Dragging on dialogue – the real secrets to good ‘talk’ writing

Dialogue has to be one of the main challenges any novelist faces. Why? Because written English and spoken English are two different things.

Writing fuel!
Writing fuel!

If you transliterate what someone’s saying and write it down, you’ll be confronted with a morass of broken sentences, un-punctuatable phrases, fillers, pauses and sharp switches of direction.

All of which makes sense when you hear it because verbal communication is only part of the full mix, unless you’re on the phone – body language adds a layer. But it’s unreadable as prose.

Conversely, if you write ‘dialogue’ in proper sentences, it’ll sound terribly stilted. Even Spock didn’t really talk that way. Well, maybe. A bit.

The actual answer, of course, is to compromise. And that’s where the skill is – in the nature of that compromise. Dialogue that ‘looks like’ speech but which ‘read like’ written English.

There’s an art to it – and beginning authors won’t have it. But the only way to get that art is by practice. The broadest guideline is:

  1. Sentences in dialogue don’t have to be complete, but equally, don’t over-use the ‘broken phrase’ device.
  2. Characters can interrupt each other. ‘I don’t think –‘ ‘No, you don’t think,’ snapped the Hatter.
  3. Avoid ‘scene setting’ dialogue where a character begins ‘As you know,  my dear Watson…’ – the reasons, I think, are obvious.
  4. Avoid using verbs as dialogue tags, for instance: ‘”I certainly think so,” said Holmes smugly.’ This is because the nature of the dialogue should, of itself, indicate the mood of the character. Or it could be used as a way of deepening the narrator’s POV – ‘”I certainly think so.’ To Watson, Holmes sounded smug.”
  5. Actions are a useful way of tagging the speaker, ideally in some way that deepens the character or highlights their mood. The context should identify the speaker. “’I don’t know.’ Holmes picked up his violin and began playing.”
  6. Sometimes speech can be described, for powerful effect. ‘Scrooge swore and snapped at the urchins at his door’. We don’t need to know the exact words he used.

There are many other techniques – but these are worth trying out. Don’t forget, you can always throw away material and start again. It’s how writers learn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


6 thoughts on “Dragging on dialogue – the real secrets to good ‘talk’ writing

  1. Dialogue tags are the rule I’m least convinced by. It’s surely good to avoid putting such a tag on everybody’s every line, since, think what that might read as otherwise. But it is hard enough to deliver a wryly ironic line of dialogue with a straight face in the real world and be understood. The reader needs to know how to read the character’s quip that this is “almost as if the Tazmanian devil were an animal that really existed”.

    1. You mean they don’t? ☺ Last time I was in Tasmania I inadvertently let my wife’s Devonshire Tea type scone get eaten by a tame peahen. I am not being hyperbolic, it was Launceston.

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