Dialogue Helps to Tell Your Story

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This is a guest post by Charles A. Ray. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

Dialogue can make or break your short story or novel. No matter how good the plot or subject line, poorly-written dialogue can turn a reader off quicker than anything.

I recently read a draft novel manuscript that had a fascinating premise, a compelling story line, and conflict aplenty. I was, nonetheless, completely turned off because every character in the story sounded exactly alike. They all used the same stilted Shakespearean speech, and sounded as if they were reading from Hamlet. Even a street smart black activist student, who was portrayed as aggressive and racially sensitive, talked as if he was the villain from Othello.

This is not to suggest that the character should have been lampooned, or that his dialogue should have been a parody of ‘Amos and Andy’ or ‘Shaft.’ But, the character would have been more credible and believable if the dialogue had been less formal, with more use of modern slang, instead of the formal speech that was employed. The only slang word this character used in the first chapter, in over a half page of dialogue, was the word ‘ofay,’ which was inserted in a formal sentence, making it stand out like a pimple on prom night; and it was as unwelcome and out of place as a pimple. Reading the passage, which described his encounter with his professor, I had difficulty telling which of them was speaking without looking at the tags, or going back to see who spoke last. This was clearly a case of poor dialogue ruining an otherwise good story.

A more effective technique is to give each character a distinctive voice; either through the words they use, or some other action that belongs to that character and that character alone. Dialogue should be written so that the reader knows immediately which character is speaking.

A good way to learn to write effective dialogue is to eavesdrop on the people around you. Note the quirks that distinguish one speaker from another. For example, teenagers these days seem to put the word ‘like’ indiscriminately in their speech. Here’s an example of a conversation I overheard on the subway one day, “He was like really out of control, and like I just couldn’t get into what he was like saying, you know.” That is an actual line of dialogue that could be used in your story. You have to be careful in most cases not to use what you hear verbatim. People don’t often say what they want to say as succinctly as you need your characters to speak to keep your story moving; but informal expressions in your dialogue will make your characters sound like real people.

If you want your writing to keep people interested, in addition to a strong plot, and an interesting theme, you need characters that people find believable. This means learning to write dialogue that holds a reader’s interest as much as the plot. Dialogue, when well written, can help to identify a character more effectively than paragraphs of description or narrative, and it can help keep your story moving. More importantly, it can keep a reader interested in your story from the opening sentence through to the end.

You can check Charles’ page on RedRoom for commentary on leadership, politics and life in general, as well as information about his books.

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9 thoughts on “Dialogue Helps to Tell Your Story”

  1. I would also say dialogue which uses too much phonetic spelling should be avoided. An example would be Hagrid’s dialetic in the Harry Potter series. There were sentences which only had 1 or 2 words spelled the correct way, which leads to readers slowing and stumbling in their reading. I’d say the opposite, 1 or 2 words in a sentence spelled phonetically, is a better approach, but even that may be a bit much.

    Slang, character phrases (words or phrases unique and repeatedly used by a character throughout a story), sentence length, and complexity of vocabulary can all be be considered. I prefer to write my first draft without paying as much attention to the dialogue. After I’ve finished, I have a better understanding of my characters and will change their dialogue to reflect them when I go through the editing process.

  2. Charles,

    I was fascinated at the sheer volume of background material left by JRR Tolkein. In addition to Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham, the Silmarillion, etc., he kept essays, treatises, and biographies of characters, of races and cultures, of artifacts – all to keep a rich background of information consistent throughout each story.

    Would you recommend a biography for each character? Something brief for minor players, but sufficient to “know” the character, to understand the background and why that character acts and reacts as he/she/it does? A way to fix the jargon, figures of speech, like the Canadians and Minnesotans do, eh? Uff-da!

  3. I go the other way. There tends to be far too much dialogue in many novels today – I always think the writers would be better off writing TV or stage plays.

    Dialogue should be used sparingly, to give the idiomatic sense of VOICE, how the character expresses themselves, their world view and education level etc – but with economy of writing. What they’re doing with their hands while they’re talking will probably tell me more than what they’re saying. Or at least it will do in a book that doesn’t play everything straight.

