Let’s talk about talking!
Dialogue can be challenging for some… I am noticing this as I read more. I feel I’m pretty good with dialogue (correct me if I’m wrong) and I’ve heard a lot of advice about how to get better at dialogue so I wanna share!
This post will be a little hodgepodge of stuff so… enjoy!
So…. here is the one and only tip I’m going to include about writing good dialogue!
Is this self explanatory? I dunno cause I hear a lot of people saying how hard dialogue is for them and yet we often have people near us, and talking at the same time.
I think listening to real people talk is very important but if you just hate being around people, I find that a good place to “study” dialogue is to watch short films and even better, short cartoon shows.
Gumball is one of those short shows! 15 minute cartoon shows have that much time to make their point. I know that cartoons are full of nonsense but the characters HAVE to be concise and I often find the dialogue is very realistic between characters, despite the subject matter. lol.
I also think Nat’s bigger point is, don’t just listen but PAY ATTENTION to how people talk, what they say, what they don’t say and how they look when they are speaking. All those things, you can write.
Here are some odds and ends…
I see this a lot and it does have everything to do with dialogue. Interruptions during speaking really happen and SHOULD happen in your dialogue. If your characters finish every single sentence, there must not be a conflict in your book. Everyone must be so polite!
Naturally, we are interrupted. We also naturally “trail off” when we speak. This occurs in embarrassment, confusion and many other states of being that humans experience.
“No, you don’t understand, Joe…”
“I do. I understand that you don’t care about me and—”
“That’s not true.”
“Prove me wrong then.”
“I cared enough to come to you and tell you that—”
“You didn’t care enough to not cheat on me…” Joe’s eyes dropped to the ground.
Don’t over use the em dash or ellipsis, but remember, they are a happy part of dialogue.
And if you noticed. I didn’t use ANY dialogue tags. Even the “Joe’s eyes dropped to the ground” is not a dialogue tag. It’s narration. What Nat is saying in his tweet here is that dialogue tags are not the star of the show. The dialogue itself should carry the story.
But Tiffany, what about Joe said and She said?
Review the (original) dialogue I included in italics with Joe and her. Did you need dialogue tags to know who was talking?
Dialogue tags are to help the reader follow who is saying what. If you can find ways to make that easy for them then you don’t need tags. On the other hand, if you need them (like in a dialogue with three or more people) then please use them, just enough to make the discussion clear.
What about Joe screamed and she muttered?
These types of tags draw attention to themselves and away from the story! Don’t use em. Describe what Joe and she did in narration as needed, when you can and need to.
Why do I even have to mention this? lol. Most people speak in contractions naturally. I mean, if you want all your characters to be VERY proper, go ahead and leave out the contractions!
“I cannot stand you,” she said, her fists balled at her side.
“I can’t stand you,” she said, her fists balled at her side.
Which one sounds more like I cheerleader having an argument with her arch rival?
What about emphasis Tiffany?
Yeah, sometimes you wanna say, “I CANNOT stand you”, like really, CANNOT, but that should be rare and used sparingly, otherwise people will take it for the characters speech pattern which is unnatural.
This is a big and annoying part of dialogue that I see a lot. Here are a few ways dialogue can be repetitive:
- Words are literally repeated – “First, I’ll jump, then you jump too.” – But it’s not a kid talking…
- Types of words or phrases are repeated.
- Facts written in narration are then put into dialogue*
“You have your arms around each other and you’re kissing each other.”
Ugh. I think this is an OBVIOUS example of repetition so I won’t give it my time. I’m better than this…
The second bullet is where I want to start. When I say “types” of words or phrases repeated I mean… like… pet names for instance.
I wonder if anyone else calls these pet names. hee hee.
A couple in love doesn’t have to say “bae”, “baby”, “honey”, “sweetie”, every single time they speak to each other. This is something that the reader picks up on and it sounds disingenuous. It’s not literally repetitive but the feeling of repetition is there.
This also goes for phrases and actions. A character who constantly asks about food seems strange and draws too much attention to the food and away from the story, unless he/she has this trait embedded in their personality. “The hungry friend” so to speak. Otherwise, people aren’t always hungry when they talk, or sleepy or whatever.
Next, to my asterisk: “Facts written in narration are then put in dialogue”.
I gave this an asterisk because IF done well, this is okay and it is something tons of authors do well, however once you’ve repeated a certain bit of information for the 3rd or 4th time, you’re going overboard.
For example: A woman is in a car accident which causes her to have a long, deep scar on her arm. It is visible to people when she wears short sleeved shirts and… let’s just say… she lives in Arizona. The narration describes the whole accident, surgery and her resulting, permanent injury. Now, whenever she talks to someone, she doesn’t have to say she had an accident. Some people don’t care if she had an accident, some people care but they won’t ask, some people already know what happened.
Additionally, her response won’t always be the same. Some people she will tell she had an accident, some people she will say “oh, it’s nothing serious”, some people she will tell to mind their damn business. Even if someone just looks at her scar, her reaction could always be different and so could theirs. There is no reason for this to be repetitive.
Another note regarding this: with this specific example, I understand the accident may be a point of emotion or storytelling for the character, but that doesn’t mean it has to feel repetitive when they discuss it. The story can always sound and feel different. On top of that, it’s just as moving if they DON’T talk about it at all.
Also, in a similar vein, and this one is personal for me:
I’m getting tired of characters repeating something shocking in dialogue that they just saw happening. Especially when the dialogue comes RIGHT after the action.
“You didn’t tell us that you could run super fast, climb the wall, flip and kick a bad guy in the face!”
Really? I think this is a blatant example but after a big scene with intense action or excitement, I don’t need a character to regurgitate everything that we just saw, just because it was shocking.
In real life, we may not even be able to describe what we saw right away. It would be more like:
Jenn and Tara stood, looking around themselves and breathing hard. Tara’s eyes were wide as she turned to her friend.
“Wha… what was that?”
Jenn panted, looking at Tara with a tight expression.
“You… You with the flipping and the fighting…”
“Look, I don’t have time to explain. Let’s go,” she said, tugging Tara away from the pile of wounded attackers.
To be honest, this is still a little cheeky, I did my best. lol. However, when a situation like this arises, avoid repetition by leaving the details from the narrative out of the dialogue.
“I hate you!”
“I hate you too, Joe!”
“Well then, get out of here!”
“I’m going! Don’t rush me!”
How does that make you feel?
Now, try this:
“I hate you,” he said, raising his voice.
“I hate you too, Joe.” She matched his tone.
“Well then, get out of here.”
“I’m going. Don’t rush me.” Her shrieking voice bounced off the walls as she turned to leave.
But Tiffany, if the “yelling” doesn’t come until the narration, won’t readers be confused?
Well, I’m a reader so lemme answer this from a readers perspective. NO! lol. Or should I say…
“No.” She answered loudly and lifted a finger to highlight her point.
As a reader, I’m reading everything and I’m okay with that. I’m not irritated to have to read and think about something that’s only five words away.
The dialogue gives the initial picture and the narration, describing the characters actions, tone, and other behaviors, completes that picture. Readers are cool with that, no worries.
From the perspective of a writer, my editor says take them out. Your editor may or may not say the same thing…
Once you have the dialogue on the paper, a great way to figure out if it sounds weird is to…
Out loud, that is.
I always suggest reading your work out loud in editing but this goes double for dialogue. If you feel stupid saying the dialogue that you wrote, then it might be stupid. When you hear it out loud it becomes more like human speech, because it is human speech! And that brings it one step closer to being “good”.
Any more tips? Leave em in the comments for me!