Creative Writing Techniques: How To Write Good Dialogue

Posted at 20:23pm on 6th December 2008

I wrote, in an earlier article, about the need to give readers plenty of white space on the page, and suggested that you aim for a clotted cream effect: solid lumps of differing sizes and consistency, floating in a soft smooth cream. The cream is the narrative of your novel. And at least some of the solid lumps, and much of the empty white space on the page, can be achieved through writing good dialogue – as in the following example taken from my novel, A Painful Post Mortem. Here Rosie and Steve are discussing Rosie’s sister’s adolescence, whilst picnicking with their children.

‘I’m surprised she lasted until she was fourteen before getting herself expelled,’ said Steve. ‘What swung it, in the end?’
‘Smoking behind the bike sheds.’
‘Smoking? Behind the bike sheds? We all did that!’
‘Ours were wooden, painted with tar. Not only that, they were right beside the dorms. The nuns told Mum it was a fire risk, but –’
‘But you’re not sure that’s all there was to it?’
Rosie stood up. It would soon be time for Erin’s two-o’clock feed, and Steve would want to get back to work. She began to fill the back-pack that passed as a picnic hamper.
‘I’m pretty sure Kat was smoking pot,’ she said, stowing away the cutlery and plastic beakers.
Steve whistled and stood up with the baby in his arms.
‘Wow. I’d have thought in those days it would have been pretty difficult to smuggle dope into a boarding school, let alone a Convent.’
He put Erin into her buggy, crouched beside her and strapped her in.
‘I don’t know that the nuns would have recognised it if they saw it,’ said Rosie. She called the boys to tell them it was time to go and shrugged the back-pack into position. ‘I don’t suppose Mum realised, either. But looking back, I think it marked the beginning of the end for Kat. And it was certainly the beginning of the end for Mum and Dad.’

WRITING GOOD DIALOGUE

Unfortunately, my editor has re-formatted the typeset into a left-justified block. But on the book page, the excerpt above shows how the short sentence construction and paragraphing necessary for dialogue gives the clotted effect. However, dialogue has a far more important role than simply adding texture. Notice what is conveyed in the passage above:

  • Gender & Age: Even if the characters were not named, words and phrases like ‘swung it’ and ‘Wow’ and ‘dope’ suggest a male speaker and the informality of a youngish man rather than the formal speech of an older person.
  • Character: Dialogue can be used to good effect to create a distinctive character. For instance, a character may speak in dialect. But don’t overdo it. Par’ werds wi’ a lorra apostrophes an misspellin’s are ’ard tew reed.’ A single dropped aitch can give the required effect. Or, for a plummy tone: ‘I say, how frightful.’
  • Simplicity: In the whole of this passage there are only three occasions when dialogue tags are used: ‘said Steve’ ‘she said’ and ‘said Rosie’. ‘Said’ is a word the reader skims over without noticing it, so the emphasis is on what is being said rather than the tag. Descriptive tags like: she lisped; he barked; they chorused, have their place, but beware of over-using them. Frequently, dialogue needs no tag – as above.
  • Mood: Beginning writers often use phrases like, ‘he gasped’ or ‘he said, unbelievingly’ when the dialogue could speak for itself. Without any descriptive narrative whatever in the passage above, the reader registers Steve’s incredulity through the use of short, punchy sentences: ‘Smoking? Behind the bike sheds? We all did that!’
  • Backstory: Dialogue, alone, has informed the reader in this passage. We now know that Kat (Rosie’s sister) was expelled from a Convent boarding school at the age of 14, ostensibly for smoking cigarettes which may, actually, have been cannabis. We also know that Kat had started on a downward slope from which there was no return, and so had her parents.
  • Advancing the plot: Dialogue should always help to progress the plot. In the excerpt above, Rosie’s realisation that her sister may well have started on drugs whilst still a schoolgirl is an integral part of the plot.
  • Action: Interweave action and information with the dialogue. Notice, also, how it can be used to convey a sense of pausing to reflect, between Steve’s question and Rosie’s reply: ‘But you’re not sure that’s all there was to it?’ Rosie stood up. It would soon be time for Erin’s two-o’clock feed, and Steve would want to get back to work. She began to fill the back-pack that passed as a picnic hamper. ‘I’m pretty sure Kat was smoking pot . . .
  • Natural: Aim for a natural sound in your dialogue. Reading it aloud helps to avoid a stilted result. Notice the abbreviations ‘I’m’ and ‘don’t’. Also the colloquialisms ‘getting herself expelled’; ‘pretty sure’. Note also the incomplete sentences: Not ‘It was smoking . . .’ but ‘Smoking behind the bike sheds.’ And the interruption, or hesitation: ‘it was a fire risk, but - ’

How to write a dialogue is as much about listening to conversations that are going on around you, and noting the different cadences to speech, as it is to creative writing techniques. It’s about allowing your characters to develop their own banter or conflict without authorial interference. It’s about hearing their discussions in your head – and not giving vent to your own opinions. It’s about giving them free rein.

Let me know what you're working on these days. If you want to send a piece of your own work showing dialogue, it would be good to see it. But no more than half a page each please.

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