If you just sat down to read this and haven’t read part A of this installment yet, please click here. This installment will talk more about how you can use dialogue to augment your writing, while the last part explained how to create strong, believable dialogue.
So how can you use dialogue to your advantage? Dialogue is just dialogue, right? You need it one way or another; it isn’t an extraneous addition. That’s completely true, but that doesn’t mean you’re required to think inside the box. Like anything, dialogue is a tool, and tools are there for you to use in a variety of ways. Before I get into anything fancy, though, I want to bring out one more point that I believe is key to creating quality dialogue.
First off, note that what I’m going to say here isn’t what your writing teacher told you. It isn’t what the “experts” will tell you. In spite of that, I’m right. That sounds more than a little conceited, but I’m deadly serious here, and I’m by far not the only one who holds the same view on this. What am I talking about?
“When writing dialogue attributions, almost always use said.”
It’s likely you’ve heard that before. The argument behind this “staple writing rule” is that said is invisible to the reader, and that using other verbs for dialogue is distracting and useless to your reader. There is merit behind this mindset—I don’t deny that. However, it’s a very robotic way of thinking. How should you look at it? Well that’s up to you, and in the end, your personal writing style is what matters. Let’s dive into this a little deeper.
There are pros and cons behind using only said. I’m not going to draw up a list here, because it’s not that clear-cut. When you use said, it is generally invisible. It’s the simplest attribution there is; it’s telling the reader who just “said” the last chunk of dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with that, however as a writer, you should never overuse a word. It doesn’t matter what that word is—said is subject to that rule just like anything else.
Said is not invisible when you use it too much.
Some might argue against that train of thought, but you can’t argue against what a reader sees when they read your work. I was a reader before I was a writer, and when I read a “well respected” author and saw said used over and over and over… I saw those attributions. It bugged me, and that was back when I was fairly young. It bugs me even more so now. It’s lazy. It’s a cop-out that uses the “expert opinion” as a fallback crutch.
But what if you don’t use said? What if you use screamed, or cried, or whispered? What if you take into account what’s happening in the scene before choosing what attribution to use? There’s nothing exactly wrong with that, however you don’t want to be redundant.
If your story just read … “What’s wrong with you? I know you did it!” Sally accused. … you’ve got a problem.
Why? Because there was no need to tell the reader that Sally was accusing someone of something; she just said “I know you did it!”, so why do you need to state that the dialogue there was an accusation? You don’t, and that’s a prime argument that any writing teacher will give you for the exclusive use of said.
That’s only looking at one side of it, though. It’s perfectly possible to find an attribution in most cases that isn’t redundant, and isn’t spelled s-a-i-d.
If your story just read … “It’s okay, I believe you.” Sally whispered. … do you have a problem?
No, you don’t. If you simply put said in place of whispered there, the true intent of the dialogue wouldn’t have been portrayed. There are a lot of instances where this is true, and sadly that’s something that a lot of teachers completely ignore in their discourse. I argued quite a bit with an instructor of mine about this subject (I can be a bit too difficult for my own good), and after a long discussion, he basically backed down and said that there are many different ways to write.
The fact is, you can indeed distract your reader if you continually force a synonym for said into your dialogue. As with anything, you need a balance. Your writing should flow and incite your reader’s interest, so just the same as using synonyms of said again and again, using said again and again is not going to make your reading flow. Striking that balance between the two can be difficult, but in the end it’s usually pretty apparent what attribution fits each piece of dialogue. If someone asked a question, asked is a perfect attribution. If someone said something in a harsh, quick tone, barked is a workable attribution. If someone just said something… you can still use said. You know your writing better than anyone else, so make a concerted effort to piece your dialogue together correctly.
How can we break this all up though? Well, we of course do not need a “he said/she said” after every spoken phrase. In a two-way conversation, it’s often clear who is saying what after you’ve established who is speaking in turn. This might seem like a very basic principle, but it’s a key component of writing dialogue that is enjoyable to read. Make sure you don’t confuse your reader, though.
