Creative Writing
Writing: Characters and Dialogue

How do you write good dialog for your novel or story?

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2011-11-28 16:51:15

Dialogue means writing down the way that people speak and

communicate. Dialogue does several things in writing:

  • it gives the reader information
  • it adds depth to the characters
  • it makes the story more interesting

Dialogue can be tricky to write well. The best way to learn how

to create believable dialogue is to be observant - listen to

conversations, pay attention to how people speak, and jot down

interesting remarks you overhear. Notice body language and facial

expressions, too. Writers are always eavesdropping to get dialogue

ideas!

My whole life, I've been a great eavesdropper! - George V. Higgins

When writing dialogue, stay away from all those synonyms for

"said" - the idea is to keep the reader inside the story, and

reading a lot of "he spat," "she expostulated," or "intoned the old

man" just jars the reader right out and makes them aware of the

mechanics behind the story instead. Also, resist the temptation to

add adverbs - "he said bitingly," "she sobbed heartbrokenly," -

show any emotion in the way the characters speak, not in adverbs.

And just use the word "said." It's short, everyone knows what it

means, and the reader can skim right over it without breaking

concentration. Look at these two examples and see which one seems

smoother to you:

"Well, Bob," the scientist sneered bitingly," as you know, the

experiment was a success, thus rendering you completely invisible,

as you requested."

"But," Bob whined in an annoying voice, "I've read all about

this sort of thing. You did something wrong!" "

Nonsense," the scientist scoffed. "What am I going to do

now?"

Bob queried worriedly. "You didn't tell me even I wouldn't be

able to see myself!"

OR

"I don't see the need for panic, Bob," the scientist raised one

eyebrow, but never looked up from his computer screen. He continued

to rappidly enter data into the report. "I did explain the

invisibility experiment to you quite thorougly. I'm certain we

discussed this ... little problem. You didn't seem very concerned

before we started, though I did mention that you might have

difficulty."

"You don't understand!" Bob's footsteps tapped from one end of

the lab to the other as he paced. "This never happened in any of

the books I read! None of the superheroes ever had this

problem!"

"I hardly think that comic books are a sound basis for

scientific experimentation, Bob. You're going to have to come to

grips with it, that's all."

"But what am I going to do? I was only supposed to be invisible

to other people! You didn't tell me I would't be able to see myself

either!"

Notice, also, that in the second example, I did not need to

write "Bob said" or "the scientist said" every single time. If you

note the actions of the speaker, then the "he said" is implied, and

the reader can figure out who said what. Also, if the speaker calls

the other character by name, it's obvious who is speaking, so you

don't have to note it. You do need to note the speaker periodically

- about every third line or so - in order to make certain the

reader doesn't get confused. But you do not have to do it each

time. In normal, back-and-forth conversation, the reader will be

able to follow along most of the time without any problem.

Real conversation doesn't translate into believable dialogue.

Listen to people talk, but shortcut what they've said when you

write by cutting out 85 percent of the words they use. - Cynthia

Riggs

Follow the rules you learned for grammar, though. Double

quotation marks for dialogue, with single quotes for anything the

speaker is quoting another speaker within his/her speech.

"You'll never believe it," Rachel whispered, "but Stan actually

said 'Stick it' to his horrible boss the other day!"

Notice that the comma or other punctuation goes inside the

quotation marks, not outside. You can add other descriptions

besides the dialogue into your chapters. In fact, showing some

action is a good way to indicate the character's emotion and

personality.

Each character needs to have an individual way of speaking, too.

This is where your observations come in handy. Does your character

use big words and speak in educated sentences, or does he grunt out

broken fragments using short words? A Harvard graduate will speak

and gesture quite differently from a high-school dropout who drives

a taxicab. Watch out for stereotypes, however - some taxicab

drivers are PhD students or closet intellectuals!

Writing Dialogue with More Than Two Speakers

Many scenes in your story will involve more than just two people

talking. There's no problem adding more speakers - just be sure

that you are very clear about who is talking on each line. You'll

probably want to sprinkle a few more "Bill said," and "Alice said,"

indicators into the section so that the reader doesn't get lost,

but otherwise, it's exactly the same as writing a conversation

between two characters.


Here's how to make a good character dialogue:

  1. Have a good idea already in your mind what the characters are

    going to talk about, and what they're going to say in general.

    Until you become a more experienced writer, you won't be able to

    "turn the characters loose" because you won't really "know" them as

    if they're real people. Experienced writers just have a part in

    their outline that says "Character X and Character Y talk about the

    problem" and they know the characters well enough to be able to

    just start writing it.

  2. Stay away from the fancy words -- avoid the temptation to use

    things like "she exclaimed," "he ejaculated," "the red-headed giant

    hissed," or anything besides "he said" or "she said!" The reader

    basically ignores the word "said," and your dialogue will flow

    along just fine if you stick to using that. When the reader comes

    up against some flowery term, it jerks them out of the flow and

    interrupts the story inside their head.

  3. Make it plain who's talking. You don't even have to use "he

    said" or "she said" every time! People will go back and forth, with

    one paragraph being one character, and the next the other

    character. So long as you put in some description that makes it

    plain who's talking, the reader can keep up without you having to

    put in "he said" after each line.

  4. Give each character their own way of speaking. People talk

    differently -- some use big words, some use small ones. Some use

    dialect and slang and some don't. Let the character's dialogue be

    part of your description of that character and show the readers

    what sort of person they are.

Here's a good example to show you what I mean -- you'll notice

that I've done everything I suggested above (except plan it out in

advance, because I'm using two characters that I "know" very well

inside my head!)

Jess closed the door and slouched against the wall. "That man is

going to drive me crazy!"

Kye sprawled onto the sofa. "I dunno. Kirkham's not that bad.

He's just a little ...."

"Obsessed. That's what he is. I'm going to murder him."

"No, you ain't. What you're gonna do is ignore him. Let him run

around like a squirrel in a trap worrying about how the job's gonna

work out. You and me will stay calm and get it done."

Jess ran a hand through his hair. "Can I at least rough him up a

little?"


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