Why do we use dialogue in novels when it could all be done with prose? The benefits of using dialogue:.
- It brings an engaging immediacy to the scene. You feel you are right there with the characters, involved in their conversation.
- The dialect, choice of vocabulary, and the tone can reveal a person’s characteristics in a more interesting way than a wordy description could.
- Dialogue can be a tool for advancing the plot, especially if inner conflict is woven into the spoken conversation.
Some tips about using dialogue:
- Use short snappy dialogue when appropriate. It heightens the tension.
- People don’t normally use long sentences in conversation. They more often speak in fragments and phrases.
- Speakers don’t repeat what the other person just said.
- Don’t use it as an all-too-obvious way to pass on information in a way that the person normally would not do. (E.g., “Don’t yell at Henry. He’s only two years old and he’s our only boy.” Painfully obvious information forced into the story.)
- These are the words that tell the reader who is speaking. They can be a distraction or even an annoyance if belaboured. The “he said/she said” part of the sentence should be like punctuation; it’s very important, but shouldn’t stand out or be noticed. Fancy dialogue tags like argued, insisted, responded, inquired, questioned, and replied are an unnecessary distraction. In most cases, said and asked are all you need.
- Having said that, try to limit your use of dialogue tags. Often if you precede or follow the dialogue with an action by the speaker, we know who is speaking. (E.g., Sam pointed at the ball. “Go fetch.”)
- If your speaker is grimacing or laughing, be sure that this is occurring in its own sentence, not as part of a dialogue tag.
Wrong – “That’s so funny,” Sam laughed.
Right – “That’s so funny.” Sam laughed.
The period, instead of the comma makes all the difference. In most cases, though, the action should come before the dialogue.
Combining actions with dialogue:
- Be careful how you handle this one. I see this done very often. Here is the pattern: “How are you?’ she asked, gazing at his eyes. When I peruse a book that I’m considering reading, I look for use of gerunds behind dialogue tags. If I see more than the occasional one, I’m already turned off. This kind of pattern stands out in a novel and can become irritating when you know that each set of quotation marks will be followed by the gerund pattern.
Here are some examples: “Pleased to meet you,” George said, pumping my hand up and down. “I’ll be right back,” David said, running down the street. “Give those back,” he said, grabbing at the candies. “It already looks irritating to me,” Anneli said, going on to a different book.
Dialogue can be an effective tool to make your novel more readable and engaging. It’s definitely a skill worth working on. Watch for examples of dialogue in novels. Do they work? What are the faults, if any, in the writing of the dialogue? Take some bad examples you find and see if you can make them more effective. When you know how to use dialogue to your advantage you’ll find that the quality of writing in your novel improves greatly.
But best of all, writing dialogue can be fun, especially when your characters, saying what they would naturally say, steer the conversation in a direction you hadn’t intended it to go. So watch out for those characters with a mind of their own, but have fun chatting.
Anneli Purchase is a published author who works with writers to bring out their best. She is a freelance copy-editor providing services that include correcting spelling, punctuation, word usage, sentence structure and balance, and many other aspects of writing. To find out more about Anneli, go to her website at http://www.anneli-purchase.com/.
Have you ever struggled with writing dialogue?
Has your dialogue ever sent your storyline off in a different direction from what you had planned?
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