Dialogue is one of those sticky wickets when it comes to writing fiction.
It’s hard to do. And when you don’t do it right, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
When I took my last Spanish class in college, I got my one and only failing grade. Ever. In fact, I’d never even had a C grade before. But I failed that Spanish class.
Because I never knew when I did something wrong. It all felt right to me.
I didn’t turn in papers that I knew deserved F grades. I thought I had it right.
That’s what a lot of bad writing is like for new writers. It all reads okay to us. We need someone else to read it and tell us that it stinks so that we can say oooh, right. Thanks. And go tighten it up and make it better.
But dialogue? Usually, we know it’s bad. We cringe when we read it. But it can be really, really hard to know how to fix it. Because we don’t know why it’s bad.
Someone asked me during a Ninja Writer’s Club call last weekend if I have any ideas for that and here’s what I came up with. I hope it will help you, too.
Tip One: You don’t need very many attributions.
Really, almost none at all.
In fact, getting rid of most of your attributions will make your dialogue read considerably better immediately. Because it will loosen it up.
Having to read a thousand ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’ makes the whole thing come across very stiff and formal, no matter what they’re actually saying.
And even worse, if they’re ‘smirking’ and ‘yelling’ and ‘whispering’ and ‘giggling’ their way through every single line of your dialogue, then your reader’s brain is stopping all the time to try to parse out what’s going on.
So, big rule here: only use said or asked to attribute dialogue.
(Do not leave me a comment and tell me Stephen King uses some other speaking verbs. When you’re Stephen King, you can do what you want. You and I only get to use said or asked.)
And the vast majority of the time, you don’t need said or asked either. Usually, you don’t need anything.
Readers will assume, when two people are speaking to each other, that they are taking turns.
You can also use ‘beats.’ A beat is a small piece of action that’s part of the same paragraph as the line of dialogue.
He sipped his coffee. “How are you?”
“How are you?” He asked.
He sipped his coffee. “How are you?” He asked.
If you have a beat, as long as the dialogue is in the same paragraph, the reader will assume that the person who performed the beat also spoke the words. You don’t need the attribution.
Search your manuscript for attributions such as ‘said’ and ‘asked’ or any other speaking verbs. Remove the vast majority of them. If you’ve used beats in the paragraph with the dialogue, you don’t need the attribution at all. If you have dialogue between two people, you may not need any attribution. You may need to add beats to keep who is speaking clear.
Tip Two: Read your dialogue out loud.
I can’t stress this enough.
Read your dialogue out loud, early and often.
I read my dialogue out loud as I’m writing it and during editing. I’m constantly talking to myself while I write. I need to hear the dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like humans would speak the words.
My kids think it’s hilarious. The people who are around me when I work in a coffee shop probably think I’m nuts. But it is what it is.
This is a pretty common piece of advice, so I’m sure you’ve hear it before, but it’s important enough that I want to reiterate it.
I also want to add that reading your character’s inner dialogue out loud can be useful as well. The things your point of view character thinks in their own voice are important.
One thing that will instantly take your fiction to the next level is making sure that your main character isn’t constantly saying and doing exactly what they’re thinking. No one does that. They need to have a rich inner world.
As you’re reading out loud, get rid of all the stuff you don’t need.
Look — anyone is going to sound like a lunatic if you transcribe exactly what comes out of their mouth. It’s your job as a writer to get rid of the boring stuff. The repetitions and the ums and the uhs. The parts where you lose your train of thought.
Real people use contractions. They use jargon. They don’t use each other’s names very often when they’re speaking to each other. They don’t tell each other things they already know.
So read your dialogue out loud and make sure it sounds like real people really speaking to each other.
Read your dialogue (including your inner dialogue) out loud. Even if it makes you feel like a crazy person. And make sure it sounds like real people really talking. Record yourself and listen back if that helps.
Tip Three: Find a someone with a voice like the one you’re creating.
The last book I published was told from the first-person point of view of a twelve-year-old boy named Gideon.
I was a middle-aged woman when I wrote that book.
I have six little brothers and I raised a son, so I’ve spent a bunch of time with twelve-year-old boys, but I really had to do some digging to find Gideon’s voice.
I couldn’t have him sounding like a soccer mom, right?
It finally occurred me that Gideon reminded me of my husband — what I imagine Kevin was like when he was twelve. Once I was able to ground Gideon, his voice came.
The other voice in that book is his friend Roona, who is a 12-year-old girl. Her voice was much easier, because she ended up reminding me a lot of myself when I was twelve.
Voice is a huge thing when you’re writing dialogue and it’s ethereal. Hard to nail down, hard to even describe, much less teach. So you wind up getting advice like you’ll know it when you find it.
Right. Thanks for that.
My advice is to either find someone you know (like I did for The Astonishing Maybe) or think of an established character in a book or movie that’s similar to what you’re trying to create.
And study them and the way they speak.
If you’re trying to create a villain, find one you really resonate with. Let’s say — Hannibal Lecter. And analyze their voice.
Hannibal is smarter than everyone else. And he knows it. His ego is tied up in that, so when he speaks, he uses words and a cadence that highlights his intelligence.
Hannibal chooses his words carefully. He can think more quickly than most people, which allows him to be careful, even on the fly.
He’s lonely. When he’s presented with an attractive, interesting specimen in Clarice Starling, he uses his dialogue to draw her into his web.
He never raises his voice, never speaks in anger, despite his actions being horrifically violent.
Then use your notes to start to build your own character’s voice. Your goal is to keep your character from having your voice, not to copy someone else’s voice exactly.
Eventually, as you write, you’ll get into the head of your character and their voice will come through.
Find someone real or fictional that has a voice like your character, and steal like an artist. Analyze their voice and use what you learn to start developing a unique voice for your character.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.