Friday, December 16, 2011

How to Write Good Dialogue Part One

The title of this post has me wigging a bit. The passive aggressive part of me (which is about 90% of me, to be honest) would much rather say something like, "Some thoughts on improving dialogue" or "here are some things I've learned about dialogue." But I'm trying to become more bold, so, no. This post is about how to write good dialogue.

I learned in a blogging class that I'm should be using more pictures on Go Teen Writers. I had no idea what kind of picture to use for this post, but I do like to follow instructions. This is my daughter. She turned 4 on Wednesday. Okay, now let's talk about dialogue.

One quick thing I'll say is that dialogue can be spelled either dialog or dialogue. The form "dialogue" is the old English spelling, and "dialog" is the American. Since I'm not a Brit, you might wonder why I write "dialogue." I don't know. My guess is that's the way my teacher's taught me, so it's the way it looks right to me. "Dialog" looks incomplete to me, even though my brain knows it's perfectly correct. Especially for an American.

Okay, I think I'm officially stalling.


How to write good dialogue.

It's been a while since I talked about the dandelion story, which is a book I attempted in high school that had many, many things wrong with it. Including lousy dialogue. Let's take a look at some examples and pinpoint what's so bad.

Avoid Q & A sessions

What do I mean by Q&A sessions? I mean exchanges like this:

"Thank-you," Paige said to him as they entered the hallway and her head cleared.
"I know you get claustrophobic," Kyle said. "It's so great to see you."
"It's great to see you too," she told him.
"Where did you move to?" Kyle asked.
"A place called Vernon. It's a suburb of St. Louis."
"Did you like it there?" Kyle asked her.

Um, what do you bet Paige answers him? And that Kyle asks her another question?

It's not like characters asking each other questions is some no-no. But the tennis-match-style conversation is just kinda ... blah.

Don't let them say everything they're thinking

One of the ways you create conflict in your story is to create conflict in your dialogue. And one of the ways you do that is to not let your character say everything they're thinking. This is a scene from the dandelion book where Paige is telling Carter - long time boyfriend - that she's moving.

"My family..."Paige trailed off.  She started over, "My being transferred at the end of June."
"The end of June?!" he exploded.  "We're a week into June already!"
"I know. Please don't yell."
"Where are you moving?!" Carter went right on yelling.
"St. Louis, please don't yell," Paige begged.
He yanked his hand away from her. "Don't touch me," he whispered harshly, turning away.
"Carter-don't do this.  Calm down."
"Stop it!  Stop it! Stop being so positive and cheerful.  Paige, we've barely spent a week apart these past 2 years.  Letters and phone conversations and e-mails aren't going to hold us over."
"We can visit each other," Paige suggested.
"Let's get real, Paige.  My family doesn't have the money for plane tickets and neither does yours," Carter said.

I have two points I want to make about this excerpt.

The first is that these two are being way too open with each other. My husband and I have been together since we were freshman in high school ... but when I come to him with news I know he isn't going to like, there's strategy involved. I'm not talking about manipulation or anything like that, I mean that I think through how this is going to effect him, what the positives are, when the best timing will be. And we're talking about someone who I've been with for half my life, and who I'm quite confident isn't going to leave me. Real life conversation involves strategy, and story world conversation does too.

Of course it can be a lot of fun to toss in a character who tends to say whatever pops into their brain, but how often do you say everything you're thinking? When you're put on hold for 10 minutes and someone finally comes back on the line and says, "I'm so sorry for the wait," what's your answer? I always say, "Don't worry about it," even though I've spent the last 9 1/2 minutes grumbling things like, "Don't worry - my time isn't important. I'm not spending precious kid-free minutes trying to sort out this stupid billing error that's your fault. Take your sweet time."

Pace Yourself

The other thing I noticed in the above excerpt is there's so much in so little  - and not in a good way. So, in a little more than 100 words she tells her boyfriend she's moving, and they're already trying to figure out how this is going to work out? (And in the manuscript, they're broken up about 50 words later - yikes!)

It goes way too fast. I can tell that I had information I wanted Paige to impart to Carter (I'm moving, I'll be in St. Louis, I want this to work out) and I worked all that in as quickly as I could. Probably so I could finish the scene before Geometry class ended.

