Something to Talk About

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Coming soon to an author near you…

See… characters seem like real people! Action… advance your plot! Thrill… break up those huge sections of boring narrative? Romance… as your readers fall madly in love with them. How? Dialogue.

Background Image: Marc Cooper (Public Domain)

Something to talk about – Creating dialogue

The most important element of dialogue is that it should sound like people talking. That’s easier said than written. This is true no matter what time period you’re setting the story in, no matter what genre you’re writing in, no matter how “stuffy” the characters are.

Avoid clunky phrasing, stuffy words, proper names and anything that keeps the dialogue from sounding conversational. Read your dialogue aloud or have someone else read it to you. No matter if it’s a mainstream short story or a fantasy novel, your dialogue should feel natural and sound like people talking.

Some tips to make your dialogue feel more genuine:

  1. Slang: Characters should use slang appropriate to the time period, age, class, geographical area, etc.Try not to write in dialect. For readers, it’s distracting and difficult to comb through. For example, if your characters are in the Deep South they may use phrases like “my stars” or “carry you over” or a simple “y’all.” Peppering your story with phrases like these, combined with the details of your setting should be sufficient.
  2. Swearing: Just as not every person swears, not every character should swear. However, many people do and writers should use this where appropriate. This is a good opportunity to get creative. If your character doesn’t swear, what does she say instead? “Cheese and crackers?” “Geezy creezy?”
  3. Pet phrases: We all have pet phrases we use. Maybe we stick “now” on the end of every sentence. Maybe we stick in “anyway” or “so” when we’re stuck for how to move a conversation along. Maybe we tend to begin sentences with “maybe” too often. In any case, using pet phrases can distinguish a character’s voice. This will decrease your need for constant speech tags.
  4. Exchanges: Very rarely do people actually listen to the person they’re talking with. How often have you been talking with a friend and realized you’re not talking about the same thing? People avoid questions. People try to change the subject. People recall private jokes and earlier conversations out of the blue. Having your characters engage in two separate conversations can add to the reality of the exchange as well as the subtext of your scene.
  5. Chit chat: Yes, people chitchat in real life. But for your story’s purpose, all dialogue should affect the plot, including what would seem to be inane. Otherwise you’ll find yourself stalling the scene, which could result in writer’s block. How to have characters chew the fat (from Pulp Fiction):

“Want a sausage?”
(Jules) “Nah. I don’t eat pork.”
(Vincent) “Are you Jewish?”
“I ain’t Jewish man, I just don’t dig on swine.”
“Why not?”
“They’re filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.”
“Sausages taste good. Pork chops taste good.”
“Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfuckers. Pig sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense to disregard its own feces.”
“How about a dog? Dogs eat their own feces.”
“I don’t eat dog either.”
“Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.
“Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, it’d cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?”
“Well we gotta be talkin’ about one charmin’ motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?”

In the scene, Jules is reflecting on a “miracle” that occurred while he and Vincent were working. Vincent is going on about his day, chatting away, eating his sausage. Meanwhile, Jules is nursing his coffee, caught up in his thoughts.

What the seemingly aimless chit chat shows is that Jules is moving beyond Vincent. Vincent could be likened to the “filthy animal.” It also shows us who they are through their language. Both characters have distinct voices, yet their dialect and slang is similar. This shows us that they are in the same “world.” You wouldn’t expect anyone to interrupt and ask them if they’d care for any Grey Poupon.

Sudden impact – Style of Dialogue

  1. Big chunks.

In novel and short story writing, you want to avoid large paragraphs. For screenwriting, large chunks of dialogue are more common and actors love to sink their teeth into a big speech. An example from Chasing Amy:

