Writing Captivating Dialogue (Shayla Raquel)

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Dialogue helps readers identify with an author’s characters. It’s primarily used to:

  • Reveal characterization or motives/goals

  • Individualize speakers

  • Express important/relevant information

  • Spotlight pivotal moments or build suspense/tension

  • Move the action forward

Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating a real-life conversation. It’s about giving an impression of it. And, yes, improving on it.

How will you know if a passage of dialogue will advance the plot forward? Ask yourself:

  • Will the story still make sense if the dialogue is removed? If it can be removed without leaving a missing link in the character’s journey toward his or her goal, scrap it.

  • Does the dialogue increase the suspense for what is to come? If a character says something which causes the reader to worry about the nature or the outcome of an upcoming event, it should stay.

  • Does the dialogue change the character’s situation, for better or worse? Do they receive some good news that leads them closer to their goal, or bad news that leads them farther away from it? If so, it’s moving the plot forward.

  • Does the dialogue shed some light on what the character wants? Anything that makes a character’s goal clearer is good and should remain. As should anything that makes their motives (or why they want to achieve their goal) clearer.

  • Does it serve to strengthen the character’s resolve, or perhaps weaken it? Are they told something that makes them wish they hadn’t bothered to set out on this quest? Or make them glad that they did? Either one is good.

Mechanics:

Incorrect: “You never loved me.” Ali said.

Correct: “You never loved me,” Ali said.

Incorrect: “When will you ever love me?”, she asked.

Correct: “When will you ever love me?” she asked.

Incorrect: She askedDo you love me?”

Correct: She asked, “Do you love me?”

When one character is speaking, he has his own paragraph. Then when a new character begins to speak, she has her own paragraph and so on. In other words, when dialogue is happening, ensure each speaking character has his or her own paragraph, rather than putting them all together in the same paragraph.

“What are you hungry for?” Adam asked, grabbing the greasy menu from the holder.

I shrugged. “I don’t care. We can split something.”

He raised his eyebrow. “You and I never eat the same stuff. You like onions, and I don’t. You don’t like mushrooms, and I do. You like—”

“Okay, okay!” Anna said. “Geez. We won’t split then.”

Periods and commas always occur inside quotation marks:

His manager said, “The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field.”

The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field,” his manager said.

The trouble with John,” his manager said, “is his lack of education in the field.”

Question and exclamation marks may occur inside or outside quotation marks, depending on the meaning of the sentence:

He said, “Am I the guilty one?”

Did he say, “I am the guilty one”?

Did he say, “Am I the guilty one?”

Dialect:

Definitions

  • Dialect: a particular form of a language that’s peculiar to a specific region or social group.

  • Syntax: the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.

  • Semantics: word choice; the meaning of a word.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain):

“What’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?”

“I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward):

“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart.”

Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle):

“You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.”

“There is nothing more to be said or to be done tonight, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen.”

Dialogue Tags:

Said

The most common way to indicate who is speaking in a line of dialogue is the word said. Do not overuse the word said and do not leave it out too much. If you overuse it, you’ll annoy your readers. If you don’t use it enough, the reader won’t know who is talking. Find the balance.

If only two people are talking together, and there is little description of action in between, you can go for several rallies of dialogue without repeating who said what. Notice how the following dialogue uses an ABABAB pattern:

(A) “You’re late,” Bob said.

(B) “Am I?” Lacy replied.

(A) “Yeah. Like, an hour late.”

(B) “Oh, my bad. Must’ve lost track of the time.”

(A) “I see. Well, dinner’s in the fridge.”

(B) “I’m not hungry.”

Literal Substitutes

  • Screamed

  • Cried

  • Shouted

  • Yelled

  • Called

  • Whispered

  • Hissed

Her child waddled toward the street, a bus zipping past him. “John!” she screamed, running after him.

She shook her head. “You promised,” she cried.

“Tell me again,” she whispered, holding his face in her hands.

The Invisible Said

Use an action that implies who is speaking.

Alice set down the box.“Are you okay?”

Jim rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t think so.”

“Help me with this.” George gestured to a wooden chest on the ground. “It’s pretty heavy.”

Emotion & Gestures:

Characters don’t just talk. They use gestures. They throw their hands in the air. They sigh and groan and tremble. Use The Emotion Thesaurus as your guide.

She flared her nostrils and glowered at me. “How long? How long have you been seeing her?” (jealousy)

My cheeks burned and I turned away. “A month.” (shame)

I kept my back to the wall and flinched at the sound of gunshots. My muscles tightened. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “We gotta get outta here.” (fear)

Jenna swallowed hard, a stony expression meeting his gaze. Slowly, she shook her head. “How could you?” (disappointment)

Characterization:

  • Yes, dialogue reveals plenty about our characters, but more importantly, dialogue reveals what our characters hide. What is your character trying to conceal? What is it he doesn’t want people to know?

  • You need to know your characters inside and out when writing dialogue. In many ways, you need to become your characters.

Other Tips:

  • Dialogue should be concise. Long, wordy passages of dialogue might seem like a good way to get information across, but they can be tedious for the reader.

  • Dialogue should be broken up with action. People don’t typically stop everything when they talk. They fidget. They keep washing the dishes. They pace. Don’t forget that your characters aren’t static.

  • Read it out loud and act it out loud.

  • Give each speaker a subtly unique voice. Characters who are truly developed in the writer’s mind will often have their own subtle patterns of speech and diction. That doesn’t mean every character needs an excessively distinct style. It just means each character should be fully developed.

  • Don’t tell your readers about your character’s feelings twice: “That is fantastic news,” he said happily.

  • Become a student of observation: Coffee shops, bars, and restaurants are alive with people talking, laughing, and sharing stories.

Before & After:

Surprise/Shock

(Before)

“I need to tell you something, Dad.” Amy seemed serious.

“What is it, sweetheart?” he asked.

“I don’t know how to tell you.”

“Just say it.”

“I’m going to jail,” she said.

Rick was shocked. His jaw dropped, and his hand flew to his chest.

(After)

Amy glanced over at her father as he sat in his favorite recliner. She shuffled into the living room and cleared her throat. “Dad?”

Rick looked up from his newspaper. “Yeah, sweetheart?”

Doubt crept into her conscious, and she tried to shake it off. “I, uh, need to tell you something.”

Rick set down the newspaper, focusing his attention on his daughter. “I’m all ears.”

“I’ll just say it then.” She swallowed hard and bit the inside of her cheek. “I’m going to jail, Dad.”

His eyes bulged, and he gripped the newspaper. A look of confusion swelled in his rugged face, and his muscles tightened. “You what now?”

She broadened her shoulders. “I’m going to jail.”

A sudden coldness in his gut struck him. Tensing his body even tighter, he tried to register her words. “Jail?”

She nodded. “Please let me explain. It’s about Marie.”

Rick let go of the ball of paper, relaxing his shoulders. “Does your mother know?”

Writing Exercise:

Go to Pexels.com and type in certain emotions (anger, fear, sadness, etc.) and write dialogue using that photo as a jumping-off point.


 
 

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The Yukon Writers’ Society is an encouraging, supportive group for fiction writers in Yukon, Oklahoma. They meet biweekly on Thursdays to embrace accountability, to learn more about the craft of writing, and to help group members start and finish their books. The Yukon Writers’ Society was founded in 2016 and provides free meetings for its members. Their group anthology, Shivers in the Night, was published in April 2018.