Creating Powerful Dialogue
The Online Masterclass
What's the purpose of dialogue? Can it really impact the effectiveness of your writing?
Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools any fiction writer can use. From driving your plot, to offering clues about your characters, well-written dialogue can make your story speak.
The Writers' Academy tutor Dr. Barbara Henderson discusses all aspects of dialogue â including dealing with accents and avoiding common problems.
Whenever I work with writers on the Penguin Random House Writersâ Academy courses, I always find some who are anxious about writing dialogue. Iâd go so far as to say itâs most writers who feel this way â some even go out of their way to avoid using dialogue as much as they can.
But this is not recommended. Our fiction reflects real life, even if youâre writing a fantasy or sci-fi â and in real life, talking is one of our prime means of communication.
So I hope that this webinar will help you to appreciate the importance of dialogue, why itâs essential to get it right and what good dialogue looks like on the page or screen.
We can use dialogue in all sorts of ways in our writing â to show character, to drive on the plot, to inform the reader of something that they have to know. And if you are writing for children or young adults, then know that research has shown that younger readers often skip paragraphs of text to get to the passages of dialogue â because thatâs where they feel the action will really happen and where the story will move on.
Dialogue is fast and pacy to read. It makes us âhearâ the characters speak, so it makes them feel more real and alive.
Even Anthony Trollope said, âThe dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novelâ â and I am going to tell you the rest of that quote later!
So what puts us off? We fear writing dialogue that sounds dull and mundane; and we fear writing dialogue that doesnât sound natural.
So Iâm going to start off by discussing what the best dialogue should do â what its purpose is. And this should help you to deal with the first problem â of being boring. And then we will move on to how to make it flow better.
Dialogue should always do one of three things â or perhaps it does more than one thing at once:
First, it should show character. Maybe your character says something directly about what they always wanted â or, even better, maybe itâs indirect â telling someone they envy their family or their great job. This can tell us about their motivation â which is important for readers to know.
Second, it should drive on the plot.
TIP: Check whether the reader will still be able to understand the story if the passage of dialogue was removed. If not, then that passage has a purpose and you should leave it in. If itâs unnecessary â take it out.
Does it increase suspense or tension? Does a character say something that makes the other worried or drop a clue to the reader about a future event? Then leave it in. To give you a simple example, letâs say a child asks his mother when his dadâs coming home. And the mother doesnât answer the question â instead she says something like, âNever mind Dad â Iâve made your favourite burgers for tea.â The reader will guess that somethingâs up here and wonder where the dad is.
Perhaps the dialogue changes the characterâs situation. If, in a novel, someone says, âYouâd better sit down â Iâve got something to tell youâ then as reader we say to ourselves, âuh-oh â whatâs about to happen?â Almost certainly something thatâs going to change the characterâs current situation, if not their whole life.
One of the key things to remember when writing dialogue is that it is an excellent way to show conflict between your characters. Of course, in real life, we exchange pleasantries and small talk all of the time âprobably the majority of our conversations are of this nature, in fact. But in fiction, thatâs would be very dull to read â so keep that to the absolute minimum.
The most exciting dialogue is when your characters are in conflict with each other. One wants something â the other wants something different. You can do that even with an everyday conversation - I saw a good example recently with a writer on the course where her two characters were talking about what they might have for breakfast. One tried to impose herself on her partner by insisting she made him breakfast, even though it was clear he was irritated by it and just trying to make a quick exit. Dialogue was used to really good effect to show how these two people related to each other .So giving your characters conflicting goals can really increase tension â and the reader will understand that thereâs trouble ahead.
Letâs go back to what Anthony Trollope said about dialogue. The whole sentence went like this: âThe dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main storyâ. Keep that in mind!
I said dialogue should do one of three things but I have only mentioned two. The third thing dialogue can do is give information. Think of how Hagrid was able to tell Harry Potter a lot of useful back story when he first took him on his journey to Hogwarts. It felt believable, because Harry was full of questions â and it was a great device for JK Rowling to be able to impart that information.
Just be careful not to have a character tell another something they would already know, such as âOur brother Joe has gone to the doctorâs again. Heâs been suffering from that cough for weeks.â This sounds stilted and unnatural. The sibling would know who Joe was and why heâd gone to the doctors â and probably where the doctor was, too.
