Some fiction writers tell their stories almost entirely through dialogue. That style of writing does not appeal to me personally, but its prevalence in popular fiction indicates a trend in publishing that has been going on for some time. Even if you do not subscribe to the total-dialogue school of thought, however, some well-placed conversation mixed into your tales will enhance them and give you a better shot at getting the attention of agents and editors.
Here are some suggestions for creating dialogue that will improve your novel and short-fiction writing:
1. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker.
Inexperienced fiction writers sometimes jumble narration and dialogue in the same paragraph, making it difficult for readers to know who is speaking. Lumping things together also limits their abilities to omit attributions (indicators that signal who is speaking), a topic I discuss in paragraph 7.
Formatting the dialogue properly is a big part of making the piece flow well for readers. In this example, each speaker’s part has its own line:
“Ben,” said the voice.
“Who is it?” Ben’s voice quivered as he backed away.
“It’s me. Ram-haj. I’m invisible….”
2. Place punctuation inside the quotation marks.
Commas, periods, exclamation points, and question marks go inside the quotation marks at the end of a phrase, clause, or sentence. Here are four examples:
“What do you mean?” asked Sam.
“I intend to,” interjected Martha coldly.
He said, “Give it to me straight.”
“No way!” she exclaimed.
3. Vary the placement of the attribution.
Varying the locations of the attributions makes the dialogue more interesting and helps you achieve better rhythm and flow. Here are three examples:
Ben responded, “I’ll think about it.”
“Off something,” said Ram-haj, “like this ledge.”
“Can you do it?” Ben asked.
Another option is to omit the attributions after having established a pattern that clearly identifies the speakers without them. I address this in paragraph 7.
4. Be sparing with all attributions other than “said.”
Overusing attributions like “quipped,” “retorted,” and “rejoined” is distracting and counterproductive. The idea is to create a signal that readers hardly notice. Attributions should seamlessly track who’s speaking without detracting from the flow of the conversation.
5. Weave the dialogue into the scene.
Maintaining a balance between the narrative and the conversation is important. A few words of well-placed dialogue can offer a visual break as well as provide an opportunity to include some subtle exposition. A single line of dialogue imbedded in several paragraphs of narration can be extremely effective.
6. Use regional speech patterns and accents with care.
The speaker need not deliver the entire sentence as if actually speaking in the vernacular. You as the author must perform your spell like a magician—using the sleight of hand necessary to get the point across without making the reading cumbrous. You should stylize the impression just enough for the reader to understand what type of person is speaking.
John Steinbeck does this marvelously, and an example is Mack’s speech in Cannery Row. Steinbeck portrays Mack with sparse ungrammatical language and no curse words, and yet the reader comes away with the impression that Mack is a bum, which, of course, he is.
7. Leave out the attribution when it’s clear who is speaking.
Add an attribution once in a while for clarification, but try to allow the dialogue to flow without it. Here’s an example:
“OK,” said Ram-haj. “I’m over here.”
“Why did you leave without telling me?” Ben asked.
“I’ve been making preparations for your journey.”
“Must we leave right away?”
“Yes. We have much to accomplish and little time.”
“Once we’re there, what do we need to do?”
“Train you in the art of magic.”
“How long will it take?”
“I don’t know exactly….”
All of the alternations are clear. After the first two lines, the reader knows precisely who is speaking, so adding attributions is unnecessary.
8. Use Standard English, except when portraying regional or stylized speech.
Writing in Standard English is difficult, even for experienced writers. In dialogue, some writers get the notion that they must do something dramatically different from regular narrative text, but the truth is that you can get a lot of mileage out of Standard English, even in dialogue.
Readers don’t want to wade through messy language to find the point. The wording should facilitate their moving fluidly through the passage to the next part. If they perceive the character correctly and are mostly unaware of the words, you’ve succeeded as a writer.
9. Differentiate between speakers’ styles.
Children speak differently than adults, and professors’ speech contrasts with that of ex-convicts. If you allow yourself to enter your characters’ minds, the appropriate language will be forthcoming. When editing the dialogue, however, you must be conscious of the words your characters are likely to use.
10. Avoid long speeches that tell too much.
Your dialogue-driven exposition should be subtle, gradually revealing facts through short verbal exchanges. Dialogue is great for telling parts of the story that are awkwardly presented through narration. It facilitates showing (rather than telling) readers what’s going on. If the exposition in the dialogue is too extensive, however, the effort becomes a clumsy distraction.
11. Pay close attention to the point of view.
Sometimes a character who is listening may be too far away to hear the speaker well, or perhaps the speaker and listener are in different rooms. In such cases, leaving out a few words may be appropriate, and as the author, you’ll have to decide which words to use to reveal just as much as you desire, within the boundaries of the point of view that you have established.
Here is an example from my novel The Second Half of the Life of Bernard Trammel:
“The…is high up…side…and…causing…,” said the same voice in a patient, explanatory tone. Bernard still heard only part of the sentence. He was getting angry.
12. Let the dialogue flow.
Most importantly, you must let the dialogue flow naturally. This happens principally during the creation of the rough-draft. I strongly suggest first writing the entire dialogue without thinking about any of the suggestions made above. If your characters are genuine and live within you, you should be able to record their conversations as you hear them.
The first draft must be spontaneous, allowing the characters to be themselves and permitting yourself to make mistakes. Only when you see your own missteps as part of the creative process will you discover the true language of your characters.
Writing dialogue is exciting and can add a wonderful, rounding dimension to your fiction. First, you allow the characters to speak their minds, and second, you apply the suggestions enumerated above to fine tune the words and smooth the format. If the resulting conversation rings true to you, it probably will to your readers as well.