Writing Dialogue (excerpt from my novel included)

  • Steven 

It seems that writing dialogue would come naturally to everyone — as naturally as speaking — but writing and speaking are two very different things. The difficulty in writing good dialogue comes with making your dialogue sound like natural speech, but avoiding all of those “uhs” and “you knows” that make up everyday, normal conversation.

There are two types of dialogue: direct and indirect dialogue. Using a balance of both in writing is important in establishing the pace and rhythm of your story. Direct dialogue is when two or more people are speaking in a scene, while indirect dialogue is reported speech (i.e. – Mike told Rachel he would go with her to the movies).

The following excerpt from the short story “Feathers” by Raymond Carver shows how direct and indirect dialogue can be balanced for pacing.

That evening, watching TV, I asked her if we should take anything to Bud’s.

“Like what?” Fran said. “Did he say to bring something?”

You’ll notice the first sentence is an indirect form of dialogue, and the second sentence is direct.

Also notice the tag verb “said” used in this passage. “Said” is always the preferred verb to use when writing dialogue. Avoid all those other tag verbs like “stated, exclaimed, declared” that draw attention away from the dialogue itself. “Asked” is generally an acceptable tag verb to use when a character is posing a question.

Another element to avoid is clarifying adverbs used to describe how something is said. Consider the following passage:

“How did you like the dessert?” Rachel said hopefully.

“I thought it was terrible,” Mike replied grumpily.

The adverb is meant to clarify the statement. In Rachel’s case, she asks the question hoping her husband likes the dessert, but if her statement is made the way the adverb describes it and in the correct context, then the adverb “hopefully” is redundant and not needed.

Observe how Raymond Carver avoids the use of tag verbs and clarifying adverbs.

“Maybe they don’t drink wine,” I said.

“Take some wine anyway,” Fran said. “If they don’t drink it, we’ll drink it.”

“White or red?” I said.

“We’ll take something sweet,” she said, not paying me any attention.

It’s also important when writing dialogue to avoid what is called “naked dialogue.” Naked dialogue is dialogue that ignores characters’ actions as they are talking. Your characters should be active throughout the conversation.

Again from Raymond Carver and “Feathers:”

“He talks about you,” Fran said. She took her hand back. “Bud this, Bud that. You’re about the only person down there he talks about. I feel like I know you.” She was keeping an eye on the peacock. It had moved over near the porch.

“This here’s my friend,” Bud said. “He ought to talk about me.” Bud said this and then he grinned and gave me a little punch on the arm.

The interspersing of these actions with the dialogue gives the scene a natural feel to it and helps with the pacing of the story.

The following is a bit of dialogue from my own novel (still a work in progress).

“We’ve come for supplies,” Guibert said, addressing Nevina.

“And I’ve told you to leave,” she repeated.

“Your father was expecting us.” Guibert said. “Can we see him?”

“He’s not here,” Reynard said. He had a scowl on his face, and then his features softened as he turned to Nevina. “I’ve already told them that, my lady.”

“He’ll be back in a week,” she added. “Come back and see him then.”

“We only need food, a few sheaves of arrows, and some weapons and horses if you can spare them.”

“We can’t spare them,” Nevina said.

“Have the priest here conjure something up,” Reynard said, and the other knights laughed. “Touch a relic, pay him a donation, and I’m sure you’ll get everything you need.”

Guibert’s mouth and jaw line tightened at the insult, but the priest didn’t seem to mind. Mathieu calmly unwrapped a book from a linen cloth and began flipping through the pages.

“You blaspheme.” Guibert pointed at Reynard. “You damn your soul with such remarks.”

“They damn their own souls,” Reynard replied. “A bunch of selfish, good for nothing swine wallowing in their gold. Though I don’t know about this one.” De Montfort pointed at the priest. “My horse is worth more than he is.” The knights laughed, and Mathieu did not look up.

“Worth more than a baseborn knight too,” Guibert said.

The insult, though unfounded, visibly frustrated de Montfort, but nevertheless, he remained composed. “Who’d your father have the pleasure of ploughing? A good mother’s worth ten coins, though your’s came cheap. Only five.”

Guibert was growing hotter with every word. “Watch your tongue.” Caelen put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, but Guibert shook it off.

“Turns out your father, this priest, and I all have something in common,” Reynard said. “We all like our women cheap.” The knights really had a good laugh at that.

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