said what. Don’t write like that. Put in just enough tags, names, description, etc. so the reader won’t lose track of the speaker. This is especially important if two characters are similar in speech patterns, levels of status (parallel employees), on the same side of a conflict, etc. The more differences, the easier it is to identify the person either by what he or she says, or the way the words are said.

When you introduce a third or fourth character to a conversation, you’ve complicated the mix. Unless someone has a particularly identifiable speech pattern or role in the scene (a burglar will be the one saying “Get over on that couch and put your hands behind your back,” while the victim would not say that), you’ll need to tag almost every line. Do so in a way that engages the reader, rather than causing a stumbling block.

Ngaio Marsh is a master of large group scenes. She is a classic mystery writer in the same style as Agatha Christie. It would be too much to quote a long block of her writing from one of these scenes, but I just re-read a passage from her book, Photo Finish. In the room are a seven-piece band, the maitre-de, various patrons, and five members of an upper-crust family who are cast members in the story. Marsh gives the reader snatches of dialogs and observations. The reader never wonders who is speaking, but at the end of the scene it is impossible to decide what just happened that was important to the denouement of the mystery. This technique works extremely well in that sort of book.

Marsh sometimes describes the speaker, names the speaker, puts the name of the person spoken to in the dialog (or a pet nickname that the reader can identify), refers to the speaker by role or title, etc.  If you have multiple characters in a scene be sure the reader can tell who is talking, but try to do so without just repeating the “he said, she said” routine.

Recently, I participated in a workshop about writing plays. Several attendees, all good writers, commented that staged drama was extremely difficult to write because all you have is dialog. You can’t give description, you can’t tell the reader/audience what is going on inside a person’s head unless they say it, you can’t speculate or provide background. The set, unless you are writing a movie script, is probably simple. It certainly won’t be a panoramic shot of London in one scene and a millionaire’s condo in Hawaii in the next, except by suggestion, even with good backdrops and props.

Dialog and gestures define theater. Try to picture a conversation while you write it as it might appear on stage, and describe it to the reader.

Make it a habit to listen to books as well as read them. Pay careful attention to dialog that drives you crazy as well as the writing you admire. Jot down the reasons you like or dislike passages of dialog. You can then incorporate the principles you’ve noted into your own writing.

After you’ve completed writing a block of dialog, read it back to yourself, out loud. It’s even better if you wait a day before doing this. Does each character use words and phrases that ring true for his or her unique personality? Can you easily tell who is the speaker for each line? Have you varied the synonyms for “said.” Do you use “ly” words sparingly? Does the passage flow, rather than trip you?

If you can answer yes to these questions, you’ll have dialog that readers will find realistic and engaging, which enhances your story.


Joan H. Young has enjoyed the out-of-doors her entire life. On August 3, 2010, she became the first woman to complete the 4400-mile North Country National Scenic Trail on foot. North Country Cache is a collection of essays about that adventure.

More recently, Young has begun writing the Anastasia Raven cozy mystery series. Currently there are four stories set in Dead Mule Swamp, with a fifth in progress.

She also writes a monthly column for the Ludington Daily News called "Get Off the Couch," and is a regular contributor to North Star, the publication of the North Country Trail Association.

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