Dialogue for Dummies

I wrote a piece like this a while ago – a few years ago – but I lost it in between computers somehow. So, this is a rewrite of what I did before. It’s Dialogue for Dummies, where I’m going to show some of the finer points of writing dialogue.  This is not meant to imply that you’re dummies if you are uncertain about writing dialogue; I just call it that cause it has a nice ring to it. :p

I’m going to use a section I wrote for Nevermor to illustrate what I’m doing, so you can also consider this a very brief excerpt.

One of my biggest pet peeves in reading has always been dialogue. Maybe I’m not as anal about it as I used to be, but it really used to irk me when I would see dialogue that looked like this:

“I just wondered if you knew where Sly was.”

“What do you want Sly for?”

“I just wanted to ask him a question.”

“Well, I haven’t seen him.”

He then proceeded to ignore her.

She should have left it alone, but instead, she moved closer to him.

“Do you mind?  I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m sorry that you don’t like me.”

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with you.  It’s all about Rifter, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how he likes it.”

“He is pretty arrogant, isn’t he?”

“Girls must like that.”

Okay, so most writers have a better grasp on what they’re doing than to write it like this, but this is the bare bones of the conversation before I make my additions to it.  It is acceptable to write this way sometimes, if two characters are arguing rapidly, perhaps, but all dialogue should not look this way.  So, what I’m going to do is show you how to turn this into something better, easier to follow with plenty of life. I’m going to take you through a few steps, and what we come up with at the end should be much better than what we’ve begun with.

Let’s get started.

 Step 1: Make sure people know who is speaking.

When dealing with only two characters, it’s not important to mention who is speaking each time. If you make it clear which one of them begins, then it should be easier to follow the back and forth.  If you are dealing with a male and female talking, the simple he said/she said will suffice. When dealing with two males perhaps, it is best to indicate names, or you might have the problem of readers going “Which ‘he’ are we talking about??” Multiple characters are more difficult.  In that case, it might be important to mention names each time – but even that gets repetitive.

In this instance, we are dealing with two characters – a male and female.  Above, we have no idea who is speaking, but with the proper additions, at least the voices become clear.

“I just wondered if you knew where Sly was,” Wren said.

“What do you want Sly for?” Nix wanted to know.

“I just wanted to ask him a question.”

“Well, I haven’t seen him.”

He then proceeded to ignore her.

She should have left it alone, but instead, she moved closer to him.

“Do you mind?” he asked.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m sorry that you don’t like me,” she said.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he told her.  “It’s all about Rifter, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how he likes it.”

“He is pretty arrogant, isn’t he?”

“Girls must like that.”

Ahhh getting better already. Now we know who is talking!  Okay, that was pretty basic, but some of you might be surprised to hear that readers have trouble following conversations. Sometimes writers overlook things that they already know and don’t explain it well enough to the reader.

Step 2: Add some tone

How characters say things is very important to the delivery of the conversation.  When you don’t mention how things are being said, it may not let readers fully understand how a character is feeling about what they are saying.  Are they annoyed?  Angry?  Sarcastic?  Excited?  Readers don’t know unless we tell it.  The same goes for how the other character may be receiving the conversation.  So let’s do that.

“I just wondered if you knew where Sly was,” Wren said.  Nix seemed amused that she’d even responded.

“What do you want Sly for?” he wanted to know.

“I just wanted to ask him a question,” she said smartly, as if it was any of his business.

“Well, I haven’t seen him.”

He then proceeded to ignore her.

She should have left it alone, but instead, she moved closer to him.

“Do you mind?” he asked.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m sorry that you don’t like me,” she said.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he told her, a sneer in his voice.  “It’s all about Rifter, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how he likes it.”

“He is pretty arrogant, isn’t he?”

“Girls must like that,” he scoffed.

Step 3: Add some action

People, like characters, are animated.  They move in all sorts of ways when they speak. They talk with their hands and shift their eyes around.  They slouch, they roll their eyes, they clench their fists.  They walk around, they do other things at the same time!  So tell us what they’re doing while they’re talking.

“I just wondered if you knew where Sly was,” Wren said.  Nix seemed amused that she’d even responded.

“What do you want Sly for?” he wanted to know.

“I just wanted to ask him a question,” she said smartly, as if it was any of his business.

“Well, I haven’t seen him.”

He then proceeded to ignore her, busying himself by setting another arrow against the bow string. 

She should have left it alone, but instead, she moved closer to him.  Nix tried to focus on his target while watching her from the corner of his eye, but her lingering presence proved too much for him.

“Do you mind?” he asked over his shoulder.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m sorry that you don’t like me,” she said.  Nix sighed in irritation and lowered the arrow.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he told her, a sneer in his voice.  “It’s all about Rifter, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how he likes it.”

“He is pretty arrogant, isn’t he?”

“Girls must like that.”  He scoffed and went back to his arrow.

Step 4: Question things and summarize.

I think it’s good to pause sometimes and take stock of the situation; maybe even summarize it based on what the character has already learned.

Here, Wren is considering what they are talking about and recalling what she had previously learned. These are good things for keeping the reader on track. It can also be done by adding a specific question in the paragraph as the character considers it for herself.