“I love you. And not in a friendly way, although I think we’re great friends. And not in a misplaced affection, puppy-dog way, although I’m sure that’s what you’ll call it. And it’s not because you’re unattainable. I love you. Very simple. Very truly. You’re the epitome of every attribute and quality I’ve ever looked for in another person. I know you think of me as just a friend and crossing that line is the furthest thing from an option you’d ever consider. But I can’t do this any longer. I can’t stand next to you without wanting to hold you. I can’t look into your eyes without feeling that longing you only read about in trashy romance novels. I can’t talk to you without wanting to express my love for everything you are. I know this will probably queer our friendship – no pun intended – but I had to say it, because I’ve never felt this before, and I like who I am because of it. And if bringing it to light means we can’t hang out anymore, then that hurts me. But I couldn’t allow another day to go by without getting it out there, regardless of the outcome, which by the look on your face is to be the inevitable shoot-down. And I’ll accept that. But I know some part of you is hesitating for a moment. And if there is a moment of hesitation, that means you feel something too. All I ask is that you not suppress that – at least for ten minutes – and try to dwell in it before you dismiss it. There isn’t another soul on this fucking planet who’s ever made me the person I am when I’m with you, and I would risk this friendship for the chance to take it to the next plateau. Because it’s there between you and me. You can’t deny that. And even if we never speak again after tonight, please know that I’m forever changed because of you and what you’ve meant to me, which – while I do appreciate it – I’d never need a painting of birds bought at a diner to remind me of.”

Whew! Holden has just confessed his love for Alyssa, knowing his romantic chances with her are slim to none. This is what happens when your characters finally stop holding it in (hence his character name, but that’s another article).

If you were writing this speech in a novel or short story form, you could break it up into smaller sections of dialogue. Between each paragraph, show Alyssa’s physical reaction. Is she happy? Stunned? Angry? Crying? None of these? Is she looking at Holden? Out the window? At the painting? What is Holden doing? In fiction, showing physicality (reactions, business, etc.) is a good way of breaking up what would be a soliloquy in drama.

Note that, even in this long speech, Holden’s voice remains natural. It has the improvisational feel essential to effective dialogue. He stumbles over words, repeats himself, swears, uses contractions, etc.

  1. Brief exchanges

Using brief exchanges is the more popular method of writing dialogue for fiction. One of the first novels to use choppy, natural dialogue was The Sun Also Rises:

“It’s cold.”
“Want to walk back?”
“Through the park.”
We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.
“Do you still love me, Jake?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.
“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”
“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”
“Don’t do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”
“You ought to stop it.”
“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”
Her hand was trembling.
“I’m like that all through.”
“You oughtn’t to do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”

Jake, always the responsible one in their circle of friends, is trying to talk Brett out of having an affair with a nineteen-year-old bullfighter. From this small exchange, we can gather that Brett will do exactly as she pleases, despite her former lover’s advice. She is looking for justification of her decision, using the excuse “I can’t help it” over and over again.

The dialogue is natural, conversational and the kind of thing you might overhear people say as they walk through the park. However there is a heavy subtext to these light sentences. Think of what your characters are saying by what they’re not saying.

Both characters have distinctive voices. When writing dialogue, make sure that your characters sound different from one another. People of the same class, location and so forth will sound the same up to a point. But you should be able to have two or three characters have a conversation, without speech tags, wherein your readers know who’s saying what.

The last detail – Basic Mechanics

  1. Speech tags

You can’t go wrong with “said.” It’s an “invisible” speech tag. Ever notice that nearly every speech tag in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland is “said?” That’s because it serves its purpose quietly and moves the story along.

“You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.

Don’t rely on your tags to convey the tone of the dialogue. Avoid “shouted” “cried” “whispered” “purred” etc. as much as possible. Let your dialogue and the situation tell your reader how the sentence sounds. In a longer work like a novel, you can get away with it more than a short story.

  1. Punctuating dialogue

Use a comma instead of a period when the dialogue is preceded/followed by a speech tag.

She said, “You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Use a period when the preceding/following sentence is an action tag.

She lit her cigar. “You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

For beats (the speaker pauses), use commas if the sentence continues around the beat. Otherwise use periods.

“You know,” she said, “that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I’ve heard enough.” She lit her cigar. “That’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Dialogue punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks. No exceptions. Ever. Period. End quote.

For more on the mechanics and formatting of dialogue, refer to The Elements of Style (Strunk & White). Ask your questions about punctuation at Merely Conventional Signs.

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