You've probably heard of the 5 stages of grief. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. As your characters are moving through the story and experiencing set backs, conflict, and heartbreak, they should be going through these stages.

As I sit here thinking about Paige and Carter, about where they live, and how long they've been together, it's obvious to me that Carter absorbs Paige's news in a ridiculous amount of time. Same as if my husband came home from work today and said, "We're moving to Idaho Falls." My first thought would be something like, "Uh, no we're not."

Make sure you're giving your characters time to process what's going on.

Okay, there were so many issues with the dialogue in the dandelion story, I have to break this into two posts. More on this next week.

Have burning dialogue questions you'd like answered? Post them below. And, just for fun, which do think looks better - dialogue or dialog?


  1. Happy birthday to your pretty little girl!!
    I like dialogue just because that's how I've always seen it.
    One thing I'm struggling with when it comes go dialogue( or well, writing in general) is how my antagonist would talk. She's so not me and I have to think and think about what she would say. I'm not really getting anywhere

  2. I like dialogue, too. I'm with you, Stephanie. It looks incomplete the other way. For me, I have trouble with the question and answer part of it. But a thought I have is that it can work if it's supposed to an awkward time, or something like that.

  3. I have to say, Stephanie, you're brave to show people your early works! My first stories are safely stowed in the computer's trash (or somewhere lost in cyber space - wherever it is that documents go when you empty the computer's bin).

    Dialogue is probably my favorite part of writing, so I was interested to see what your thoughts on it were. They're all very insightful, but I found your remark on strategy particularly so; I never sat down and thought about it that way before, but you're right: it's not natural to get to the point immediately. Even people who might be considered "tactless" tend to use some form of strategy in their conversation.

    (Oh, and I'm with Tonya in casting my vote for "dialogue." Who thought it was a good idea to hack off the ending?)

  4. I agree, "dialogue" is best. This post was very helpful. I struggle with dialogue and can never put my finger on what is quite wrong. I stare at it and know it's awkward and off, but never know what to change, because it's exactly what I wanted to say. This brought a little more light to my errors. Thank you so much! :)

  5. Dialogue is my favorite part too! Both as a reader and a writer.

    Tonya, that's a great question. I'll cover that in part 2.

    Becki, yes. If it's supposed to be awkward, then it's definitely okay to fall into the Q&A thing. That's where I find myself using it too.

    Abigail, that's certainly where my early work belongs! Sadly, the bits I'm showing you are the best parts. They're still horrible, but they're not AS horrible as some of the other sappy stuff in there. But, yeah, it's still pretty uncomfortable. As I said in the beginning of the post, I'm working on being a bolder person :)

    "Random Thinker" in my second draft, I tweak just about every piece of dialogue. It takes work - and often trial and error - to get it right.

  6. I prefer "dialogue," too. It was how I was taught in school, and I'm also kind of obsessed with the Brits, so I purposefully spell things the way they do ("saviour," "parlour," etc.). :-)

    My question: I've noticed that some authors use elipses 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 (It's always bugged me a little how often Ayn Rand uses elipses, for example - every page - but when there aren't any pauses whatsoever, it seems rushed and unrealistic to me)? Thanks. :-)

  7. Wow, great question, Sapphire! I'll add that to the second post too. (Might wind up with three dialogue posts!)

  8. I'm with dialogue. I've actually never in my life seen it written the shorter way!
    Like Abigail, the whole strategy thing really grabbed me -- thanks for a wonderful post!

  9. I didn't even know that there were two different ways to spell "dialogue". :) And I definitely agree that it looks incomplete the american way.

    You said something about creating conflict through your dialogue by not having the characters say everything that they feel. I totally agree because that's what's real. But, I am having trouble in that area because in the first few chapters in my WIP my MC is pretty depressed. She's given up on trying to love, to hope, to feel, because she knows it'll hurt to much. How do I make that evident in my dialogue, without having her say too much and risk over explaining(RUE! RUE! RUE..! I chant that to myself constantly now... ;-))? Hopefully this question makes some sense! :)

  10. I'm with Team Dialogue on this one. It just looks clumsy, kind of clunky and awkward, without the "ue" on the end. Plus, I love the British spelling of everything -- grey, colour, centre, and so on. It all makes American spelling look harsh.

