Tag Archives: writing dialogue

Effective Dialogue – Hey, watch your language!

Not long ago my wife and I were standing in line at the movie theatre and two guys behind us were talking.  After a few minutes of what I considered to be excessive profanity, I turned to them and said, “Hey, would you watch your language?”  They both looked at me like I had suddenly grown a third eye.  They were surprised that I had said that to them and I was surprised that they didn’t realize how offensive their conversation was.  They kind of shrugged and muttered a confused apology and really didn’t talk very much after that.  Then, when I got to my seat and the movie began, I realized that the dialogue in the movie was even more offensive than the conversation I had heard outside on the sidewalk.  Ultimately, it spoiled what could have been an entertaining movie.

So, as a writer what should you do?  You want to “keep it real” and you want your characters to sound “authentic.”  But how much is too much?  I think most would agree that the language in Scarface was over the top.  A lot of people would also say that the language in shows like The Sopranos is offensive.  It may be realistic and authentic but a lot of readers still find it distasteful.  Profanity also loses its emphasis if it’s overdone.  Then it just becomes, as my mother would say, bad manners.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t use profanity at all.  There are times when a well-placed expletive adds a lot of punch.  In some cases it can also be humorous.  But the effect is lost if every other word is profane and every adjective begins with F.

Some authors will tell you that for their tough guys to be convincing they have to use that kind of language.  After all, a street thug who talks like a librarian isn’t very realistic.  But I disagree.  The language a character uses isn’t what makes him tough.  What makes him tough are his actions, his attitudes, and his personality.  For example, I think just about everyone would consider John Wayne to be the epitome of the “tough guy.”  You’d be hard pressed to find a guy tougher than “the Duke.”  But did he ever play characters who talked like Scarface?  I’ll venture to say that if he had it would’ve had just the opposite effect – it would have detracted from the character rather than added to it.  Is Tony Soprano tougher than Vito Corleone?  Granted, he talks tougher, but is he any more believable as a tough guy?  Humphrey Bogart came off as being pretty tough in The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and several other movies without uttering a single expletive other than perhaps a well-placed “damn.”  And Bogart was a little guy – 5’8” and maybe 135-140 pounds.  A few other notable tough guys: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen.  Okay, maybe I’m showing my age here, but the fact of the matter is all of these actors were very convincing tough guys without using a lot of profanity.  In fact, most used very little compared to the dialogue we hear today in our movies and read in our books.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to use profanity to make your characters tough or real or authentic.  In fact, if you don’t develop your characters properly overuse of profanity has the opposite effect – it makes them look like punks and wannabe tough guys.  Actions speak louder than words.  What makes your tough guys believable is what they do and what they think as well as what they say.

Use profanity sparingly and use it to provide emphasis.  A pinch of salt adds flavor to food.  Too much ruins it.  The same is true with profanity.  So, when you’re writing dialogue, watch your language.

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Effective Dialogue – Proper formatting

In this article I’m going to provide four more simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:

  1. Don’t write phonetically
  2. Don’t use italics
  3. Go easy on the exclamation points
  4. Use paragraphs that include actions

Few things are more distracting or more frustrating than trying to read dialogue that is written phonetically.  “Wail, dayud-gum!  I ain’t a gunna let dem young-uns git away wit dat!”  Huh?  Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen dialogue this bad in print…and it wasn’t a joke.  This falls back on the most basic premise in writing dialogue: don’t write anything that causes the reader to stop, back up, re-read, or waste time trying to figure out what the heck your characters are saying.  If you’ve developed your characters well enough, then you don’t need to write their dialogue phonetically.  The reader will hear it as it would be spoken without all the misspelled words, hyphens, apostrophes and other odd characters.

You also want to avoid italics.  About the only times italics are acceptable are when the reader is thinking to himself, having a dialogue in his own head, so to speak.  Sometimes you also see italics used to denote a flashback or departure from the present time.  But even that can be confusing.  Don’t use italics for emphasis.  Simply use the appropriate tag: he shouted, she wailed, etc.  Besides, italicized print is harder to read than regular font.

Too many exclamation points are also a problem.  It’s okay to use a few but too many become annoying.  Use tags and scene settings to provide emphasis, not punctuation.  If you’ve set up the scene properly, the emphasis should be obvious.

The last rule for writing dialogue is to break it up into logical paragraphs.  Each time a new character speaks, start a new paragraph.  This is how to let the reader know who is talking without using a lot of tags.  But if the same character is speaking and doing something at the same time, you don’t have to break that into several paragraphs.  You can use the action to create the scene and reduce the use of tags.  For example:

        Mary glanced around the restaurant, then reached into her purse.  “I’ve got something for you.” She placed a plain, white envelope on the table.  She leaned in and lowered her voice.  “This is what you’ve been looking for.  This letter explains everything.  Everything.”  She drew the last word out, making sure he understood the letter would leave no doubt.

