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Writing Good Dialogue

By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle

Writing Good Dialogue

Its etymology is Greek, like so much of the mechanics of literature. Dia (through) + logos (speech). It is a way to advance the story through the speech of two or more characters in a novel.

Dialogue is also an excellent way to exposit information in a story for the reader. Character speculations to each other can be used to foreshadow future events, deliver hints, reveal backstory, frame flashbacks, and introduce or reveal prophecies.

Dialogue can also be more important than you know in getting your work published. I have known editors to select a slush pile manuscript to read by scanning through the pages; if they didn’t see enough dialogue, they just put it back and picked up another, figuring that without much dialogue, the characters were going to be pretty dry. How can characters be juicy if they don’t have many lines?

Dialogue Vs. Narrative

When it comes to expositing information, dialogue has a huge advantage over narrative, because with dialogue, you impart this information to the reader while retaining precise control over which characters know this information, and which do not. In addition, the information that characters impart to each other need not be true or accurate. Your characters can be mistaken. They can be misinterpreting something they found out, or even lying, fearmongering, misleading, hiding their own guilt, covering up a scandal, or just repeating made-up nonsense.

False dialogue statements can be used to implant red herrings in a mystery, send the protagonist (or anyone, really, including the reader!) on a wild-goose chase of a quest, or set up for a surprise twist, or a surprise twist-back. Information exposited by the author in narrative, however, has far less freedom. Author narrative must be true, else you risk losing the reader’s trust.

Right or Wrong?

Some argue about the rules of “right” and “wrong” ways to write dialogue, but they aren’t so much right and wrong as sharp or dull. There are some models of dialogue to avoid, for sure. The most common is the “As you know, Bob,” kind of dialogue, which describes two characters saying things to each other which both certainly know and the only reason for them to speak about it is to clue the reader in.

An example would be having one veteran soldier explain to another something that all soldiers have to learn in boot camp. Much better to have one say, “You know we can’t do that.’ And the other reply, “Yeah, we can. We just can’t get caught,” By inserting a twist and making the characters disagree on some aspect, the dialogue gives you a chance to explain, while introducing a new level of conflict and developing the characters’ matrices.

How Important is Punctuation?

The only wrong way to present spoken dialogue, is with wrong punctuation. And while the punctuation in spoken dialogue is invisible to the characters, unclear or incorrect punctuation is visible to the reader. Using the wrong words or bad grammar in dialogue can always be the character’s error; wrong punctuation, never. When a character says “It’s” instead of “its,” that can only be the author’s mistake because characters don’t speak aloud in words. They speak in syllables.

And because spelling is also invisible in dialogue, homophones can be useful in creating a comical or serious misunderstanding. Some of the other syntactical problems in writing, such as dangling participles and misplaced modifiers, can also be used in dialogue as devices to create puns, misunderstandings and double-entendres, by having another character do a double-take or burst out laughing.

But to make things easier for the writer, dialogue is also one part of writing where proper grammar really doesn’t matter. People speak however they speak, and frequently use bad grammar, no matter their level of education. It’s also where words like “ain’t” and “gonna” and “coulda” may sound more natural, even if they’re not proper. And the first key to writing good dialogue make it sound as natural as possible.

Characters Must Be Distinguishable

While one way might not be any more “correct” than any other, some are definitely better. It’s crucial to have different characters sound like they’re different people, otherwise the dialogue sounds like the same person is really doing all the talking, the way a parent puts a sock-puppet on each hand and, varying only the pitch of the voice, makes them talk to each other for a toddler’s amusement.

You need to make your characters into different people, even if they’re siblings who grew up in the same family, (because no two siblings ever do grow up in the same family, not from their perspective.) Give them different ways of speaking. One character might have a lisp, or another might swear a lot. One character can be verbose and another succinct. One character can be known for malapropisms, providing comic relief. Another might speak very loudly and emotionally and be prone to hyperbole.

Signature Expressions Lend Authenticity

A character can have their signature expressions for when they’re happy, frustrated or to show contempt. Phrases such as Oliver Hardy’s “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!or “Well, La-dee-dah!” or maybe a resigned, “There ya go again!” A character might be prone to puns, quoting poetry, Shakespeare, Latin phrases, or the bible. A word of warning, it’s probably best not to quote other works or phrases that might be trademarked. I think the best advice I can give about how to use dialogue effectively is to remember that when dialogue is done well, it’s not just words on paper.

Good dialogue is one of the most important and useful tools a writer has. You need to practice using it. Listen to people talking and remember that dialogue can also include texting, emails and all forms of correspondence, even telepathy, depending on what kind of story you’re writing.

Next week, I’ll cover GREAT dialogue.

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