    One thing that tends to drive my crazy is when authors never use contractions in dialogue, like "I do not know" or "it is in the closet." Random examples, I know, but unless that character is foreign, from a historical setting, or is clumsy with English, that makes me twitch. Or when they have a young character spouting elegant, unrealistic dialogue. I know it's all subjective and all depends on personal style, but that's one of my pet peeves.

    Great post, by the way!

  11. Number one, your daughter is too cute. Happy Birthday, McKenna (did I spell that correctly?)!

    Number two, I literally went "Awwwww" out loud when you said you've been with your husband since freshman year. I mean, really. I went "awwww" again when you pointed out that's half your life. :) Love it.

    Number three, I'm going to side with the crowd and say dialogue. Jenna: harsh. Exactly. :)

    Also (since I'm getting tired of typing number-whatever), I'm really, really glad to have read this post today because I'm racing to the ending of my WIP and my hero and heroine are arguing a lot (mostly because she's trying to be something she's not) and the "don't-give-it-all-away" point really hit home. :) I know when I go back through and reread, I'll be referring to the little post-it on which I wrote down the 5 stages of grief. :) Thanks, Stephanie!

  12. I've always written it as dialogue. I didn't even realise it was British. Though I might write it that way because both my parents were born and live at least most of their lives in England.

    Jenna-Americans spell 'grey' differently?

    I always show too much in my dialogue. It's such an easy way out of giving information. I guess I really need to watch it more.

    1. Yep. In America 'grey' is spelt 'gray' But i personally spell it 'grey'. It just looks better.:)

  13. I guess I spell it both ways. But what's funny is that when I read this post I was like, who ever heard of spelling it "dialog"? And then I went ahead and wrote it like that without even realizing till after :) And, I'm also with Sapphire in that I love British things, so I spell certain things the British way on purpose. Like favourite and colour :)

    And I agree, dialogue is totally fun. But ironically it seems to be one of the hardest things to write well.


  14. Dialogue is better... at least I've always spelled it like that. :) And I don't remember ever seeing "Dialog" anywhere before, or at least not very often.

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

  15. So, I'm not sure what's on the agenda for the future dialogue posts, but I would much appreciate something about conversations between more than 2 people...

  16. Clarebear, excellent question. Adding it to my list!

    Rachelle, thank you :) And, yes, that's how we spell McKenna. Though when you name your daughter something funky like that, I'm of the opinion that you shouldn't get bent out of shape when people accidentally call her Mackenzie or leave out the capital K.

    Imogen, during my first drafts, I tend to put too much info in my dialogue too. It's an easy mistake! And the American spelling of grey is gray. For whatever reason.

  17. Jazmine, pacing - YES. Excellent question. Going on the list...

    "Dialogue" - wow, great question. And an intimidating one :) I'll do my best with it!

  18. Stephanie, I like the name McKenna! I think its a good idea to just let it go when people spell or pronounce it wrong.
    Both my brother & I have that problem with our names. He always gets upset & I just let it go.
    The other day I was having a test done & the dr was middle eastern (I think?) & had a heavy accent. He says ,"how do you say your name? I've never seen it like this"
    I said "tonya"
    He starts going "tone-ya, tah-nya toe-toe-nya. Isn't it normally t-a-n-y-a?"
    Me: "yeah, usually"
    Him: "this is different" 
    It was funny!

  19. Dialogue. I agree Dialog looks incomplete somehow. Thanks for doing this series,I've been getting the posts by email...and yes I only just found out about that kinda... anyway and I had been wanting to sit down and really absorb them because I've been feeling off in my dialogue. Sometimes it flows other times it stutters. So I've been lazy haven't read them really. And so I'm finally sitting down to read. I must be crazy to pass up all this good stuff. Off to read the others now...
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

  20. This may be a bit late to reading this since you posted this 2 years ago, but I was linked back here from your most recent post. Thanks, I always learn something new to try to improve my writing style. I do find trouble finding the balance in what to say and what not to say... but thanks for the advice in this post. =)

    P.S. I think Dialogue looks better too!