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Breathing Life into Dialogue

Have you ever read a court transcript? It accurately gives a word-by-word report of exactly what is said. But it is interesting?

Uh-uh. If we wrote verbatim the way we talk, our readers would execute us at dawn (or maybe earlier). So what do we do to create "natural" dialogue?

First, we must listen to the way people talk -- both the choice of words and the rhythm of those words. People rarely speak in long sentences or without pausing (except for my mother), so we must write dialogue in fragmented sentences and in short bursts.

Second, we must decide which of these spoken words are worthy of writing. For example, in real life, when we greet someone, we generally say, "hello," then ask how he is, maybe how his family is, and so forth. But this is boring stuff to a reader. The reader is smart enough to realize small talk occurs and impatient enough to want to get immediately to the meat of the conversation. Therefore, we need to eliminate the "niceties" and get on to what the reader wants to read.

And third, we need to add body language and action to dialogue to convey its true meaning. For example, a character says, "You jerk." Without body language, we don't know what the emotional value of this statement is. Consider the following statements:

"You jerk," he said, his eyebrow cocked just enough so I'd know he was challenging me, that he was checking to see if I would back down or not.

"You jerk," he said, and the twinkle in his eye told me that I'd finally earned his respect.

"You jerk!" Carl slapped his knee and laughed from his belly until I feared he'd fall down.

As you can see, it is the action and body language that allows us to interpret the meaning of the words. Since the reader cannot see the character talking, it is our job to describe all the information the reader needs.

Adding action and body language to our prose also accomplishes another task: it slows the pacing. Now, there are times when rapid-fire dialogue is necessary, such as at high drama points when things are moving quickly, or after a long descriptive section to pick up the pace. Monologues usually do NOT need broken, as the story being told is the story holding (we hope!) the reader's attention and to interrupt it to give tags or action would be distractive.

There are no precise rules for writing dialogue that I am aware of, but an ear for it is developed by reading aloud. Do you start drifting? You need action. Do you forget who's talking? You need a tag. Is the conversation moving too quickly? You need a break -- narrative or action -- to even out the pacing.

Here are some quick tips for writing dialogue:

Don't sound out sound effects. This is annoying. Simply state, "The gun shot echoed through the chapel," instead of "Bang! Bang! Bang!"

Take it easy on dialect. Sounding out words becomes distracting and time-consuming, and most readers tire of it quickly. Instead, use the grammar and rhythm of the character to insinuate the dialect or tag it with an explanation, such as: "she said, her Polish accent thick, the way it was when she was tired or sick."

Don't include "well," "uh," and other such nonsense unless it serves a very good purpose. (Such as a character whose only word is "uh," or a character whose main distinction is prefacing every statement with "well.")

Keep your tags invisible (see the previous tip sheet, "Avoid Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome" for help with this).

Keep your tags either interspersed with action and description or at the end of the quote. A tag at the beginning (although occasionally okay) tends to make the writing more passive. Consider which of the following carries the most power:

He said, "Help me. I need help."

"Help me. I need help," he said.

"Help me," he said. "I need help."

Remember, we need to be able to visualize our characters as they talk -- do they roll their eyes, clench their teeth, smile -- any of the visual clues that help us interpret the intent of the words.

About Sandy Tritt

Sandy Tritt is a writer, editor and speaker. The founder and CEO of Inspiration for Writers Inc, an editing and critiquing service for aspiring writers, she has edited hundreds of manuscripts. She is president emeritus of West Virginia Writers, Inc., the state’s largest writing organization, and has recently led workshops at the West Virginia Writers Conference, the West Virginia Book Festival, the Alabama Writers Conclave, and the Appalachian Writers Association (Bristol, Tennessee), among others. Sandy’s short stories and novels have received many awards and have been published in literary magazines and local journals such as Gambit, Confluence, Allegheny Echoes, Mountain Voices, The Northwestern, and Mountain Echoes, in which she was the July 2004 featured writer. In addition, she has published Everything I Know (Headline Books), Inspiration for Writers Tips and Techniques Workbook, and seven technical manuals (Phoenix Software, Atlanta, GA). She has ghostwritten one award-winning screen play and two memoirs. But more than anything, Sandy loves to teach the craft of writing, and is available to give her dynamic workshops at your writers conference.