Putting information clumsily into dialogue is sometimes called âexpository dialogueâ - in other words, dialogue containing too much exposition or information. Treat information with care in conversation â ask yourself how plausible it is that a character imparts that information in that way.
The opposite technique is a great idea: think about whatâs not being said. You can have a couple argue about what to watch on TV â perhaps she wants an adventure film and he wants a documentary. And it tells us volumes about the state of their relationship. So using sub-text is a really good writerâs technique â and donât worry, as readers are very smart. They will understand whatâs going on.
One of the big worries about writing dialogue is that it can be hard to make it flow.
One of the first things I want to stress is that writers should avoid trying to find alternatives to âsaidâ. Itâs tempting â itâs a bit like being back at school when you were encouraged to use exciting speaking verbs like exclaimed or yelled or muttered. You can get away with one or two of these â but be aware that research has shown readers donât really register the word âsaidâ, whereas they notice those stronger ones and they can start to jar.
If youâve ever read a passage in which characters all shout, opine, exclaim, roar, whisper or wail â youâll know what I mean!
Another common error is to use a non-speaking verb to denote speech â such as âLook at him!â she giggled. In fact you canât really âgiggleâ and speak at the same time. So avoid all those things like laughed, giggled, spat, yawned etc. which are not speaking verbs.
Sometimes writers are tempted to use adverbs to denote how something is said. For example: âGet out!â he said angrily.
If youâve had me as a writing tutor youâll know how I feel about adverbs â they make me reach for my red pen. Why? Because theyâre telling words, telling rather than showing the emotion of a character.
With âGet out!â thereâs no need for an adverb as we can see from the words that heâs angry. And itâs better to use a bit of action or body language to show the emotion instead, such as âGet out!â He flung open the door.
TIP: Adverbs are those words ending in â-lyâ that come after a verb, such as quietly, angrily, nervously. Why not do a specific read-through of your work and strike out any adverbs. You will probably find that they were all unnecessary!
What if you feel you have too many âsaidâs? You donât always have to use a speech tag. You can get away with no tag at all if itâs clear who is speaking. But be sure that it is clear to a reader.
Or you can put a characterâs speech next to a little bit of action: Barbara handed Rebecca a box of chocolates. âWant one?â
We know whoâs speaking without having to add in âBarbara askedâ or any other kind of speech tag.
Itâs a great idea to add in bits of action and description when youâre writing dialogue â this stops it from feeling too âping-pongâ, going back and forward in a sort of empty space.
Emma Darwin said: "For what itâs worth, Iâd rarely let the speech run for more than a line and a half or so, without any necessary help."
TIP: Go back through your passages of dialogue. Are there long stretches of ping-pong dialogue? Add in some action, body language or description.
Something else that makes dialogue flow better is to cut back as much as possible. Unless you really want to show that a character is particularly chatty or verbose, then pare it back so that you only keep the parts you absolutely need. Get rid of âredundantâ sections of small talk. Keep it natural by using contractions such as âcanâtâ and âwonâtâ rather than âcan notâ and âwill notâ, as thatâs how most people speak. And you donât have to write dialogue in complete, fully grammatically correct sentences â as again, thatâs not how most people speak. Just make sure the meaning is clear.
Another major problem for new writers is that all of their characters can sound rather alike. Itâs a problem if your reader would not be able to tell who was speaking, with all the dialogue tags taken away.
So how can you make your characters sound different from each other? Authors use a number of tricks for this.
You can vary the length of their sentences. Perhaps one character speaks in short, clipped sentences when another talks at more length.
You can do this by knowing your characters really well. By knowing your characters, you will also know whether they would use a certain word â or perhaps itâs too intellectual for them â or whether if theyâre a generally kind person they would say something sarcastic or snippy to another. Ensure their dialogue is in keeping with their personality and their background.
TIP: Eavesdrop on peopleâs conversations, particularly two people who are very similar in lots of ways: two office workers of a similar age or two teenage girls, for example. Note how they differ from each other. If you closed your eyes, how would you know which one was speaking?
Ask yourself who the character is speaking to. We all modify our speech according to who weâre speaking to: whether itâs our boss or our children or our best friend. So have the speech and the tone change accordingly.
TIP: Write a scene in which a character explains something difficult, first to their best friend and secondly to an authority figure such as a boss or a parent. How do they change the way they speak?