See how the combination of dialogue and action set the tone for the scene, provided emphasis, and kept the action going without a lot of stops and starts?  One paragraph with one person talking, but interspersed with actions and descriptions.  No italics or exclamation points or tags.  But the reader knows Mary is the one talking and hears her speaking in a hushed voice, whispering, making her point and emphasizing her words.  The words and actions set the tone, not the punctuation.

From the viewpoint of an agent or editor, nothing screams novice writer!!! more than using italics and too many exclamation points.  Phonetic writing is also distracting and should be avoided.  If you need punctuation to make your point then you haven’t developed your characters well enough or set the scene properly.  Remember that the reader will provide the emphasis and hear the dialects without a lot of coaching.  Don’t distract them with punctuation or odd phrasing or confusing paragraph construction.

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Effective Dialogue – No expostulating allowed

In this article I’m going to touch on three very simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:
         1. Avoid too many identifiers
         2. Leave out odd descriptors
         3. Use proper phrasing

A common mistake many novice writers make is to put in too many identifiers, or tags, to let us know who is talking.  When only two people are having a conversation you can almost avoid tags altogether.  The conversation naturally flows back and forth and it is evident who is speaking by the formatting.  But often writers put in too many he saids and she saids or they will do a lot of name calling to “help the reader keep up.”  For example…

         “Carol, can I talk with you for a minute?” Bob asked.
         “Sure, Bob.  What’s on your mind?”
         “Well, Carol, you know I have this big proposal due tomorrow,” Bob said.  “I could sure use your help.”
         “No problem, Bob,” Carol replied, looking at her watch.  “I have a meeting in a few minutes.  Can we get together after that?” she asked.
         “Yeah, I guess so,” Bob responded.
         “Okay” Carol said.  “I’ll come by your office as soon as I get out of this meeting.”

This dialogue can be cleaned up and will read much better by eliminating most of the tags and all the name-calling.

         Bob stopped Carol as she came down the hall.
         “Hey, can I talk with you for a minute?” he asked.
         “Sure.  What’s up?”
         “Well I got this big proposal due tomorrow and I could use your help.”
         “Okay.”  She glanced at her watch.  “But I have a meeting in a few minutes.  I’ll come by your office when I’m done with that.”
         Bob nodded and Carol hurried off to her meeting.

Of course, the best approach would be to strike this whole scene and start with them talking in Bob’s office.  As it is you have an unnecessary discussion that ends because Carol has a meeting.  Unless her meeting has something to do with what Bob wants to talk to her about then you should cut it out altogether.

Another problem writers run into is using odd descriptors.  They’re concerned the reader will get bored or distracted by all the saids so they start using descriptors like he exclaimed, she sighed, he intoned, she breathed…  I’m currently reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.  Her characters do a lot of sighing and breathing words in their conversations.  I find this distracting.  People sigh and they breathe and they speak.  But they rarely do those things at the same time.  But my all-time favorite odd descriptor is something that you used to see a lot in the Saturday Evening Post years ago: he chortled.  I don’t even know what that means.  I’ve never heard anyone chortle in my life.  Thank goodness that descriptor has gone out of style.

The fact of the matter is that readers breeze over all the saids without much thought.  But they get distracted when someone intones or chides or expostulates.  Stick with the same old boring descriptors – he said, she asked, he replied, she shouted…  There are plenty that you can use that will not distract the reader or break up the flow of the conversation.  Just use them sparingly.

The third rule is to use the proper phrasing.  Robert Parker tends to follow a question with the tag he said.  I found this very distracting when I first started reading his books.  Then I noticed that I was mentally reading he asked even though he said was printed on the page.  But you don’t want to distract the reader.  If someone asks a question and you follow it with a descriptor, simply say he asked.  That’s no more effort than he said, and it’s the correct phrasing.  No distraction.  You read right over it and keep going.

In review, when writing dialogue avoid using too many identifiers.  When only two people are talking you can leave out most of the tags.  When three or more people are involved in a conversation then you have to use more tags.  But you still want to keep them to a minimum.  Don’t use odd descriptors.  People say things, they ask questions, they may argue with each other from time to time, but don’t let them expostulate.  And be careful to use the proper phrasing.  Improper phrasing distracts the reader and breaks up the flow.  You want your dialogue to flow and sound natural.

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Effective Dialogue – Get to the point

One problem a lot of novice writers make with their dialogue is they put in too much extraneous conversation.  It’s important to understand what to leave out.  An easy way to do this is to ask yourself, why is this conversation important?  If your characters are meeting over lunch, skip over all the discussion about the menu, what to order, hold the mayo, pickle on the side, blah, blah, blah.  Get to the point. Unless it’s important to the plot or helps with character development, who cares if your character tells the waiter to put the salad dressing on the side?  Most of the time it’s not important at all.  So begin the scene where the important discussion begins.