    I am more drawn to inner thoughts than outer conversations.

  4. I totally agree. Often dialogue does kill the story. Sometimes there is too much, or there isn’t enough. Dialogue should be fast paced and reflect who your character is. Thanks for the great article.

  5. This is a helpful article.

    I find in my writing I use very little dialogue; in short story pieces I actually tend to use none. I’m not actually sure why this is. I think it’s probably personal and related to style. I am very descriptive and prefer to ‘set the mood’, focusing on atmosphere and a description of characters’ actions rather than have them speak alot. I think dialogue, as this article discusses, has become obsolete, or rather the overuse of it has. If you can portray successfully what a character wants/what is happening in the action of the story without using it I think overall it ‘looks’ and ‘feels’ better as a story. (There is nothing worse than pointless dialogue).

    That said, it is handy for those one-liners to keep the pace flowing.

    ‘Just my two bobs worth’ she said. 😉

  6. It’s difficult to write effective fictional dialog without a good understanding of common human motivations and desires. Females tend to use more words referring to people and relationship, and they tend to be more self centered. They want to be directly interacting with other human hearts.

    Example: “I went to get some copies made, and I was really in a hurry. I got to Kinkos, and there was this older lady, like around 30, and she was like taking so long.”

    Example: “I was working on a project, and to save money I used a copy service. It only made good sense. I had a date to meet shortly, but there were other people ahead of me at the service counter. What can you do?”

    Kids: “Daddy, do you think I’m beautiful?”

    Parent: “You’re the most beautiful little girl, but not as beautiful as your Mommie.”

    Older: “Damn scarlet fever got Ma’s whole rooming house; All except her daughter, Rachel. When some of the men recovered, they went back to the mill, and their jobs were gone. It was a tough time.”

    Vulgar: When she heard about her son, she coughed hard and deep, wheezing, “Woah! do I ever need a cigarette.” After they had expressed their condolences, and left her alone, tears welled up in her eyes, and she cried, “My Johnnie. My Johnnie. My children. Why, God? Why?” And she poured herself weary slug of bootleg whiskey. She said, “Not worms. I don’t want the worms!” And she beheld strange visions, nightmares in the daylight. And at night a darkness that could be felt. She cried, “Fuck this life. Fuck it. Fuck it. Fuck it.”

  7. I have enjoyed your advice. I do want to add that I met a woman who taught me over over coffe, with one pieceo of paper, how to write dialogue that was not ‘cooked’ or ‘dead’ (my terms). I went on to teach this and other of her methods that she had learned when she attended the Bay City Area Writing Project that studied how creative writers really write.

    It is simply this: Take one piece of paper between two people (best if they not know each other well). Let them discuss in pairs and decide who they are as characters (two neighbours?), where they are (at the back fence?), what the problem is (‘your terrier is digging under my fence and chasing my poor cat’?), and who goes first. Then there is no more talking as the paper passes back and forth with each one seeing what the other has written only when they recive it in order to respond. There are a lot of smiles and sly looks. The end comes naturally but there is still silence. When all are finished, each pair reads what they wrote in turn without ever stating who they are, or where they are, or what the problem is. That becomes apparent through the dialogue. There is a lot of laughter and gasps. The room is alive and the dialogue is alive and the ‘story’ moves forward.

    If you wish you can hear and see my first attempt at a podcast and blog at AnnasBittersweetRiver.com I would enjoy receiving any comments.

  8. I’m writing a book and I find that sometimes my story just doesn’t flow, I don’t know if I’m a bad writer or if I’m just doing something wrong. Chunks of my writing would sound and flow amazing, other chunks would be, well, chunky. Maybe I’m rushing it, maybe I don’t know what I want them to say or do in that specific scene. All I do know is that it frustrates the hell out of me. Hopefully after I do my BA in creative writing I will actually feel better about my writing. Hopefully. Rant over. Sigh.

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