What I want to talk about more deeply here is something called a beat. Beats are very simple, but at the same time, when you utilize them correctly, the effect is drastic. Let me illustrate.
“What am I supposed to do?” Tom asked.
“Well I don’t know,” Mary replied. “Have you tried talking to her?”
“Absolutely not! She doesn’t even know I exist, Mary.”
“That’s the problem, silly. It’s up to you to change that!”
There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, pick up a book off the best seller rack and you’ll likely read a passage of dialogue that is structured just like this. That’s just lovely, but it’s boring. It’s weak. It’s lazy! How can we use beats to make it better?
“What am I supposed to say?” Tom asked.
“Well I don’t know,” Mary shot him a knowing look. “Have you tried talking to her?”
“Absolutely not! She doesn’t even know I exist, Mary.”
She laughed and slugged him in the shoulder. “That’s the problem, silly. It’s up to you to change that!”
See how that works? There’s only one attribution in that exchange. A beat is extremely simple, but it goes a very long way towards livening up your dialogue. The first example was boring, simple, and told you very little about either character. Even though this is an extremely short example of dialogue, in the example above you can at least immediately see Mary’s personality a little. There’s more life in your dialogue when you use beats.
In technical terms, a beat is a sentence of a character’s action, before, after, or in the middle of a line of dialogue that shifts the reader’s focus to that character. It eliminates the need for an attribution, and it gives us a much better image of the scene.
The key is to use balance. Don’t become a mindless drone of the “expert’s” creed. Pull from each practice, mix it up, and make your writing flow. That means you shouldn’t be afraid to use said, synonyms of said, or beats. One thing I will suggest is that you make pretty heavy use of beats. Don’t be stingy with them. It’s much cleaner to the eye to read actions than it is to constantly wade through he saids and she saids, including any synonyms thereof. It might take a little bit more effort, but you should never sacrifice quality for ease of writing. That’s another thing I’ve heard from teachers. “Just use said. It’s invisible to the reader, and it’s easier on you.” Easier on you? I think the silliness behind that idea speaks for itself.
We’ve finally come to the end of this installment of Breathe Life Into Your Writing! I hope you were able to get a good idea of how you personally can create strong, well written dialogue. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.
There will be more to come soon, but in the meantime, be sure to read up on the other parts you might have missed!
- Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part IVa: Dialogue
- Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part III: Symbolism
- Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part II: Metaphors & Similes
- Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part I: Personification
- Debunking Writing Myths: Always/Never Use “Said” (kayedacus.com)
We’re getting deep into these now, aren’t we? I feel pretty fancy using Roman numerals beyond a series of “I”s strung beside each other; now I’m using “V”s! Stupidity aside though, if you haven’t read any of the first three parts, I’d suggest you start here. You don’t have to, but since this series is aimed to build your repertoire of skills to liven up your writing, every little bit helps. If you’re too lazy and just want to read this one? Well, that’s okay too. Let’s get started.
Dialogue sounds pretty simple. In a way, it is. Compared to the other points I touched on in this series, dialogue seems far more basic and structural. That’s true, because without good, meaningful dialogue you don’t have a story. The thing is, dialogue is much more than just a boring, structured necessity. Dialogue is something you can use to help your story soar or plummet to the earth. Use it correctly, vividly, and it might even carry your writing (which we don’t want to happen, but still). Use it incorrectly, and no one will keep reading your stuff.
Listen up; dialogue is important.
Not just a little important; dialogue makes your story. Without dialogue, your story is going to read like an essay, complete with mind-numbing blocks of exposition that no one wants to read forever. Without dialogue, you might as well be writing something like this. An article. People read articles to learn something, or to follow something someone did (in the case of blogs in general). When people read to learn, they do want to be entertained, but they’re reading for a different purpose. When people are reading a blog about someone’s life, what happened to them that day, etc, the entire piece moves because it’s a firsthand account of something that really happened. Even though it’s not dialogue, it comes across more interesting because it’s almost as if the writer has sat you down and is directly talking to you about what happened. It comes across stronger than simple exposition.
