Rounding up a brilliant month of Writing Wednesday guest posts is none other than the legendary Non Pratt!
Dialogue is my favourite part of the job, so much so that I
can often be found shouting, “JUST STOP TALKING!” at my computer because once
I’ve given my characters a voice, they don’t shut up. Many writers find dialogue easiest to get
into because so much of today’s conversational communication is conducted
through writing texts, emails, tweets, comments etc. So online chats with our
friends have us warmed up, but how do we convert that kind of conversation to
You can’t have a conversation until the people involve exist
(even if it’s only in your imagination). What people say is determined by who
they are, and as a writer, you’re not just speaking for yourself, but for every
character you’ve created. Obviously character work is whole other blogpost, but
when it comes to dialogue, I like to think about the following:
What are the
characters into in terms of film/music/books/games etc? Pop culture
preferences influence the things people talk about as well as the way they
How old are they?
Parents rarely talk like teens.
Words are writers’ currency because we like books, but the same may not be true
of the people you’re writing about.
witty/sarcastic/guarded/literal are they? This tip speaks for itself.
For key scenes (confrontations, initial meetings, flirtation
and frisson) I ditch my tortoise-like write a sentence, delete a sentence,
rewrite a sentence and go for broke. I turn off my computer, get out a pen a
paper and play ping pong, with each character batting the conversation between
them. No narrative interruptions, no speech tags (if I’m really into it, I
don’t even bother with quotation marks) – just talking.
WHO SAID WHAT?
The main function of a speech tag is so the reader knows
who’s speaking. With this in mind, the best possible speech tag is ‘said’ used
only when using nothing at all would be confusing. Other tags that are
sufficiently common they don’t draw too much attention to themselves are
‘asked’ and ‘replied’ although they get exponentially more noticeable with each
repetition. Contrary to popular advice I like to throw in the occasional
‘called/shouted/whispered/mumbled/muttered’, but please note the word occasional – words that describe the
volume/tone of what’s being said draw attention to themselves rather than the
speech they are supposed to be describing.
Here are some words that look like they could be speech
These are not speech tags; they are expressions that
describe the emotional state of the person talking and would be put to better
use in a sentence. And on that note…
ACTION AND REACTION
A reply is not the only way for a character to react. Online
etc we use emojis because words alone aren’t enough to communicate how we feel
about something that’s been said: people have feelings and thoughts. Once I’ve nailed
the talking, I fill in the emotional gaps with narrative – not too much, or it
will slow the whole thing down, but enough that the reader has insight into the
characters as well as the story itself.
The inimitable Terry Pratchett said “The first draft is just
you telling yourself the story.” At first draft, a lot of the conversations
between my characters are helping me get to know them better – I uncover the
story by listening in to their conversations. At second draft, those
conversations need to work harder. Once I know what point the conversation is
making, I write it on a Post-It, stick it on the wall and redraft the
conversation to see if I can get there any quicker…
TELLING NOT SHOWING
…and sometimes I would get there a lot quicker if I just
wrote one sentence of narrative.
OTHER RANDOM THOUGHTS ON DIALOGUE THAT DON’T FIT INTO ANY OF
THE ABOVE CATERGORIES:
- Writers find it easy to express themselves on the page, but dialogue is supposed to represent how people express themselves out loud – make of that what you will.
- Some writers (*cough-John-Green-cough*) have teen characters who talk like an episode of Dawson’s Creek with an uncannily articulate knack for insight. Some writers (usually writing for older audiences) will have mundane conversations where the way someone takes their tea is a metaphor for their ruined marriage. There is room for the hyper-real the real and everything in between, so long as the flavour of dialogue fits with the tone of your writing, we’re all good here.
- Idiolect is good, but accents written out verbatim can be hard to read. If you’re going to do the latter, make sure you do it with confidence, you do it well and you do it with reason.
- It doesn’t matter whether you use double or single speech marks. Just be consistent.
- Punctuation convention is thus:
“Hi,” said Non, using a comma
after the word Hi but before the quotation mark closing her
“Hello.” Beth wasn’t using a
speech tag, so she finished her speech with a fullstop and started a new
sentence in narrative.
“I was thinking about telling
people about,” Non said, “the conventions for punctuating a continuous sentence
of dialogue with a speech tag.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Beth.
“Although I prefer to wait until I’ve completed a sentence before adding the
speech tag and then going on to the next.”
Non shrugged and said, “Don’t
forget about putting commas before
your characters start talking.”
Beth nodded. “But only if you’re
leading with a speech tag and not a gesture.”
– Huge thank you to Non for a brilliant and super-comprehensive advice post! And thanks for concluding a great month of guest WW posts.
Well, that’s it for this month, folks! I hope you all enjoyed an epic month of advice from epic writers. Next month it’s back to normal with lil ol’ me.
You may also like this Writing Wednesday post on why dialogue is important.