Everybody knows what dialogue is. You read it all the time, in every fiction book you pick up. You hear it on TV and in the movies. It’s obvious … isn’t it?
Not really. Writing dialogue is more involved than most beginning writers think it is. It’s not just a matter of slapping down a few lines of speech. Here are five myths about dialogue — and the truth for each one.
1. Good dialogue uses plenty of synonyms for “he said.” Many writers believe that they need to come up with a unique dialogue tag for each line, such as “he exclaimed” or “she hissed.” The truth is, good dialogue seldom uses more than the occasional “he said” or “she asked” — and that’s only when clarification is absolutely needed. Readers skim over those familiar words, and read only the spoken lines. When they hit one of those oddball synonyms, they’re jarred right out of the story trying to figure out what the character was doing. Especially jolting are terms like “he smiled” or “she grimaced” — actions you don’t normally associate with speech at all. Just stick to the old stand-by and your readers will thank you.
2. You need a dialogue tag for every line of speech. Your readers are pretty clever people. They know that when two people are talking, they’ll typically take turns speaking, so every other line will be another person. The truth is, you almost never have to write “he said” or “she asked” at all. Start the ball rolling with the primary character doing something, then just slip in their dialogue. The reader will pick it up at that point and understand that the next line belongs to the second person. Show the action, and you can skip the tags. At most, you’ll just have to stick in the odd “Bob said” or “Sally replied” once in a while.
3. Just write the way the average person speaks. Nobody would read past the third line of dialogue if you did this! Dialogue is not just a transcription of normal speech. Most people do a lot of hemming and hawing, with plenty of “ums” and “ers” and “uhs” thrown in. People blather a bit as well, asking about your health and the family and talking about the weather. Nobody wants to read all that! Condense your dialogue to the main information and skip all the small talk.
4. Show dialect phonetically. This seems reasonable on the surface. After all, a character from Ireland will speak a different dialect than one from China. However, phonetic spelling is hard to read, and you end up jolting the reader out of the story again as they try to puzzle out what the character is saying. The best way to handle dialect is to show one — two at the most — examples of phonetic spelling to give the readers the idea. From that point, you need only phrase the speech in the proper manner to remind them. Throw in a few recognizable slang terms, for example, or show the stilted speech of a non-English speaker. Otherwise, use standard spelling and let the reader “translate” into dialect in their own head.
5. Give the whole dialogue. Many writers don’t seem to know when to describe and when to use dialogue. They include the small talk, the greetings and farewells, and all the little boring things people normally include in a conversation. The beauty of writing is that you can skip all the boring stuff and get right into the meat of a dialogue. Show the characters coming together — you don’t need the greetings, the remarks about the local sports team, or the catching-up on the family members. Start the dialogue when the meat of the conversation is reached, and stop as soon as the relevant information is conveyed. The readers can fill in the rest (if they even want to).
What are some of the worst examples of dialogue you’ve ever read?