What about stories though? People read stories for one reason: to be entertained. That’s why fiction writing is so difficult. If you know a lot about a certain topic and you know how to write, it’s not that hard to write something like this; something instructional. When you’re writing fiction, you have to captivate your reader at every turn. You have to keep them guessing, but you can’t confuse them too much. You have to keep the story moving, but not too fast. You have to make the characters believable, but not too believable and boring. You have to make the story more realistic than real life, but still include aliens and vampires.
It is fun, but it’s a juggling act. Society has a pretty short attention span, and you have to make a masterfully concerted effort to keep that focus. It’s not easy. What’s the point behind all this? Dialogue is likely your number one tool in grabbing people’s attention. Exciting, believable dialogue that moves your story along will go a long way towards interesting your readers. How can we create that dialogue though? How can we do it right?
That’s an extremely complex topic. I could probably write a whole new series just on dialogue. Instead, I’ll try to be concise here. I’ll try to highlight a few things that I think are the key elements of successful dialogue.
- Understand your characters.
- Consider where your scene is going.
- Keep it real.
No kidding, that’s it. If you get those three points down, you’ll be a dialogue god. Unfortunately, not many have done that. I guarantee that even the greatest authors of all time still write a scene, read back the dialogue, and throw it in the trash. It’s a constant struggle. That’s not too say it’s hopeless; a lot of the time you can sit down and pound out a scene full of dialogue, read it back, and it’s perfect.
You have conversations yourself, so you know how people talk. When you try to replicate real speech onto the screen it often comes out sounding funny. Still, there will be a lot of times where it just flows. One character says something, and the next replies like anyone would, just like two people in real life. Hopefully you made sure to make their conversation mean something to the piece, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s go over each point in a little more depth.
Understand your characters
The point behind this is that you don’t want dialogue written that doesn’t match your character. If you’re writing the dialogue of a six-year-old, which spoken phrase would he use?
The sound of tiny scampering feet against linoleum made Mrs. Parker turn towards the noise. Her little one latched onto her leg—almost causing her to fall—and whined, “Mommy my tummy hurts!”
Obviously the first one doesn’t fit, unless little Timmy was abducted by aliens where they injected arcane knowledge into his little brain before laying him back in his bed. That’s the point here, dialogue needs to mirror your character’s motivations, goals, and personality. If you understand your character inside and out, you won’t make as many mistakes when you’re writing their dialogue.
If I could choose any of these three points to pick out as being the most important, it would be this one. I can get over a line of dialogue in a story that doesn’t have much purpose being there, or sounds a little contrived when I read it aloud, but when a character says or does something that just plain doesn’t fit them? That annoys me, and unless I’m really absorbed in the writing, I might not keep reading. Still, this is only one point. They’re all important; especially this next one.
Consider where your scene is going
This point is actually too simplified. Not only do you want to keep in mind the direction of the scene, you also want to look at the big picture. I’m talking about the plot, theme, and direction of the entire piece of writing. Dialogue in the first chapter might connect to something at the end of a book! Read the example below and keep in mind that this dialogue is placed a story titled… “A Shadow In The Deep” (if there is a real book called that, woops).
The smell of booze and saltwater drifted about the sleepy tavern, old neon lights above the bar humming a peaceful tune. A ratty old man, weathered and grey by the raging seas took a swig of his bottle and said to a man across from him, “Went out yesterday an’ caught me a whole mess of cod. Should have seen the nets full to bursting, ha ha!”