“I just wondered if you knew where Sly was,” Wren said.  Nix seemed amused that she’d even responded.

“What do you want Sly for?” he wanted to know.

“I just wanted to ask him a question,” she said smartly, as if it was any of his business.

“Well, I haven’t seen him.”

He then proceeded to ignore her, busying himself by setting another arrow against the bow string.  Wren knew that was her cue to wander off, yet she couldn’t stand the fact that he was so cold to her.

She should have left it alone, but instead, she moved closer to him.  Nix tried to focus on his target while watching her from the corner of his eye, but her lingering presence proved too much for him.

“Do you mind?” he asked over his shoulder.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m sorry that you don’t like me,” she said, but they both knew it wasn’t a real apology.  Nix sighed in irritation and lowered the arrow.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he told her, a sneer in his voice.  “It’s all about Rifter, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how he likes it.”

Wren did agree that this seemed to be the way of things.  Rifter was in charge, he did what he wanted and he didn’t care what anyone else thought about it.

“He is pretty arrogant, isn’t he?”

“Girls must like that.”  He scoffed and went back to his arrow.  Just like that, they were back where they’d started. 

Step 5: Add some private thought

In real life, people think things that they don’t say. I often like to plug in thoughts to show what the character is thinking privately during the conversation.  I consider this to be very important as far as helping to build a character, and also for pacing.  It gives us a glimpse of what they really are inside.  In fact, they might even be thinking the opposite of what they’re saying!  You can do this no matter what perspective you’re writing from, but of course don’t get carried away with multiple characters thinking things through the course of the conversation.  Like in this section, I have it set from Wren’s POV, so I wouldn’t plug in a thought that Nix was having.

“I just wondered if you knew where Sly was,” Wren said.  Nix seemed amused that she’d even responded.

“What do you want Sly for?” he wanted to know.

“I just wanted to ask him a question,” she said smartly, as if it was any of his business.

“Well, I haven’t seen him.”

He then proceeded to ignore her, busying himself by setting another arrow against the bow string.  Wren knew that was her cue to wander off, yet she couldn’t stand the fact that he was so cold to her.

Does he not realize how ridiculous it is for him to hate me?

She should have left it alone, but instead, she moved closer to him.  Nix tried to focus on his target while watching her from the corner of his eye, but her lingering presence proved too much for him.

“Do you mind?” he asked over his shoulder.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m sorry that you don’t like me,” she said, but they both knew it wasn’t a real apology.  Nix sighed in irritation and lowered the arrow.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he told her, a sneer in his voice.  “It’s all about Rifter, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how he likes it.”

Wren did agree that this seemed to be the way of things.  Rifter was in charge, he did what he wanted and he didn’t care what anyone else thought about it.

“He is pretty arrogant, isn’t he?”

“Girls must like that.”  He scoffed and went back to his arrow.  Just like that, they were back where they’d started.

Looks pretty good now doesn’t it?  There is a lot more going on there with just the addition of a few things.

 

Lastly: Format it properly

This is a small step, but an important one. I’m going to show a few common grammatical mistakes I have seen.

When using a he said/she said, the sentence does not end until the last word. The sentence of dialogue does not end with a period. It ends with a comma inside the parenthesis, and the period doesn’t come until the end of everything else you wanted to say.

“I just wondered if you knew where Sly was,” Wren said

Don’t write what two characters are saying in the same paragraph, but it is okay to do this if the same character is speaking. Such as in this line:

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he told her, a sneer in his voice.  “It’s all about Rifter, and unfortunately, that’s exactly how he likes it.”

Yay! You have now learned some pointers for writing dialogue. I hope this helped or at least gave you a good checklist.

*****

As far as my writing progress, I think I’m just about finished!  The thing is, I’m not sure I did everything that I wanted to do, or that I have it exactly right. So this is where the rewrites and edits come in. I’ll probably do a lot of this by hand, so now I’ll be printing it and arranging it in my binder so that I can go over it. Today, I’m reading over the last chapter and then I’m going to get going with the edits!

But I don’t think it’s ready to be looked at by my beta readers, so I’m going to hold it for a bit longer to see if I can get everything right. I’ll also be reading over Forsaken Dreamscape again and possibly making some notes and mild edits to it, and make sure everything can at least be edited to line up.

The “finished” project is currently at 124K, though I still have a bit more to add, and it may grow or shrink depending on what I add or cut.

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4 thoughts on “Dialogue for Dummies

  1. Abby

    Thanks for this post – it’s very informative, and I’m sure it will be useful when I get round to (or be bothered to) start writing again. 🙂

    Reply
  2. bookwritingtips

    Reblogged this on Book Writing Tips and commented:
    Wow.. It really gets better. The original dialogue seems to have lots of characters since I don’t know who is speaking. When you improved it in step 1, it improves but still I’m not sure if who is the male and female, is it nix or wren. But as you improved it further up to the last step, I’m amazed how good and clear it was. This needs to be shared and is recommended to the new comers in the writing/publishing industry. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Fran Abigail

    Wow, I didn’t realize it could be that simple. All this time when I was writing my story, I was struggling how to put the dialogues. After reading the Dialogue for Dummies, I understand better now.

    Thank you. I will recommend this post to a friend who’s also interested in writing

    Reply

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