Sunday, March 17, 2013

He Said, She Said: Finding the Balance of Good Dialogue

5 Things to Remember When Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is such an important part of a novel.  It shapes characters, saying more about them than descriptions ever could.  It is also a much subtler way to hint at certain traits you want the reader to pick up on without painstakingly spelling it out.  Dialogue, when it's done right, can enrich your story and build depth.  It can also damage it beyond all repair.  So where is the balance?  

I read an article about an editor sharing some pointers to writers once.  It was so long ago I couldn't even tell you who the editor was, but the point of it really stuck with me.  One of the tips she shared was about dialogue.  She said that the first thing some of her agent friends would look at when picking up a proposed manuscript was how much white space was on the pages.  Before even reading a word of it, they would flip through and decide whether or not there was too much or too little blank space.  If it wasn't a good ratio, they would toss it aside, without even giving it a chance.

Scary, right?  To think that the amount of dialogue in your story has that much influence right out of the gate?  Well, don't despair.  I've got a few tips that can help make your dialogue the best it can be.


     1.  Scene vs. Summary 
Throughout your story, some pieces of the plot will be detailed scenes and others will be summaries or reflection.  Part of the balance of good dialogue is knowing when to pull the reader into a scene and include lots of juicy dialogue and when to summarize or reflect upon the less active parts.  If you tend to write lots of dialogue in your story, it may be beneficial to pull out some of the less dynamic scenes and summarize them for the reader.  If you are the opposite and tend to write very little dialogue, try to pinpoint some crucial parts of the story to expand on in a scene with lots of important dialogue.  It's good to follow a dynamic scene with some summary or reflection.

2.   TV Speak vs. Real People Speak
While watching many of the latest sitcoms and dramas, I have noticed that the characters on tv have a very special language that is not used anywhere else.  I like to refer to it as TV Speak.  It is the unending, witty banter that assaults my ears every time I watch and sometimes makes me want to throw things at the tv.  If you haven't already figured it out, I will let you in on the secret: real people in everyday life DO NOT TALK LIKE THAT.  Yes, sometimes it is more potent than everyday language, but I find it downright annoying.  So please, do not feel that because you are putting a story out there in public view for all to see, that you must use TV Speak.  Maybe it's just me, but I find that the more real a character seems, the more it pulls me deeper into the story.  (It's not just me, by the way.  It's agents, editors, publishers, and most of the general public, too)  So take some time to listen to real people having real conversations in the real world.  Your characters will thank you for it.

3.   He Said, She Said
When writing a scene, it is important to make it clear who is saying what in a conversation.  The easiest and most commonly used way to distinguish the speaker is by using the word said.  Use it too often, i.e. after every single voiced comment, and the reader is bombarded by an army of saids, disrupting the otherwise pleasant flow of language in the story.  Use it too sparingly and the reader may become utterly confused.  Once again, the all-important concept of balance comes into play.  When two people are speaking, you can establish the "he said, she said" with their first comments.  After that, it's not really necessary to continue with "he said" after every comment.  We, the intelligent readers, can figure out the ABAB talking scheme for ourselves.  Once you write in some narration, though, you should re-establish who is talking again.  When you have more than two people speaking to each other, it's important to sprinkle a healthy dose of saids, just enough to keep us from losing track of who is speaking.

4.   Said Substitutes
Other words, such as replied, answered, or asked, can be substituted for said. Approach this concept with caution, though.  If you find that your characters are chortling, bellowing, or snickering, you have waded past the safe zone and into the deep end of horribly cliched, bad dialogue.  Just. Don't. Do it.  Be frugal with your said substitutes or you will end up slowing down your story significantly.

5.   Name-Calling
One of my biggest pet-peeves in reading dialogue is when the speakers, whether familiar with each other or not, use each others' names every single time they speak.  Here, let me show you:

"Henry, I told you to take out the garbage yesterday."
"But Aunt Jenna, I'm meeting some friends."
"No, Henry.  You need to take out the garbage now."
"You're so mean Aunt Jenna."

Ick.  It is annoying, unrealistic, and just plain unnatural.  Another pointer about this same passage: Don't allow your characters to address each other by their titles all the time either.  How often do you address your aunts, uncles, or doctors like that?  That's what I thought.  


Dialogue is a tricky medium and using it correctly is essential to a successful novel.  I hope these pointers help you writers out there as they have helped me.  Happy dialoguing!