TBP-logo
Writer's Tips


from Two Brothers Press


spacer
Here are links to other writing tips:

Narrative Voice in Storytelling:
A discussion of point of view and verb tense and how these elements affect the story

The Fastest Gun in the West:
writers often assume readers will fill in the details

Novel Openings: Creating compelling openings for novels

Description: The red meat of storytelling.

Flashbacks: Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback.
spacer
The Elements and Art of Dialog
One of the most important parts of a story is dialog.

The Elements of Dialog
dialogimage Dialog in fiction, of course, consists of two or more characters carrying on a conversation. But there is much more going on in dialog than the speech. There are at least three elements in dialog. The first is what is being said by a character; the second is how the character is saying it; and the third is how what the character says is perceived by the other character(s). A possible fourth element is parallel interior thoughts of the characters during the conversation. This last element is what might give dialog its substantive character.

Novice writers usually are aware of the first element—what is being said. But we get trivial dialog much of the time, because the novice isn't aware of why we have dialog in stories to begin with, so that we get excruciatingly trivial exchanges that don't really move the story along, dialog that could well be narrated to get it over with:

"What are we having for dinner?"
"Pizza."
"What kind of pizza?"
"Pepperoni."

The second element, how something is being said or tagging who is saying it is the second element of dialog, and it can improve the trivial somewhat, but still, novice writers will only give us minimal dialog tags:

"What are we having for dinner?" John asked.
"Pizza," Betty said.
"What kind of pizza?" John asked.
"Pepperoni," Betty said.

Fine. But the dialog is still trivial. So let's richen the conversation with how the characters are saying it—the second part of the dialog tag. In many cases, how a character says something can reveal an undertow in the surface conversation, which will give readers information and at least enliven the conversation, even it is still trivial. It should add interest, surprise, or other reader reactions.

"What are we having for dinner?" John asked, almost shouting.
"Pizza," Betty shouted back.
"What kind of pizza?" John asked, irritated.
"Pepperoni," Betty said, lowering her voice.

Ok. So what? Now let's add a third and fourth element—How what is being said is perceived by a character. And to avoid belaboring this already boring conversation, let's get in some parallel interior thoughts—the possible fourth element and one that gives the dialog its true substance.

"What are we having for dinner? John asked, almost shouting as soon as he stepped into the house, slamming the door behind him. It had been a hard day and he hoped his wife would hold up her end of their rotten marriage and feed him a good meal.

"Pizza," Betty shouted back. Whether John realized it or not, she worked just as hard as he did, and she wasn't about to slave over a hot stove, only to see him wolf down his food, fart, and move off to the living room to vegetate in front of the TV.

"What kind of pizza? John asked, irritated that Betty had once again ordered in their food. It better not be pepperoni, he thought. She knows it irritates my colon.

"Pepperoni," Betty said, lowering her voice, almost growling, daring John to complain. She wasn't about to work her ass off for him and never would again, since she'd found out he'd been boffing the secretary—and a good bout of methane gas and bloating would serve him right.

Note of caution...
Of course we shouldn't violate the single-point-of-view concept in any one scene (staying in one character's head, rather than "head hopping"). But this example illustrates the four elements of dialog. Also note that many times, a technique employed by a writer is to have two entirely different dynamics taking place. On the surface, this is a "Honey, I'm home, what's for dinner" conversation, but in reality it is anything but about dinner and pizza.

The Art of Dialog
How dialog is presented, its subtantive role in moving the story along, providing characters with information they might not have obtained in any other way—all these have to do with the art of dialog. It can also provide information to the readers about the various characters' personalities. In the above example of the pizza conversation, we learned very little from the spoken dialog, itself, but we learned a great deal about both John and Betty. John considers himself the breadwinner and expects his wife to hold up her end of their "rotten" marriage. He apparently also gives himself permission to have affairs on the side—and still expects Betty to do her duty in their marriage. We also learn that Betty is having none of it, though we don't know what her expectations are about being provided for. Will she stay with John, now that she knows he's been having an affair?

Yes, we got all that from four short paragraphs of dialog. Now, let's take a look at the structure of dialog (part of the "art" is the technique.)

  1. We change paragraphs each time a different character speaks.
  2. We include a character's (John's) inner thoughts and reactions to what the other character (Betty) says in the same paragraph in which John speaks. This makes it clear whose head we're in and what is being reacted to.
  3. We use quotation marks for spoken-aloud speech, regular text for narrative thoughts, and italics for direct thoughts. It's obvious, if you look. See the third paragraph of the dialog that begins with "What kind of pizza?" and see that John's direct thoughts are italicized, while narrated thoughts or reactions are just staight text:

...irritated that Betty had once again ordered in their food...is narrated thought from John's perspective
It better not be pepperoni...is direct thought from John's perspective.

  1. The spoken-aloud speech, which comes before the dialog tag (Betty said), is part of the entire sentence containing both the speech and dialog tag, so we link the speech to the dialog tag with [,"], not [."].

Now, let's look at some real, substantive dialog. A good rule of thumb is, in real life, people engage in trivial dialog all the time; but in a story, we can't afford to show trivial dialog without boring our readers. In fact, they might get irritated enough that they toss the book aside.