The smell of booze and saltwater drifted about the sleepy tavern, old neon lights above the bar humming a peaceful tune. An old man sat across from another, terror fixed on his wrinkled face as he whispered to the man across from him, “I think my days on the sea are over, Ted. Have you seen it? That thing? I swear, I saw it! Sliding beneath the waves, bigger than a whale! Someone’s going to get killed by that monster, mark my words…”
This one isn’t as obvious as the first examples with the little boy. There’s believable dialogue in both of these, and each example stays pretty true to a discussion between two old seadogs over a pitcher of ale. The difference here isn’t that one of these examples is wrong, it’s that the second one has a purpose being in the story and the first doesn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with a casual conversation between fishermen talking about their haul, but what does that tell the reader about the theme of the story? How does that move the story forward? It doesn’t, but when we read the second example, we see that one of the men is haunted by something he saw. He warns his old fishing buddy about what he thinks is out there, beneath the waves and waiting to strike, as he believes. When we read that, we’re given a glimpse of what’s to come. It creates suspense in knowing that as we read through this story, we’re slowly getting closer to learning the truth and meeting this monster face to face.
Don’t you agree that the second example accomplishes more, considering where the scene and story are going? This is a more difficult point, because we don’t want to load every line of dialogue too heavily with plot information, but we need for our dialogue to serve a purpose. Even if two of your characters have a casual conversation, it should serve a purpose, even if that purpose is just making the characters more comfortable around each other. Perhaps they shoot the breeze about sports in chapter three, and end up falling madly in love in chapter eight? The first small conversation served a purpose, and that’s the idea here.
Keep it real
The focus behind this point is pretty simple. We just want our dialogue to be believable. We want to be able to see the characters in front of us, and hear what they’re saying. That’s a difficult task you have as a writer, in that you’re trying to make words come across as visual. When your reader can picture what they’re reading clearly in their mind, you’re doing a great job. How can dialogue lend strongly to this, though? Lets look at another example.
The slam of the door echoed through the house, shaking the walls as a woman stood facing the blocked doorway and said, “Abbie, you need to calm down. Open the door.”
“No mom,” Abbie replied. “You don’t understand me. I don’t want to talk to you.”
The slam of the door echoed through the house, shaking the walls as a woman pressed herself up against the doorway and pleaded, “Abbie! I’m sorry, I just want to talk, please! I love you…”
“You love me? You make me sick!” Abbie screamed back, her voice muffled through the thin walls. “You just don’t get it. Leave me alone!”
Do you see the difference this time? There’s nothing especially wrong with the first example. The dialogue stays true to the feelings of both mother and daughter, and it has a purpose. The problem is that it’s weak, robotic. Phrases like “You don’t understand me. I don’t want to talk to you.” tell the reader what’s going on and how the character feels, but they don’t sound natural. When you read that, you feel like you’re reading dialogue, not hearing it. It doesn’t flow like dialogue should.
In the second example though, it’s different. The dialogue is moving, active, raw. It fits the characters and progresses the scene, and it also sounds like a real argument between a teenage girl and her mom. You can feel the emotion here much more strongly than before, and because of that it’s much easier to hear it in your head as you read.
That’s the key behind this point: you want the dialogue to sound real. You don’t want your reader to read it; you want them to hear it. When your characters speak, it should sound as natural as if they were right in front of you having a conversation. How can you accomplish this? Well, it isn’t really that difficult. You’re human, you have family and friends. You talk. You know how people interact and converse, and when you create dialogue, you’re trying to mirror that. The subject of the written words can be anything, but the naturalness you hear in everyday speech needs to carry those written conversations. Beyond that, just read your dialogue aloud after you write it. If it sounds funny, you’ll probably hear it.
I hope all of that wasn’t too much information at once. Dialogue is an extremely deep and complicated process, but at the same time it’s very simple. There are a lot of ways to make your dialogue hit harder, but in the end, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) policy works just as well. If you’re doubting some dialogue you’ve written, just ask yourself three questions mirroring the points above.
- Would my character say that?
- Does this dialogue serve a purpose?
- Does it sound natural?
If you can’t answer yes to all of those questions, odds are you should probably work on the dialogue in question till you can.
Thanks for reading. If you didn’t notice, this is a two part installment, so keep your eye out for part B of the dialogue discussion. Also be sure to check out any parts of this series that you missed!
- Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part III: Symbolism
- Dialogue – a powerful tool! (madgeniusclub.com)
- Writing Believable Dialogue – 1. Less is More (bardicblogger.wordpress.com)