A Few Words on Writing Dialogue

I was going to write this all in dialogue, but I'm not really up to the challenge.  Who would be speaking with me?  How many of us would there be?  Where would we find ourselves?  

If you have written scripts for film or play, you know how important stage directions are to flesh out the dialogue.  The actors need to know what to do as well as what to say.  The audience expects it all to be presented to them, with little left to their own imagination.  Consider a radio play, on the other hand.  Here the listener is given only sound clues to augment the dialogue. 

In short (or long) story dialogue, usually the scene has already been set or will soon be set by the speakers, even in the very first line of a story.  "Look around you, Mr Logan.  None of these books has more to tell you about the law than I do."  That gives quite a lot of information.  No need for details of who said this, to whom, or where.  The next line could finish the scene setting.  "But Mr Lockett, if we lose this case, I'll lose everything – my wife, my children, my job – such as it is.  No one at the magazine thinks I'm even capable of doctoring those photos."

No show, no tell, no conversation tags (or 'drags', as I call them), no adverbs.  Just two lines of dialogue are enough to set the story going.  The reader's eye is caught instantly and moves inexorably onward.  There need be no details omitted, if they are worked into normal, natural speech (and true to the character speaking).  "Ah, was that four o'clock chiming?  Excuse me if I smoke.  I'm allowed one cigarette every hour."

Are there three or more characters talking in a scene?  To distinguish them, of course have them call each other by name once in a while.  Characters may refer to others by specific variations on their names.  For instance, James Blair is called Mr Blair by his assistant, his boss might call him James, and his friend at work calls him Jim.  We would know who is speaking once this has been established by the crosstalk.  Characters in dialogue can also have distinguishing verbal idiosyncrasies, such as repeated phrases (like starting a sentence with 'But'), use of slang, avoidance of contractions, garbled sentence structure, grammatical errors, and so on.

I once read advice to avoid writing dialogue to imitate the way people speak.  Nonsense.  With just an 'um' or a 'well, ...' you can avoid those awful adverb tags like  'she said, hesitantly' or 'he asked, shyly'.  Evidence has shown that readers ignore these anyway.  Their attention focuses on what is within the quotation marks.  

Keep the readers' attention by giving them a bit of work to do, as well.  That is why 'neither show nor tell' is my best advice.  Engage the readers – make them part of your writing team.  Challenge them as much as you challenge yourself.  So – what if you don't trust your readers to work with you?  Then those readers are not your target audience.  Write only for the readers who want to come along for the journey.  

Trust your readers also with scenery and design.  There is no need to describe a room in such detail that the readers can NOT imagine it from their own experience.  Let their minds recall a room they know.  Now, you've got them right where you want them.  They'll come back to their own mental room more easily.  The same is true of character description.  Let the readers imagine a person they know, based on general description.  That's the character they will put into that room they imagine.  If your story is good, your plot sound, then you can relax giving the readers these responsibilities of detail.  


One story I wrote required me to research several 'sensitive' topics, including drug trafficking and drug addiction, sexual aberrations, and suicide.  I rarely Googled, except for statistics or pharmaceutical information.  I have had contact throughout my life with most elements of society, and so I knew whom to find to get leads to other private sources.  That first story became one in an ongoing series of such stories, mostly because I had gathered too much information to use in just the one story.  

Obviously, I give away no details of real people, and my underworld or underground friends remain my sources as well as my friends.  They trust me, and I trust them.  With the right person, I managed to work up the courage to enter the darknet (TOR is 'gate' in German, by the way).  My practice sessions involved mainly legal trading in crypto-currencies, but it gave me enough of a high to put a certain tingle into that story.

One fellow I used as inspiration for a main character read 'his' story after it was finished, and he was rather disappointed I hadn't given out more detail about him.  "My brother's hair isn't blond.  I never dealt in ketamine.  It wasn't lead guitar I played – it was bass.  They never found guns at that raid.  We were using ropes, not straps."  That sort of thing.  I had to remind him that I write fiction and use real detail only as a starting point, a hook to hang things on.  "Of course it's not you at the end of the process," I said, patiently.  "I involved you as much as possible, and I'd give you written credit, but just not under your real name."  He's part of my writing team now.  

Collaborators are a precious commodity.  Treat them with respect. 

CREATIVE WRITING 207 was a course I took my first semester at university.  We were assigned formats in which to write - autobiography, stream of consciousness, exchange of letters, diary entries of a madman, that sort of thing.  Recently I found a piece I had written as autobiography - this was in 1966, mind you, so I had yet to land on the moon or blow up bin Laden's lair.  My first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor was still to appear on the event horizon.  

The professor was kind in pointing out my misunderstanding of the use of commas.  And he particularly objected to my overuse of the word 'damn'.  I think I might frame this page of the piece comma not for the grade I got comma or even for the memory it awakens comma but for the professor's reaction after the seventh or eighth use of 'damn'.  He wrote: 'assanine'.

Loved it? Share it.