You can, if you wish, give your characterâs little verbal tics or accents. But be very careful with this â reading too much in the way of an accent can be hard work for a reader.
If youâre ever read the novel of Irvine Welshâs Trainspotting you will know what I mean: the dense Scottish dialect is very tough to wade through and a reader is likely to find themselves having to read it aloud to themselves. Contrast this with the opening to James Kelmanâs How Late it Was, How Late:
"Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head; then the other words; thereâs something wrong; thereâs something far far wrong; yeâre no a good man, yeâre just no a good man."
He just uses the occasional word â but we can really hear this character voice in our head. David Almond, for example, sets his childrenâs novels in the north-east of England but his dialogue is not full of Geordie words. Instead he uses the occasional word to give a sense of regionality.
With foreign accents, again, just the odd word or a different way of ordering the words in a sentence is enough to give a flavour â and by being careful like this, you avoid turning your foreign characters into comedy stereotypes.
FURTHER READING: Take a look at the best writers of foreign or regional dialects: Alice Walker in The Color Purple or Amy Tan in The Joy Luck Club. How do they convey the differences in speech and what can you learn from them?
What if you are writing historical fiction? This can cause new writers a lot of problems. We know that itâs hard to replicate the speech and conversational patterns of the past â if weâre writing in the long past, we donât know how it would have sounded and even if we have a record â such as Shakespeare from the sixteenth and early seventeenth century or Oliver Goldsmith from the eighteenth â weâre asking an awful lot of a modern reader if we were to try to replicate it.
The best historical fiction writers these days have fairly modern-sounding dialogue. They just use the odd word here and there or they construct their sentences carefully to convey period. Avoid what Leon Garfield called âGadzookeryâ!
And make sure to avoid anachronistic words or phrases! I remember a character in an early draft of my childrenâs novel The Serpent House using the phrase âturn back the clocksâ. But that phrase didnât come into use until 1899 â the exact year my novel was set â so it was unlikely that my character would have heard it.
TIP: Do read anything you can from the period youâre writing in, such as fiction from the time, letters or diaries. But remember you donât have to reproduce them â youâre writing a novel, not a replica of a historical document.
FURTHER READING: Look at childrenâs historical fiction writing for good, easy to follow dialogue.
Try Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease.
Dialogue in fantasy novels can also cause writers problems. Thereâs a tendency to make it all very declamatory and medieval sounding.
But again â try to make it a little more natural and conversational, to avoid one of the biggest clichĂ©s in fantasy writing!
Now I want to mention a very important issue: punctuation. Itâs always important, but especially so in writing dialogue. If you donât get this right, itâs very hard for a reader to follow and understand your meaning.
There are some rules you simply have to follow: a new line means a new speaker, for example. So if you have a character sit down and then you have a line break before they speak, this will confuse a reader. But if a character has thoughts or action, then keep their speech beside them in the same paragraph.
Thoughts, by the way, do not have speech marks. You can put them in italics if you wish â this is something that comes down a publisherâs house style. And quite a nice technique to try is free indirect discourse, where a characterâs thoughts are written so they sound almost like speech. For example:
Barbara realised she had turned up for the webinar without her notes. Oh no - could this day get any worse?
Jonathan Frantzen is a good exponent of this technique.
TIP: Get hold of a really good guide, such as The Penguin Guide to Punctuation.
Or keep a printed book open as you write and copy how they format it â noticing where there are commas and full stops, where the speech marks are and where the line breaks are.
What are the most common mistakes writers make with dialogue?
I think I have covered most of them, but they are:
Using too much boring, redundant small talk to sound realistic. Cut this out â it wonât be missed!
Telling, rather than showing â using adverbs and too many alternatives for âsaidâ.
Using first names too often. In real life, we rarely use each otherâs first names. Using them too often sounds weird â even a little intimidating.
Having characters sound the same as each other.
TIP: In your writerâs notebook, jot down snippets of conversation and practice writing in different character voices. And read it aloud! Itâs very important for checking if your charactersâ dialogue sounds natural.
You will always find writers who break rules and do it well. But with dialogue â know the rules and practice them first. And then you can experiment as much as you like!
FURTHER READING: Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall; Douglas Adams in Hitchhikerâs Guide to the Galaxy, for showing characters misunderstand each other; Barbara Kingsolver; Toni Morrison.
Good âhow toâ book: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.