Five Ways To Think About Dialogue

J. L. Harland   •   November 3rd, 2019

In our agenda meetings, which usually involve coffee and cake, we often talk about use of dialogue. Dialogue moves the story on but also gives insight into the character. It also helps to provide white space on the printed page. It can be very off-putting to turn over a page and find solid text. Dialogue also allows the reader to form opinions about the characters.

Dialogue to move the plot along

We all know that conversation between characters helps to develop the storyline. But, it’s not that simple. It’s best to avoid overload. Consider the following examples:

Example One.

‘Where did you say they found the body?’

‘By the river.’

‘And the wounds?’

‘Serrated edged blade. Two to the chest.’

Example Two

‘So you said the cyclist saw the body in the river as he was on his way to his job at the mill up the road. Did he notice the rubbish at the side of the river? They have a lot of problems with pollution in this stretch and famers pour effluent into it too.’

‘Yes. It sometimes smells foul, doesn’t it?’

‘How did the guy die then. Have we any clues?’

‘It looks deliberate. He was stabbed twice in the chest. That’s probably why the river was pink. Lot of blood from the wound to the heart. The knife was found nearby and it is a nine inch blade with a serrated edge, like a bread knife only this was a freezer knife. You know, the sort used to slice through frozen meat.’

In the first example the dialogue is sparse, but we learn that someone has been stabbed and dumped in the river. The second example is much more complicated and gives similar information as well as extra information which was not really necessary to the plot at that point.

Keeping dialogue natural

If you listen to conversations on the bus or in a café you should notice that it doesn’t sound the same as written dialogue. That’s because people often interrupt each other, talk over each other, hesitate, use ‘um’ or ‘eh’ or use some words like ‘right’ as punctuation. To make written dialogue natural requires some thought and attention to detail.

‘So, what’s your preference for a hot drink? Would you like a latte or an americano?’ sounds a bit pretentious. ‘What do you want? Latte or americano?’ is more natural. Of course, it depends on your character and how they speak. Have a look below at ‘Distinct voices in dialogue.’

Dialogue tics

As mentioned above some people have what are termed dialogue tics.

‘Well I don’t know, like, what you’re talking about. I’m like, confused by the whole thing.’

Although some people do speak like this it can become tedious to read so toning things down might make it more natural.

‘It’s the end of the week, right. Friday night’s not the night to be asked to do overtime, is it? So, I tells the boss – no way. And he tells me either I do the job or I’m out.’

This example gives an indication of how the character speaks. One can imagine a voice rising at the end of each sentence. To use a question mark or full stop at the end is something the writer has to decide upon.

Distinct voices in dialogue

The way a character speaks gives an indication of the personality. Consider the following conversations.

Example One

‘But darling, I did tell you I was going out this evening. It’s the charity committee. Julia called a special meeting to discuss the venue for the summer ball.’

‘I don’t recall. Do you think you’ll be late back? I’ve an early train tomorrow. I don’t want to be disturbed.’

‘I doubt we’ll be late. I can sleep in the spare room if you’ve gone to bed. Are you back tomorrow or staying at the club again?’

From this we can assume a number of things. Middle aged, upper middle class, moneyed and polite to a fault. Perhaps a businessman whose wife does charitable works.

Example Two

‘Alright mate? What you doing?’

‘Not a lot. Going down the club later though. You?’

‘Just been to B and Q. Missus wants a new kitchen now. Never bloody ends, does it?’

From this we assume that it’s two men, possibly working class, depending on what the club is, one married, possibly a tradesperson or good manually.

Of course, these assumptions could be completely wrong and defying the stereotypes by having the first couple as tramps living by the railway track and the second set as rich businessmen could make for an interesting read.

Using the vernacular in dialogue

To use dialect and swearing that is the question. Is there an answer? We think it depends on the story and, of course, on how it’s handled. If you are writing about a criminal gang it would be unusual not to include swearing of the strong word variety. Imagine a hulk of a man whose brain is in his fists and he’s unlikely not to swear. Again, he may be the exception and that would make for a very interesting character.

With dialect it is difficult to maintain a balance and, if the dialect is particularly dense, it may require a glossary to explain certain words.

He tuk ‘im and threw ‘im right out the dur. Shure who cud blame the wean? Shure the place was like a midden and covered with skitter. Clabber to the knees.’

Impenetrable? How long is a reader likely to struggle with this before casting your story aside?

On the other hand, the odd word in dialect could add to the authenticity of the story as long as the context makes the meaning clear.

‘He’ll no be going oot in that wind. It would fair blow ye off your feet, it would.’

Or even use of a foreign word in context.

‘He’s twpsyn, he is. Stupid as they come. Couldn’t be trusted to button his coat properly.’

‘She’s enceinte again, would you believe? Number four. Full blown, like the great earth mother with the other three scarcely weaned.’

So, we hope we’ve given you food for thought and some ideas to play with. The best way to find out if your dialogue works is to read it aloud. You’ll then be able to judge if it works or not. Everybody has their own rhythm of speech and you should aim to make your characters have distinct voices.

Have fun and keep writing.