How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: dialogue


Welcome to Part Thirteen of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at how to write dialogue – a particularly important part of writing good fiction. For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

How to write dialogue

A large part of “showing”, as opposed to “telling” your story is about creating scenes in which the characters interact – and interaction means dialogue.

Fiction dialogue has to appear realistic, but, paradoxically, if the reader is to believe in it, cannot be genuinely life-like. If you pasted into your novel a slab of real-life conversation, it would be unfocused, long-winded, boring and – strangely – would appear unnatural. If you’ve ever tried to read verbatim transcripts of interviews, you’ll know how hard they are to plough through. Readers don’t want to see in print the ums and ers, pauses, digressions and waffling that everyday chat consists of.

As a fiction writer, you need to give readers the essence of what your characters are communicating with the flavour of verisimilitude. So how do you do that?

First you need to find the individual voice of each character – especially your main characters – in your head. Don’t try to write their dialogue until you can hear them speak; recognise the pitch and tone of their voice, their accent and intonation; understand the way their speech reflects their thought processes; and the verbal tics that are uniquely theirs.

If a character doesn’t come easily to you, the simplest way to find their voice is to base it on that of someone you know well, whether personally or from the media. Find someone whose distinctive style of speaking is easy for you to reproduce in your head and apply to your character’s dialogue. As you keep writing, the character will come to life and subsume the style of your original model until you don’t need to refer back to them.

Give your characters character

small__4961660735Each character in your story – even the minor ones – should have an individual style of speaking. The test of this is for someone to be able to read a page of dialogue between two or more of your characters and always know, without referring to the tags (‘x said’, ‘y replied’), which of them is speaking. A sure-fire way to lose a reader’s interest is to have all your characters talking in the same style, despite their different ages, backgrounds, education, gender etc.

One shortcut to identifying a character through dialogue is to give them a couple of verbal habits – though subtlety is the key here. For example, an older man could always call other men ‘old chap’ and women ‘my dear’; a teenager might punctuate their speech with ‘like’ and ‘you know’; an academic could habitually use longer words where a short one would do; a hesitant woman might regularly start sentences with, ‘Well, …’. Using such words or phrases initially as an identity tag will help you define a character’s verbal style, and you might later be able to go back and remove the more obvious ones.

Don’t write phonetically

If a character speaks with an accent of any kind, do not try to write it phonetically. Everyone speaks with an accent of one kind or another, whether we consider it ‘received English’ or something else. Your readers themselves may come from any part of your country, or the world, and might find it offensive for their own manner of speech to be written in a different way to what you, the writer, consider ‘normal’ English. The best way to indicate national, regional, or age- or class-based accents is in the style and tone of the language along with a few judiciously placed words (spelled correctly) which are natural to and typical of your character’s accent. Along with the context you give them, the reader will ‘get’ what you intend and supply the appropriate accent as they read.

In general, when you are writing dialogue, use contractions (‘don’t’, ‘he’s’, ‘shouldn’t’), as almost everyone does in real speech, unless the character is very formal and not to do so becomes their verbal tic. Allow characters to speak in verbless phrases and incomplete sentences in a way that sounds authentic and  contrasts (probably) with your narrative style. The occasional ‘um’ or ‘er’ can sound natural, but a life-like amount would become tedious. Similarly, allow characters to interrupt and cut across each other occasionally, but not as much as people really do or your dialogue will become impossible to follow.

Make dialogue valuable to the story

In using dialogue to “show” your story, make sure that every exchange contains something that either furthers the plot or adds to character development and ties into one or more of your themes. Don’t use dialogue to give the reader information or back story in an obvious way, unless one character is telling another who doesn’t already know and needs to know this information.

Use dialogue judiciously. Readers don’t want or need to be shown an entire conversation, including exchanges such as: ‘Pass the salt.’ ‘There it is.’ ‘Thank you. And the pepper please.’ Summarise between significant pieces of dialogue – readers are quite capable of understanding ‘jump cuts’. Remember to keep your dialogue interspersed with action and description. People continue to eat, walk, drive, wash up etc, while they are speaking and you need to keep ‘showing’ this.

Use the right grammar rules for dialogue

There are grammatical rules for writing dialogue. Speech should be enclosed in inverted commas which contains the punctuation related to the dialogue. Start on a new line each time a different person starts to speak. Some publishers indent new lines of dialogue in typeset, but it’s easier for editors and typesetters if authors do not indent new lines of dialogue in a manuscript. If you insert a tag (‘he said’) after a sentence of dialogue, the dialogue sentence ends with a comma and the full stop/period is postponed until the end of the tag:

‘I would be happy to recommend you a very good hotel,’ said the taxi driver.

If you insert a tag into the middle of a sentence of dialogue, this is how the punctuation should go:

‘I would be happy,’ said the taxi driver, ‘to recommend you a very good hotel.’

Be sparing with tags; if your dialogue is well written for individual characters, you shouldn’t need to say who is speaking after every sentence. Try to refrain from using tags to ‘tell’ – as in:

‘That’s awfully good news,’ Eleanor shouted excitedly.

The context and the dialogue itself should tell a reader that Eleanor is speaking loudly and with excitement. Some experts say the only verb that should be used in a tag is ‘said’ and never with an adverb; that seems to me to be unnecessarily restrictive, but less is usually more.

More about sentence structure and punctuation next week.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

photo credit: Cesar Mascarenhas via photopin cc