5 Dialogue Tips

For some writers, dialogue flows easily onto the page; for others, it’s an agonizing battle to find just the right words. Here are some tips for writing convincing dialogue.

Writing With Pencil

  1. Know your characters. If you haven’t already filled out one of those character background charts, at least consider the educational level and basic history of each character. Know what sort of language they’d use. Are they well-educated, using longer words and sentences with correct grammar? Are they less-educated, with shorter words and sentences, and possibly with poor grammar? Do they use idioms and slang particular to a certain area? Are they talkative, or do they say only what’s necessary? Knowing your characters is the first step toward giving them convincing dialogue.
  2. Use individual voices. Each main character should have a unique speaking style based on their history and education. This should be plain enough that the reader could identify a speaker without any dialogue tags (“Tom said” or “Sally asked”). Once you’ve learned all about your characters, this will be much easier, and they’ll develop their own style of speaking.
  3. Avoid the thesaurus. Beginning writers often try to come up with variations on “he said” or “she asked.” Don’t. Words like “queried,” “hissed,” “exclaimed,” or even (OMG) “ejaculated” jerk the reader right out of the story (and perhaps off in search of a dictionary) and defeat your primary purpose as a writer. If you must use a tag, go with “said” or “asked.” The reader will skim over those words and keep reading, which is what you want.
  4. Keep the dialogue tags to a minimum. If you have only two speakers, you can skip the tags altogether and have a back-and-forth dialogue with only the occasional “Joe said” to remind the reader who’s speaking. If you’ve followed Step 2, even that will be unnecessary, as each character’s unique voice will make it obvious which one is speaking.
  5. Skip the tags entirely. One great way to indicate speaker without using tags is to use action. Show the characters moving and reacting instead of telling that they’re speaking. You don’t need “he said” if you start the paragraph with Jeff pounding a fist on the table in frustration, or split the dialogue to show Mary dabbing tears of laughter from her eyes.

What about you? Do you find dialogue easy or difficult? What are some tips you’ve learned?

What I Learned at Dragoncon

For those of you who don’t know, Dragoncon is the largest science fiction convention in the US (ComicCon specializes in comic-type stuff while Dragoncon covers anything science fiction). They have a great Writer’s Track and two different workshops for writers during the con. This year, I opted for the Michael Stackpole/Aaron Allston workshop (with special guest Timothy Zahn). Here’s some of what I learned:

Dragoncon: five days, seven hotels, 60,000 fans

Dragoncon: five days, seven hotels, 60,000 fans

That “wall of books” at your local bookstore will be totally different by the time you write that “hot” book – don’t bother trying to catch the wave. “Evergreen” science fiction areas include epic fantasy, military science fiction, alternate history, time travel, and YA pet fantasies. Do your research and see what’s selling really well in an area you like to read and write about; find the five top authors and read their last two books. That will give you an idea of the best writing in that area. That’s what you have to measure up to! — Michael Stackpole, “Writing a Knock-Out Novel”

In another panel, “Writing in the Post-Paper Era,” Stackpole related a story about a time that he was signing books at a table next to Fred Saberhagen, one of his favorite authors. A young fan came up to him, nervous, and asked for an autograph. Stackpole turned to Saberhagen after the girl had walked away, and told him he’d been just as nervous meeting Saberhagen for the first time. “I just can’t believe anyone would be nervous about meeting me,” he said.

“She wasn’t here to meet you,” Saberhagen replied. “She was here to meet The Author.”

When presenting yourself on the internet, remember that your author persona must be different from your personal one. You are an entertainer. “This isn’t about real, genuine, and authentic – it’s about marketing,” Stackpole says. “Never tweet about failure!”

What we did most of the time at the convention

What we did most of the time at the convention

“Die, adjective, die!” – Aaron Allston, “Description.” Use only the perfect adjective or adverb. They may be efficient descriptions, but this is at the cost of emotional content. Go for the emotion.

“Written fiction is not a passive form of entertainment,” Allston says. “Engage the reader so that they participate.”

I’ll be sharing some specifics of the seminar over on the TWWS Blog at LiveJournal – see the links page to get there.

I also attended several fun panel discussions over in the Writer’s Track: “Fightin’ and Writin'” (John Ringo, Jim Butcher, Faith Hunter, John Robinson, Kevin Dockery, and Sabutai Musashi) and “Dyin’ Laughing” (Bill Faucett, C.L. Wilson, John Ringo, and Debbie Viguie). Here are some highlights:

“Get seven of your research experts drunk. Then put their arguments into your book. It writes itself!” – John Ringo on using expert advice as a research tool.

“You will be beat into the ground if you make a mistake,” says Kevin Dockery. “I’m talking about a decimal point.” (Ringo raises hand and nods vigorously) “The more technical you want to get, the better your references must be.”

The Marriott Marquis is the Party Hotel!

The Marriott Marquis is the Party Hotel!

Asked “Is combat sexy?” the panelists all stared at Dockery, who had an entire room at the Hyatt called “The Armory,” where he showed off a huge collection of weaponry. “Because I’m the butt,” he says, “I’m going to jump in first. I don’t find it sexy. There are situations where it’s more exciting, but long distance combat is mechanical and isolating. To me, it’s a machine.” (Ringo plays an imaginary violin)

In “Dyin’ Laughing,” Faucett asked the panelists why they kill off important characters. “I’m sick, evil, and twisted,” says Wilson.

“I kill off my fans,” says Viguie. “I use their names in my books for characters who die.”

“Never kill the pet!” John Ringo says. “Tom Hanks still hasn’t recovered from ‘Turner and Hooch.’ I did actually write one short story where nobody dies, though. I must have had pneumonia or something – and my stuff is sparkly rainbows coming out of unicorns’ asses compared to David Drake!”