Another thing to watch for is anything that breaks up the flow of the conversation.  Anything that makes the reader stop and say “Huh?” needs to be fixed.  This generally happens when someone says something they wouldn’t say or does something that doesn’t make sense.  Dialogue should flow and not be interrupted by a lot of stops and starts.  I’m not talking about pauses while the characters react to something or do something that is important to the story.  I’m talking about breaking up the dialogue with unnecessary descriptions.  If the dialogue is too fragmented, then you may be putting in a lot of extra words that aren’t needed.  Go back and read for content.  Does it advance the plot or provide insight into the characters?  If not then you should cut it.

Pacing is also important.  If your characters are talking over lunch, don’t have the food arrive then be gone after only a few comments.  Think about how it would happen in real time and write it that way.  If it only takes a few minutes for the conversation to take place, then don’t have the waiter take away their empty plates when they finish talking.  Let them talk, then take a bite of their “untouched” sandwiches.  Dialogue over food can be a real gotcha if you’re not careful.  If the reader stops and says, “Wait a minute, when did they eat all that food?” then you have a problem.

One last point – avoid the soapbox.  Rambling discourses become boring very quickly.  Get the point across and move on.  If you’re at a party and some blowhard is going on and on about something, you generally tune him out or move on to a more stimulating conversation.  Your readers will do the same thing.  Don’t bore them with speeches.  Remember, you’re writing scenes in a novel, not producing a transcript.

There are only two things you want to accomplish with dialogue – advance the plot and develop your characters.  Anything else is fluff.  Unless you’re getting paid by the word, get to the point.

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Effective Dialogue – Dialogue should be heard not read

For me, dialogue is the true measure of a writer.  I’ve found that if a writer is adept at writing dialogue, then he’s almost always good at everything else, as well.  Writers who fall into this category also seem to use it a lot – not just so their characters can speak, but to show us what their characters are like, to explain how they think, to advance the plot, to provide humor and entertainment, etc.  Well-written dialogue is a terrific tool.  On the other hand, nothing detracts from a story more than poorly written dialogue.

When I was a kid and just beginning to get serious about writing I asked my dad how to write dialogue.  He gave me some basic, grammatical instructions and offered a few do’s and don’ts.  Then he said, “If you really want to learn how to write good dialogue study the writers who do it really well.  Start with John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway, and Eudora Welty.  They are masters at dialogue but they each have their own style.  Studying how they do it will give you a good understanding of how it should be done.”  Then he thought about it some more and said, “The bottom line is dialogue should be heard not read.  When you read what you wrote, are you reading what you wrote or are you hearing the characters talk?  If you’re hearing their conversation then you got it right.”

Obviously, the authors Dad recommended were of his era, but they are still worth studying.  Later in life he added Scott Turow and Elmore Leonard to the list.

When I’m writing and I’m in a groove, it’s like I’m sitting in a booth at a diner and listening to the conversation in the booth behind me.  I’m not really aware of thinking very much or choosing words or putting in punctuation.  It just flows and I simply write down what I hear.

This relates back to an earlier article where I talked about getting to know your characters intimately.  If you really know your characters then you don’t have to think too much about what they would say or how they would react or any of that.  It’s almost like you’re involved in their conversation, not writing dialogue.  So, if you’re struggling with it, or if you don’t know what they would say or how they would react, then you probably don’t know your characters well enough.

Next week I’ll get into a little more detail about the technical side of writing dialogue.  But for now my recommendation is to study the people who write dialogue really well and pay attention to how they do it.  Likewise, if you know someone whose dialogue drives you crazy, study them as well.  It’s always good to know what not to do.  Then look at your own dialogue.  If it needs work you need to determine if it’s a technical problem or if your characters “just don’t sound right.”  If that’s the case then you don’t know them well enough and you need to take the time to get better acquainted.  If it’s a technical problem…check back next week.

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Welcome

Welcome to my blog “On Writing.”  This is something I plan to use to provide tips, techniques, suggestions, comments, etc., on the craft of writing.  While the focus is on writing fiction some of the information is applicable to non-fiction, as well.

I’ll begin by posting articles on the following 12 topics:

  1. Character Development
  2. Plot Development
  3. Effective Dialogue
  4. Don’t Be Overly Descriptive
  5. Get to the Point
  6. Control the Pace
  7. Do Your Homework
  8. Point of View
  9. Practice Makes Perfect
  10. You Must Write Before You Can Edit
  11. Overcoming Writer’s Block
  12. When the Story Ends…Quit Writing

This is basically my “12 Step Program for Better Writing.”  Hope you find this helpful.

For information on my novels, visit “Novels by Merrill Heath”

Copyright 2009 Merrill Heath. All material on this site, the associated pages, and excerpts are copyrighted by the author and may not be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission.

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