Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Let's Talk Dialogue
by Debby Giusti
Dialogue can make or break a book. Does the exchange ring true? Do the characters have unique voices? Does the information presented in conversation move the story forward?
Many editors flip though the pages of a submission looking for white space to check the amount of dialogue interspersed throughout the narrative. What they find is important. Snappy banter can sell a story, while tepid exchanges are a quick route to rejection. Not enough dialogue and the first page won’t be read.
Beginners struggle to make their dialogue authentic, but even multi-published authors admit character exchanges are the most challenging part of creating a story. The best way to master the craft is through trial and error. Here are a few rules of the trade that can help speed the process.
•Use “he said/she said,” which readers’ eyes skip over, instead of other tags, such as “he hissed” or “she questioned.”
•Trash formality. Dialogue exchanges should be informal unless your character is a highbrow aristocrat.
•Use contractions and sentence fragments.
•Read your text aloud to ensure the dialogue works.
•Choose simple words over complex.
•Use dialect sparingly.
•Don’t overuse characters’ names within the dialogue. “What, Bob?” “I need the butter, Jane.”
•Divide long dialogue with action beats.
•Each character’s exchange needs its own paragraph.
•Insert a speaker attribution or tag at the first natural break in a long paragraph of dialogue.
•Action beats can be used instead of tags to identify the speaker.
•Insert action or dialogue from a second character to break monologues into shorter sections.
•Don’t bury your dialogue. Instead pull the spoken line down into a new paragraph.
•Cut hellos and goodbyes, which don’t move the story forward.
•Introductions usually aren’t needed on the page.
•Don’t allow your characters to discuss the obvious.
•Remember RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain.
•Each character should have his or her own distinctive voice.
Debby’s tip: Write a first draft of dialogue without tags or beats. Go back and include them on the second run through. Shorten long sentences. Work to freshen action. Read aloud. Sound stilted? Shorten, tighten, rework.
Reference books to check out:
DIALOGUE, by Lewis Turco, Writer’s Digest Books, 1989.
TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITERS, by Dwight V. Swain, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, by Renni Browne and Dave King, HarperCollins, 2004.
Let’s talk. Add a comment and share your tips and advice on writing dialogue.
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