Friday, January 6, 2012

How to Write Good Dialogue Part Four

Goodness, I can't believe this is part FOUR of our dialogue series. What's funny is when I started writing the first dialogue post, I had no idea the topic was so big. As it grew to a crazy word length, I thought, "Okay, there'll have to be a part two because no one is going to read all this." Then there were so many wonderful questions, that I knew we'd need at least three posts.

But dialogue is critical to getting the story right. I don't know about you guys, but I've realized I never skim dialogue the way I do prose. In an exciting scene or an argument, my gaze is often leaps over the descriptions and actions but never, ever the dialogue.

And nothing will yank you out of a story like cliche, tired, or fake sounding dialogue.

Today we're going to cover a couple more of your questions, and then next Friday (assuming my scheduling abilities can be trusted) we'll talk about some writing exercises for your dialogue.

Pausing and Pacing

A writer asked, "I've noticed that some authors use ellipses in their dialogue, and others actually state something to the effect of, "She paused." Do you think it's better to use one method consistently (and risk overkill), or is it okay to mix them for variety? Also, with what frequency do you think I should do so?"

This is purely my opinion, and in no way a rule or The Correct Way to Write Pauses. I mix it up. Here are some examples of ways that I do this:

"Is Mom okay?"
Dad blinked a couple times. "Of course."


"What are you saying?"
"I just think that maybe .... maybe we shouldn't be together."


"Do you understand what this ... this..." Lydia waved her hands, as if she could grasp the correct word from the air. "This power play of yours has cost me?"


"The thing is..." How could I say this to him? He was gonna be crushed. "Your father and I are separating."


“Your mother’s and my goal”—Dad takes Mom’s hand in his own—“is to get things back to normal life as soon as possible."

There are other ways to write a pause (including, but not limited to "She paused" or "She hesitated" or "A beat of silence passed" or "After a moment's pause.) but those are some of the ways I do it. Those last two examples are techniques I'm particularly fond of.

I like using a pause in dialogue to show what the POV character is thinking. And the em-dash is a technique I first discovered in Sarah Dessen's This Lullaby, which is one of the first YA novels I ever read. I remember actually copying down word for word, dash for dash, an example so I would know how to do it. The exact formatting depends on the publishing house. Revell, the publisher of the Skylar Hoyt books, formats it like above. I've also seen it:

"Your mother's and my goal—" Dad takes Mom's hand in his own—"is to get things back to normal life as soon as possible."


"Your mother's and my goal—" Dad takes Mom's hand in his own "—is to get things back to normal life as soon as possible."

As for the frequency of pauses, this answer may seem far too simple but it's the best one I have to offer. In your head, if you "hear" your character pausing, let them pause. So long as you're giving them a reason to be hesitant, you'll be fine.

Another writer says: "I find it really hard to pace things like a breakup or something. How would you space that out in a dialogue scene... thing?"

I love the way the writer phrased that. Can't you just hear the hesitation in what to call it?

Breakups are hard to pace, but I love writing them. (And I'm naturally drawn to angry breakup songs. Meanwhile, I've been happily married for 7 1/2 years. Strange.)

The key, I think, to pacing a breakup scene (or any other scene that in real life would be dramatic and looooong) is to go back to the concept of "arrive late and leave early." You should be doing this for all your scenes, really, but it's especially vital for breakups/I love yous/so-and-so died and so forth.

This is from Save the Date by Jenny B. Jones (fabulous book, one of my faves of 2011):

The smells in the room-the food, her life decaying-made her want to throw up. "I could wait, you know. We could do the long distance thing."
"I'm sorry." He grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair. "For what it's worth, I believe you're the right girl-it's just not the right time."
Two minutes later Lucy stood in her living room and watched Matt drive away.

We didn't need those other two minutes, right? Jenny has given us everything we need to know about their breakup.

Figure out what it is your reader needs to know. Like in the above scene, which takes place in the prologue, we need to know that Lucy was willing to make it work, and that Matt was not. Once Jenny passed along that info, she got us the heck out of there and on with the story. If it's helpful, you can make a list of vital information that needs to be exchanged. Once you get it out of your character's mouths, you'll know it's time to draw the curtain on that scene.

Don't forget, contests resume next Monday, so make sure you check in next week to find out the writing prompt! Have a great weekend, everyone!


  1. This post was helpful :) I have a question, though. For example, if I have a situation like the one in "Save the date", where should I write what the girl feels? Right when the guy tells her it's not the right time, or after the two minutes have passed and she's already in the living room? Should I delay the guy's leave by inserting all the girl's "oh my god I can't believe" thoughts there, or wait..?
    Psh, I hope this was not confusing.

  2. If you've done your job well leading up to the guy leaving, like Jenny did, you shouldn't have to say how the girl feels after the punch of him leaving. If you can show it in some way - awesome. Jenny has her character change out of the dress she'd picked for the evening (she had thought he was going to propose) and throw it away.

  3. Sure. It can be tough to tell when I pull scenes out of context like that :)

  4. "Save the Date" is one of my sister's and I's favorite books! We quote it all of the time and usually end up laughing hysterically over it afterwards. :)

    I like that rule "arrive late, leave early." I'll have to remember that. The scene I'm struggling with right now in my WIP is right in the beginning where my MC is in the car with her caseworker, who springs on my MC the news that she thinks my MC has a sister, who is also in the system. Obviously my MC is rather upset to find out that she's never known about her sister before, but shortly after the caseworker breaks the news to her, I can feel the dialogue become slow, sluggish and vague. It changes from going to surprising to dull rather fast and I don't know how to change that. Is there anyway I could do the whole "arrive late, leave early," rule? Aside from my MC jumping out of the car that is... ;)

  5. Actually, the 'arrive late, leave early' is one of my favorites, too. I used to end scenes in really boring ways, because I was convinced that if we were following these people we should know EVERYthing about them. Yeah, I was wrong . . . again. (Notice how I used the dots to show a pause. ;))

    This was a really good post for me, Stephanie. I need more suspense in my dialogues, because they tend to be too . . . too . . . easygoing is the word I'm looking for, I guess. Everyone is too cooperative. I need to change that, because If I'm going to have character-driven books (because I can't write action terribly well) I can't have everyone cooperate so well. Does anyone else have that problem?

  6. My story involves a lot of internal emotion. It is sometimes hard to find a balance of getting feelings off my character's back and holding it all inside of them.


  7. Clarebear, isn't it a great book? No, we don't want your MC having to tuck-and-roll :) You might try just ending the scene after the news is announced. So:

    "MC, I have something I have to tell you. You have a sister."

    End scene

    Then you can start a new scene at a new location and after a paragraph or two of establishing this, your MC can think back on other parts of the conversation.

    Does that make sense or no?

  8. Becki, I think that's common. It just takes trial and error, I think! Jill Williamson and Melanie Dickerson are going to be doing a post on writing action scenes sometimes soonish.

  9. Alyson, I can sympathize! I go through phases of my characters getting too broody. That's when you just have to trust the editing process!

  10. I always have a hard time with dialogue. Especially the day to day dialogue.

  11. YAY! I can't wait for that post! :)

  12. Super helpful post - thank you! :-)

  13. Wow, first time I've run into a character with my name outside of the Bible - Lolz :) Great post Stephanie - super helpful

  14. okay this might not go with the post...
    but I finished my first draft today :D :D
    it's only novel that I've finished in two years, so I've been in a big writing hole
    Now on to editing...