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Dialogue- How to Write it. Some Advice from Old Professors

For some writers writing dialogue is the worst part of writing. they feel like they just are not able to write a believable conversation. This along with all techniques of writing is a practice, practice, practice, and read, read, read, exercise, but a few tips on how to write good dialogue is also useful. As with everything in crafting your writing there are techniques. I taken many writing courses in my past (my present not so much), and I’ve collected and kept most of my notes. I took writing courses in the 90’s at Chico State California University, and in the 2000’s at Portland Community college and Portland State University. Many of these notes on dialogue are taken from various writing courses. I’ve carried these notes with me over the years, and looked back to them from time to time to give me some advice or insight into my writing. Unfortunately, I can’t attribute which part came from which professor as everything slowly over the years mashed together. 

Why use Dialogue?

Dialogue can be used to move the story forward. It serves a purpose, y ou want it to revel tension between characters. Ideally. (But, you can do whatever you want.)

Use dialogue in creative non-fiction if:
A) It focuses on a moment of explicit tension between people-or
B) It focuses on a moment of suppressed tension between people-or
C) The dialogue revels someone’s character, either through expression of what they believe, or through their idiosyncratic way of stating something.

One of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue is to avoid meaningless preamble to a real exchange (unless you feel that it is essential to the story to put in meaningless preamble- kind of like David Lynch putting a white horse, a giant, and a dwarf in Twin Peaks- what was that all about?) For example read the boring exchange written below:

“Hi. It’s me.”
“How are you?”
“All right. How are you?”
“I’m all right.”
“What are you doing?”
BORING
Yes, sure people really do talk like that because let’s face it most of the time we have boring interactions called polite fiction, but no one wants to read it (unless you have a true purpose for it).

Get to the point:
“I want to talk to you about last weekend.”
“Last weekend never happened.”

OOOO Tell us more.

There are three possibilities for how dialogue can be delivered:
A) Summary dialogue, or the brief report.

It’s efficient and suggests conversation, but doesn’t give much of a sense of how things were said:

Mary said that she had never seen Star Wars and she was happy about that decision.
Mark said he was destroyed.

Literally destroyed, but not literally because then he would be dead and wouldn’t be able to say anything.

B) Indirect dialogue, which is more detailed than summarizing but is not directly quoted:

Mary said that she despised Star Wars and everything it represented so much that she had destroyed Mark’s entire video collection, and he deserved it. After all, he had begun to call out for Luke Skywalker when they made love, (what?) and why should she put up with that? Mark said he was crushed; he had no idea she was so upset, and saying he called out for Luke Skywalker was a slanderous lie.

(Yeah, he didn’t call out for Luke Skywalker while they were making love he called out for Han Solo)

Video collection probably gives an idea of how old these notes are.

C) Direct dialogue, the most dramatic form, happens in real time as opposed to the other forms:

“I’m so sick of your love affair with Star Wars I could scream,” Mary screamed.
“I’m so sick of you!” Mark screamed back.

You can intermix the three types, with good effect.

Some extra notes on dialogue:

The writer Jerome Stern says that adverbs in speech tags sound corny.

For example: “she said kittenishly; he responded sneeringly; she hissed angrily.” If the dialogue is well chosen, the feelings of the character will be clear. If it isn’t no amount of adverbs will help the reader feel the character.

So listen to Jerome Stern unless you are writing a detective or a romance novel then keep the adverbs because it just wouldn’t be the same with out them. Here’s a nice blog post that high lights some of his views on dialogue. You can also read one of his books on writing. 

A good way to “tag” dialogue so you don’t have to say “she said/he said” is to follow the lines with an action or a thought by the speaker:

“Did you really think I’d be willing to spend my life with a Star Wars freak?” Mary pulled off her engagement ring and threw it across the room.

Or you can write like James Joyce and really confuse the hell out of your readers as to who is really talking. “Is this the narrator or the speaker?”:

Stephen looked down on a wide headless caubeen, hung on his ashplanthandle over his knee. My casque and sword. Touch lightly two index fingers. Aristotle’s experiment. One or two? Necessity is that in virtue of which it is impossible that one can be otherwise. Argai, one hat is one hat. -Ulysses,pg. 192

But you should probably know what you are doing before you make the readers work so hard.

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