Tips for writing dialogue
“I think I might do some tips on writing dialogue for my next blog entry,” I said, taking a seat next to my friend.
“Oh yeah, because you’re such an expert on writing dialogue,” my friend replied.
“Okay, okay – maybe I’m not exactly an expert, but I think some people might find it useful.”
“Oh yeah? And which people would that be? Ones who like taking advice from people who admit they aren’t an expert on a particular subject?”
“Yes,” I said. “Those people.”
“But there are hundreds of websites that already offer tips on how to write good dialogue! Why would anyone want to listen to you?”
“I don’t know,” I said, rubbing the back of my head. “Maybe if I thought of an original way to present the tips – something funny – people might read it…”
I paused for a moment.
“Here’s an idea,” I said. “How about presenting the whole piece as if it were a section of dialogue itself?”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” my friend replied, “and I think you’re just trying to be funny for the sake of it. Can’t you just do bullet points like all the other websites? Everyone like bullet points…”
“That is true,” I agreed, “but this might work better.”
“I doubt it,” my friend said. “How would you start it?”
“I think I might do some tips on writing dialogue for my next blog entry.”
My friend blinked.
“I know – you’ve already told me that.”
“No, that’s how I would start it.”
My friend sighed.
“Oh dear,” He said, shutting his eyes. “This is going to be a long day. Okay – what would you do next?”
I smiled to myself.
“Well, I’d then run through our entire conversation up to this point.”
“The entire conversation?”
“But why would anyone want to read that? And besides – aren’t you supposed to cut out unnecessary dialogue from what people say in real life?”
“I don’t know – are you?”
“Yes. Because in real life, conversations are long and boring. Like this one, for instance.”
“I disagree,” I said. “I think in certain circumstances it can work quite well to keep everything in. Makes it more real.”
“So what are your tips for writing dialogue then?” My friend asked.
“Well, I think the first one would be to read all your dialogue out loud,” I said. “For me, it’s the best way to understand the rhythm of what someone is saying. And if you find yourself tripping over any words, they’re probably not the right ones, so change them.”
“Are you going to read this out loud after you’ve finished writing it?”
“You poor man. Okay, what’s the next tip?”
“I think it would be to remember the context in which your characters are talking,” I said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Take the conversation we’re having right now. How we’re talking is fine, but that’s because we’re just sitting down, having a chat.”
“But we’re sitting down on a roller coaster!” my friend said. “And we just went round a loop-de-loop two seconds ago! Most people wouldn’t be having a conversation about writing dialogue at a time like this!”
“Yes, but we’re not normal people, are we? If we were running away from a murderer or in a hurry to get somewhere, we might not go into as much detail as we are now. In fact we’d probably not talk at all.”
“I wish we weren’t talking at all now,” my friend said, looking over his shoulder. “Where’s a rampaging murderer when you need one?”
“I think that leads nicely into my next tip,” I said, “which is to make sure your characters don’t over-explain everything.”
“Yeah, I hate it when writers do that,” my friend replied. “I think it happens when they get too close to the detail and feel they need their characters to deliver reams of exposition, just to make sure the reader gets the point. In real life though, people just don’t talk like that.”
“I think another common mistake is when people deviate from using ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ at the end of a sentence,” I announced, “and before you know it they’re using stupid words like ‘reasoned’, or ‘chuckled’, or ‘announced’.”
“Absolutely,” my friend exclaimed.
“Truth is, ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ works just fine, and most readers gloss over them as terms anyway. In fact, at times it’s best to have nothing at all – especially if you only have two people talking, and it’s clear who is saying what.”
“I disagree,” another voice interrupted. It was my second friend, who had been sitting behind us on the roller coaster the whole time. For some reason, neither me or my friend had chosen to acknowledge him in the conversation up to this point, so if you were only listening to what the two of us were saying, you wouldn’t have known he was there. What a strange conincidence!
He leaned forward to speak.
“There are some words you can use instead of ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ just fine.”
“Yeah – like ‘replied’.” My other friend replied.
“This is very confusing,” I said. “Can we keep this conversation to between two people please? Otherwise it’s going to be difficult for the reader to understand who is saying what when I write this all down.”
“Fine,” my second friend said, leaning back and crossing his arms. “I won’t say another word.”
“Where were we?” I said to my other friend who wasn’t the second friend who’d interrupted us for no reason.
“I think we were on the verge of killing ourselves,” my friend replied. “Or at least I was. Are we nearly done?”
“I think so,” I said. “I’ve only got one final point to make.”
“Thank God. So what’s that?”
“Use clipped sentences a lot.”
“Clipped sentences? What are they?”
“They’re the sentences that Microsoft Word doesn’t like.”
“Yeah, you know – it underlines them in a green squiggly line because it thinks you’ve made a grammatical error.
“Yeah. So use lots of them.”
“So let me get this straight: what you’re saying is, if you’re using Microsoft Word to write your book, and there are lots of green squiggly lines all over it, it’s probably a sign that you’ve written some good dialogue?”
“Exactly,” I said. “Green squiggly lines are your friends.”