How to write compelling dialogue

The problem writers face when assembling dialogue is the fact that written and spoken English are two different things.

Sir John Falstaff with a jar of sack. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Sir John Falstaff with a jar of sack. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Actual spoken English is almost incomprehensible if you transliterate it – a mess of half-phrases, fillers, pauses, switches of direction and broken sentences. The reason’s that verbal communication is only part of the spoken story – body language adds a layer, but even if you’ve got audio only, we’re geared to sort out the meanings on the fly.

We can sort out meanings in written English, too, but the mechanisms are different. That’s why transliterated dialogue looks so odd. But if you write ‘dialogue’ in proper sentences, it’ll sound awful too – formal and stilted. Even Spock didn’t really talk that way.

The way around it is to simulate spoken English, without wholly losing the flow of written. It’s a specific skill, and one that’s easy to mention but very tricky to master. Lots of practise indicated. Playwrights and script-writers have to be especially good at it, for obvious reasons. Shakespeare, needless to say, was an absolute master, though a lot of that’s lost today because English has changed so much.

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.
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If you want to learn more about writing techniques and pick up some handy tips and hints, check out my short book How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

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