Guest post: Thinking About Dialogue, by Holly Kench

English: Parallel dialogue (2008)

English: Parallel dialogue (2008) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Today I’m thrilled to welcome back Holly Kench, who has agreed to do another guest post for me. You may remember Holly’s last guest post for this blog, and the several plugs I’ve given to her website (because it’s, well, awesome). Today she’s giving us her thoughts about dialogue, which in my experience always comes in handy when writing fiction. Take it away, Holly!

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Writing effective and convincing dialogue is difficult. Great dialogue seems to come effortlessly to some authors, but for most of us, it takes a lot of hard work and attention.

It’s important to realise, though, that even the worst dialogue writers can eventually learn to write good dialogue. Like most professions or hobbies, writing is the performance of innumerable skills, and while some of these skills might come naturally to certain writers, they are ultimately accessible to anyone who has the endurance to keep working at it. And writing is nothing if not a study in endurance. As is so often the case when working on writing, reading is the best way to improve one’s dialogue. Take note of the dialogue you read. If it’s good, what makes it good? If it’s bad, why? Read, think, learn and rewrite.

Make your dialogue great, because it is essential for making your story enjoyable and convincing. In the meantime, don’t forget to carefully consider the stylistic choices you make regarding how to contain that dialogue. The mechanics of your dialogue, the dialogue tags and beats (or action tags), that hold your dialogue together are an important part of the flow of your narrative. They pull the dialogue into a scene. Furthermore, fixing and improving your tags and beats is so much easier than working on the dialogue itself, once you know what you are doing.

As almost every writing style guide will tell you, avoid overly complicated dialogue tags. The simple “said” option is usually best because, as readers, we ignore the tag while comprehending the speaker attribution. I’m not as fussy as some readers and editors when it comes to this. Some people suggest that “said” (and possibly “asked”) should make up your only dialogue tags, that you should let your dialogue do the rest of the work. However, sometimes other tags are useful. For example, consider:

“Cute,” Lucy said.

“Cute,” Lucy squealed.

“Cute,” Lucy said, with a squeal that pierced my ear drums.

All of these can work for the same statement with a different purpose. The first would work best as part of a dialogue heavy scene, in which the statement “Cute” is the purpose, but the second contributes to Lucy’s characterisation. The third affects the characterisation of two characters, but focuses on the response of the narrator. There is nothing wrong with the second option though because it affects our understanding of the character and the development of the story. Just make sure that, if you choose to go with a more complicated tag, it has a purpose. And no, mixing it up is not a satisfactory purpose.

Of course, speaker attributions are not always necessary and sometimes they act more to disrupt the dialogue than contribute anything. A simple “Cute.” might be all you need. Equally, dialogue beats are always useful. They can act to provide speaker attribution, place dialogue within a scene, provide a rest between lengths of dialogue, contribute to characterisation, move the story forward with the assistance of and yet outside of the dialogue, etc, etc. Consider the option:

“Cute.” Lucy sprinted towards a pair of red Manolo Blahniks, before picking one up and clutching it to her chest as though it were a new born baby.

Providing movement with your dialogue mechanics is also a good way to keep your scene from feeling stale as dialogue progresses. I have to admit that, because of their clear potential, using dialogue beats can become somewhat addictive, particularly for those more comfortable writing narrative than dialogue.

However, the flow of your dialogue is the most important thing to consider. Avoid using any of the above options too frequently, and instead attempt to create a balance between tags, beats and dialogue without attribution. Mix it up so your reader doesn’t become bored with your scene.

The most beneficial process you can utilise for your dialogue is to read it aloud. This is worthwhile advice for all forms of writing. Often the words we write sound fabulous in our minds but when we read them aloud we are more able to hear the flaws. Reading dialogue aloud is all the more important as the rhythm of our dialogue attributions becomes apparent.

Rhythm, flow and variety are the keys to dialogue mechanics that will ensure your dialogue is read in the best possible light.

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Thanks Holly! For those who found this useful, Holly is planning a follow-up post on internal dialogue, to be published later in the year. :)

Holly Kench is a writer and feminist, with a classics degree and a fear of spiders. She enjoys writing fantasy and humor, and is convinced we can change the world with popular culture. Holly writes about her life as a stuffed olive at www.stuffedolive.com.au and manages “Visibility Fiction” for the promotion and publication of inclusive young adult fiction at www.visibilityfiction.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

 

14 Comments

Filed under author guest post, writing

14 responses to “Guest post: Thinking About Dialogue, by Holly Kench

  1. Excellent article! Goes right along with some of my articles on dialogue. However, I try now not to use tags at all. In fact, I use either action or imply who is speaking. Once in a while I’ll use a said or asked or some other tag, but not often.

    • Yes, there are a number of people who do that. Like so much it comes down a little to personal taste, but I do concur with everything Holly said here: simpler is much better. Thanks for the comment!

    • That’s a really interesting thought, rayworthy. I’m not sure how I feel about it though… can you suggest some writing I could read that works like this? How does it work in longer dialogue sequences?

      • Holly, actually, I don’t know of anyone doing it exactly the way I do, off hand. Most authors I read break all the rules anyway. They’re established so they can pretty much get away with whatever they want… and do quite often.

      • Funny, before I couldn’t think of a single writer for an example yet just last night I read a passage in The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly where two characters carried on a half page conversation with no tags. I lost track of who was speaking. I love the Harry Bosch series though.

      • I think it’s amazing how something like that gets through the editing process. I tend to lose track after about two or three back-and-forths (six items of dialogue); half a page would be monstrous.

  2. A nicely balanced overview. I especially liked ‘And no, mixing it up is not a satisfactory purpose’. :)
    I feel one has to be careful with ‘beats’ because they can make the dialogue itself seem stilted, with gaps between every utterance. Sometimes I even lose track of what a response is responding to!

    • Yes, I can too. I also find that when people eliminate tags for too long in a conversation (about three speeches each or more) then I tend to lose track of who is speaking and have to count back to check. In other words, it’s best not to try to be too clever with this sort of thing. Sigh. Such a fine line, don’t you think?

      • That is a problem I sometimes have and my group makes sure to point it out to me! I then add in a bit of action from the character speaking or something to indicate who’s saying what. Have them scratch their head, or move to another chair, or take a sip of coffee or something. I get so wrapped up in the writing, I don’t always see it until someone else points it out to me.

      • And this is the importance of beta readers, isn’t it? Sometimes you just need someone else to point things out because you’re too close to the whole thing. I totally know what you mean. Thanks for the comment! :)

    • I agree. That is SUCH a tricky problem. I like beats because I like narrative, but I have to stop myself from using them TOO much, for this reason among others. The absolute worst thing for your reader is if they don’t know who is speaking. As a reader, I can attest that this drives me up the wall. *grumble grumble grumble*

      As Emily said, it is a very fine line. Writing is HARD! ;)

  3. Pingback: Could Your Dialogue Be Doing More? « This Craft Called Writing

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  5. Pingback: Do you wanna write a guest post for my blog? « Write on the World

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