In fiction and even autobiography, dialog is another vehicle for giving information, both to another character and to the reader, without engaging in straight narrative.

Short excerpt from Ronald L. Donaghe's  Letters in Search of Love, "AIDS in Paradise"

When we could no long see each other's faces, we began to share more intimate details of our lives. I told him about my journey through the last few years of my life, losing a long-time lover to self-loathing as a gay man, who had tried to become heterosexual and, the last I heard, was living in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. I said I was just coming out of a long depression and finding, on the other side, a desire to experience new things. "That's why I came to see this place, to see what it would be like to be far from civilization."

Stephen told me how he and Tim had met it Denver a few years before. Both of them had been living on the streets. "I was living under a bridge when Tim found me," Stephen said. "I thought I was going to die."

"You were sick?"

"Much worse than I've been living out here. I'd been sick a lot. I'd been staying with a friend, but she moved away. I didn't have a job, so I lived out of my car."

"You couldn't find a job?"

"I couldn't stay well long enough to hold one."

That admission brought tears to my eyes. I considered myself lucky—and rather selfish, at the moment, because my visit to this place was just a diversion, a two-week vacation. If I wanted, I could go anywhere and work. "You seem better now," I said after a silence between us.

"I am," Stephen said, getting up and going into the house.

Once inside, I heard him fiddling with the kerosene lantern, then a match being scraped on a box. When the wick was lit, he set the lamp on his desk and sat in the chair. I sat on one end of his bed.

"This is a healing place," Stephen said. "I'm hardly sick at all." He didn't look at me in the rich yellow light of the kerosene lamp but, as I spoke, he raised his eyes to meet mine.

When Stephen says, "I couldn't stay well long enough to hold one [a job]," it rings more personally for readers than if it had been narrated. So, when we can, we should let characters speak for themselves and, with dialog, readers identify much more closely with characters in an empathetic way than if readers are just told something. The art, of course, is the way in which we use the four dialog elements, balancing out direct speech, inner thoughts, describing how something is said, and revealing what other characters' reactions are to what is being said.

What mechanically happens when a character trails off vs. when a character is interrupted? This all has to do with punctuation—the use of ellipses vs. the use of the em dash.

When a character trails off (or is confused) we use ellipses at the end of a speech, like this:

"No, really, you don't have to stay, if..." John said, not really knowing how to express his desire for her to stay.

When a character is interrupted, let's keep in mind that the interrupter's speech is going to immediately follow, rather than any description of the interruption:

"No, really, you don't have to stay, if—"
"I want to stay, John," Betty said, looking thoughtfully into John's eyes, studying his face.


What comes first...dialog or the dialog tag?
Let's enlist the aid of novice writers again to illustrate an important point about dialog, tags, reactions, and  a character's direct thoughts.

Novice writers often want to describe how something is said before a character says anything, and they also put the dialog tag before the speech:

John shouted angrily, "Put that gun down!"

or

She rushed into the room, shouting, "Hurry, John!"

The important thing to note is that in real life, we never know that someone is going to shout before they actually shout. We never know that someone is even going to speak before they speak, yet novice writers insist in describing how someone says something, or even that someone says something before the character speaks. It gets to be rather a bad habit, as well, to insist on putting the dialog tag first:

She came into the room, wearing a red dress, her hair askew, and obviously frustrated, said, "I didn't realize this shade of red would clash with my auburn hair."

Rather, let's use this: She came into the room, wearing a red dress, her hair askew. "I didn't realize this shade of red would clash with my auburn hair," she said, obviously frustrated.

He came up to me and spoke quietly, intimating something too sensitive for others to hear. "We need to talk."

Rather, let's use this: He came up to me. "We need to talk," he said quietly, intimating something too sensitive for others to hear.

How about dialog tags other than "said" and "asked?"
Let's see, we can have "mumbled," "laughed," "shouted," "yelled," "screamed," "cried," "demanded," "commanded," "questioned," etc. Let's try out a couple of these and then see if they add anything to the dialog or if they sound kind of funny.

One of my favorites is trying to do as the description says, when it comes to laughing: "You better not tickle me again," John laughed. Really? Can you laugh at the same time that you say all this? Try it...

In this case, I would say it's all right to put the tag before the speech. John laughed. (note the period) "You better not tickle me again!"

How about "mumbled?" Try mumbling this: "Please don't..." to mumble:  say something indistinctly and quietly, making it difficult for others to hear. It's always bothered me when p's and t's are involved, because it's a little difficult to do it quietly. I also think of the "mumble" as being done with the mouth almost closed.

"You'll not speak to your father in that tone of voice, Young Man," commanded Betty. Isn't it enough in the spoken words themselves to know that Betty speaks in a commanding tone?

"Why do you say that, Mother?" questioned Frank. "Asked" is much simpler, and constantly searching for different ways of saying said and asked becomes a little amusing. These two words are less intrusive, like "the" and "an" in the flow of writing. Using much else besides these two becomes a waste of time. Mainly, the dialog tag's role is simply to identify the speaker.

There is so much more that can be said about the elements and art of dialog, but these few items should provide novice, as well as seasoned, writers something to think about.