Let’s Talk: Some Dialogue Do’s and Don’ts
Dialogue is notoriously difficult. You have to make each character distinctive. The speech needs to sound natural. Unlike you, characters can’t deliberate about word choice. Here are some tips that may help.
DON’T have characters speak grammatically correctly. Dialogue reveals much about your characters, and when they talk like scholars giving lectures, their speech sounds contrived. Even college professors don’t got to follow no rules when chatting with friends. Vary grammatical mistakes for distinctive voices. One character can’t use the right prepositions for save his life. Another get subject-verb agreement wrong. Even if characters speak proper English . . .
DO have them speak in sentence fragments. Ordinarily we take pride in well-crafted sentences, and perhaps a character, say an academic, needs to be erudite or pompous. Usually, though, characters who utter perfectly constructed sentences sound artificial. Real conversations are messy. Like we talk. Short responses. Similarly . . .
DON’T punctuate correctly. Although fragments are often effective, sometimes comma splices work better. Consider: “I was right there. I didn’t see a thing.” Compare: “I was right there, I didn’t see a thing.” In the first version the period indicates a full stop. The second instance gives a pause but also suggests more urgency. Also, colons and semi-colons should usually be avoided in dialogue. Focus more upon how you want the reader to imagine the sound of what is said (a pause or not?) and less about formal punctuation that’s appropriate for narration. While you’re at it . . .
DO use odd phrases. Sometimes characters should speak in clichés to emphasize the character’s lack of imagination. Characters can be more interesting, however, if they create their own figures of speech. Make them appropriate, though. A city dweller should never say that her boyfriend’s voice is “as sweet as a whippoorwill’s song,” but she’s likely to say that his apartment “smells like the subway. ” Further, minor characters can be distinguished by their peculiar locutions. In one novel, I had a character end most of his comments with “Get it.” Another liked to add, “You know it?” They need to sound different from each other and, more importantly, from you. Whatever you do . . .
DON’T have them speak adverbially. If you must write, “’I never said that,’ Shelley retorted sharply,” because readers will otherwise not know that Shelley’s remark was a retort and sharp (aren’t all retorts sharp?), then your dialogue is in trouble. Even great writers make this misstep. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald often uses clumsy dialogue tags (i.e., he/she said). He tags one character’s statement with “he assured us positively.” Can one be assured negatively? Dialogue tags should help the reader follow who’s speaking, not report how they are speaking, and should be used sparingly. You can do more if you . . .
DO use “beats” instead. Consider this exchange:
“I’m leaving,” said Wally. “I want my stuff.”
“Everything’s right where you left it,” Petunia said angrily.
A beginning writer may think that “angrily” is necessary to inform the reader about Petunia’s inner state. Compare this:
“I’m leaving,” said Wally. “I want my stuff.”
Petunia crushed out her cigarette on the chair arm. “Everything’s right where you left it.”
The dialogue is the same, but this beat not only reveals Petunia’s mood, it also eliminated the need for a tag. Beware, though, of overusing the same beats. Mind how often a character gazes (longingly) out the window or rubs her chin (contemplatively). Beats practically write themselves if you . . .
DON’T have characters just sit around and talk. Like you, they chat while engaged in activity, like folding clothes, cleaning fish, or peeking at the sun-bathing neighbor. The activities they favor, and the styles by which they perform them, can help individualize your characters. To make sure your dialogue sounds right . . .
DO read it aloud. Do the characters sound like different people? Does the speech tell us about the character, reveal a plot point, or make us laugh (which is fine, too)? Do the beats fit the rhythm or get in the way? Does it seems that the only reason for the conversation is convenient exposition (there’s a place for this, but make it subtle)? Above all, trust your ear.
Ron was born in the swampy Low Country of South Carolina. He received a BA in philosophy from the College of Charleston, an MA from the University of South Carolina, and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He moved to Florida in 1988 and since 1995 has taught at College of Central Florida in Ocala where he lives with his wife Sandra (also a CF faculty member) and their three children.
Ron is a past president of the Florida Philosophical Association, has published philosophical essays, and is the author of Heidegger and Whitehead: A Phenomenological Examination into the Intelligibility of Experience. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Sleipnir Literary Journal, Chattahootchee Review, American Book Review, Deep South Magazine, Yalobusha Review, Apostrophe, Timber Creek Review, and The Blotter. His novels Hume’s Fork, Purple Jesus and The Gospel of the Twin are available from Bancroft Press. His newest novel All My Sins Remembered was released by Goliad Press in March, 2018.
Ron is also a bluegrass enthusiast, and he challenges anyone to play and sing worse than he does.