Monday, July 19, 2010

Six Tips for Writing Dialogue



I love writing dialogue. It's not a surprise that my first commission was for a murder mystery play. I've always found dialogue easy to write and my experience as an actor and a director has certainly helped.

Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when writing dialogue:



Start the conversation in the middle. In real life, usually the first few exchanges in any conversation are hellos and how are yous. No one needs to read that.

There's a talker and a listener. This can switch back and forth, of course, but only one person at a time can drive the conversation.

Every character has their own rhythm. When I go back through my manuscript, I always check that each character's voice is consistent. If I can't tell after the first sentence who's saying it then I know I've lost their voice.

Never have a lengthy dialogue with more than three people. In movies or television you can have a conversation between much bigger numbers. In a book it gets too muddled.

Don't forget the pauses. Every conversation will pause, for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes silence is far more powerful than words.

Every conversation has to have a reason to be there. If it doesn't move the plot along or enrich the reader's understanding of the characters, lose it.


16 comments:

  1. I love writing dialogue, too, but I tend to run to banter at times. I have to really be careful on revisions to either cut it or make it actually relate to something in the story.

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  2. Elspeth - Thanks for these very, very helpful tips. It's funny you would mention avoiding "Hello," "'Bye," and other conversation enders and starters. I agree that they can get tedious, and I only use them for 'phone conversations. And I agree completely: one conversation at a time. As a matter of fact, I struggled with that during a three-way 'phone conversation dialogue I wrote for my WIP. Not easy to do...

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  3. Carol; I have to confess I tend to banter as well. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it's simply there for my own amusement and it has to leave. That's a sad day.

    Margot; I don't think I could do a three-way phone conversation unless it was two people on the phone and one person in the room with one of the phoners. But even then, that would be tricky. Congrats on being able to pull it off - but then I'm not that suprised you could!

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  4. really well summarized. ha ha, you wrote the post like you suggest we all write dialogue: short, succinct, everything with a purpose. I like the 3-person rule.

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  5. Elspeth, this is so helpful. Thank you. Dialogue didn't come easily to me in my memoir, mostly because I couldn't remember conversations verbatim. But even if I did, I couldn't put whole conversations in - it would have been so boring.
    Karen

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  6. Robin; Welcome to a fellow BC resident! As for blog posts (and my writing) I'm a fervent believer in the 'less is more' approach.

    Karen; I would imagine that reconstructing real conversations would be an extremely difficult task. It boggles my mind; think I'll stick to fiction!

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  7. My worst nightmare is a party scene. Ugh. And somehow I always seem to have those. I have to try really hard to keep the conversations straight.

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  8. Great tips! I love dialogue, too. I think it makes books a lot more interesting and fast-paced.

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  9. Great tips. What you have said can't be stressed enough, especially about jumping into the middle of the dialogue and skipping all the pleasantries. That applies to the end of a scene or phone call, too. Like you, I have learned a lot about how to write dialogue from acting and directing, and I am so glad I have had that experience to draw from.

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  10. Elizabeth; I had one scene with everyone at a dinner table - I wrote it in short bursts of two people then two people, etc. rather like a movie camera going around the table.

    Talli; I agree completely. I fine descriptive passages much harder to write.

    Maryann; Yes! Middle good - beginning and end usually bad - although I do try to end my pieces of dialogue with a bit of a kick. "Put a button on the scene" is something I learned back in theatre school.

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  11. I love your point about pauses. You're right--they do say so much when strategically placed. And the rhythm thing is so tricky! I wish you had tips for nailing that.

    Great post. Hope you don't mind if we add it to our Friday round-up of best articles for writers.

    Martina

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  12. AICP: Thanks for the idea for another post- I will write another about using pauses. I'm honoured you want to include my post in your Friday round-up.

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  13. great tips. Consistency is particularly important :)

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  14. Lynda; Welcome! Consistency is important; I was horrified to discover one character's rhythms changing a third of the way through the book. That got changed in a hurry, considering the later speech patterns were the correct ones!

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  15. Excellent advice. I like the idea of starting the conversation in the middle - those “Hello, how are you,” lines can get boring pretty quick.

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  16. Great tips - I especially like the one about being able to tell who is speaking in the first bit.

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