|Telling Talk: Writing Effective Dialogue in Fiction
Amy Knox Brown
Originally delivered to a workshop group at BOOKMARKS literary festival in Winston-Salem, NC 9/10/05
Writing dialogue—that is, conversation between two or more characters—for fiction can be a difficult thing to do. On the one hand, you want what your characters are saying to be believable and “real.” Dialogue in fiction, however, is not the same as dialogue in real life, which is often too elliptical, too nonsensical, and too dull to work in fiction. As a writer, you have to train your ear to edit dialogue, to know what to put in and what to leave out. Dialogue in fiction gives the illusion of being real, but it’s much smoother than real dialogue. You need to be careful, though, of being too smooth. You don’t want your characters to sound like characters in a TV show, since TV dialogue is often contrived and clever.
In fiction, effective dialogue can accomplish several things.
Dialogue can establish character
“Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,” she said. (From Flannery O’Connor’s “Writing Short Stories”)
You can see here that phonetic spelling isn’t necessary here to give the flavor of the dialect. Phonetic spelling—dropping letters from words, spelling “into” as “inteh,” for instance, can be difficult for the reader to decipher.
“Auntie Ying pats my hand. ‘You a smart girl. You watch us, do the same. Help us stack the tiles and make four walls.’” (From Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club)
“Do you want toast?” my mother said, and I nodded.
“Yes, please,” I said humbly. “With butter.”
“There’s oleo on the table,” she said, and put two slices of bread in the toaster. “There’s a knife by your plate to spread it with. There’s no butter in the house. I don’t buy it anymore.” (From Dan Chaon’s “Among the Missing”)
“Do you teach literature?”
“No. Oh, no. I have not had that privilege. No. I have not even studied literature. I went to work when I was sixteen. In my day there was not so much choice. I have worked on newspapers.” (From Alice Munro’s “Dulse”)
Notice in these examples how contractions—in example 3—contrast with the lack of contractions in example 4. Contractions in dialogue make the speaker sound casual, while using the full words gives a more formal flavor.
Dialogue can advance the story’s plot
Caroline’s voice was shaking. “Gary, something’s wrong with your cell phone. I’ve been trying your cell phone and it doesn’t answer. What’s wrong with it?”
“I turned it off.”
“How long has it been off? I’ve been trying your for an hour, and now I’ve got to go get the boys but I don’t want to leave the house! I don’t know what to do!”
“Caro. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“There’s somebody across the street.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. Somebody in a car, I don’t know. They’ve been sitting there for an hour.” (From Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections)
Here, the conversation reveals a potential danger—the man in the car across the street--that escalates the tension of the novel.
Dialogue is often useful for getting across what is not said, that is, the subtext.
In the following example, the mother and daughter are discussing the daughter’s boyfriend, Clare MacQuarrie. (From Alice Munro’s “Postcard”).
After her long look Momma said, “It’s a funny thing but I can’t imagine
your name MacQuarrie.”
“I thought you were so fond of Clare.”
“Well I am, but I just think of him coming to get you Saturday night, him coming to dinner Sunday night, I don’t think of you and him married.”
“You wait and see what happens when the old lady passes on.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Well imagine,” Momma said.
“You don’t need to act like he’s doing me a favor because I can tell you there are plenty of people would consider it the other way round.”
“Can’t I open my mouth without you taking offense?” said Momma mildly.
What’s going on below the surface of this conversation? What does the mother really think about the daughter’s relationship with Clare? (Momma thinks Clare is using the daughter).
As in real life, where people often talk around a subject, characters in fiction shouldn’t always come out and say precisely what they mean.
Cases in which dialogue is a less effective strategy to employ: to convey information that would be better covered in straight exposition. For instance:
“Where is Jack?”
“Your son is at the piano in the drawing room, where he practices eight hours a day.”
“Where’s Marcia, then?”
“Your daughter is reading to her grandmother, your mother, as she does every afternoon.”
--sounds contrived; information given for reader’s benefit.
Dialogue shouldn’t be used as a substitute for action or to show off the author’s vocabulary.
Direct vs. Indirect dialogue
Direct dialogue is also called “verbatim”--precisely what the characters say, enclosed in quotation marks. Indirect dialogue summarizes what was said.
Summarized dialogue allows the writer to condense speech, control the pace of the scene, and emphasize crucial lines of actual dialogue. The following example is from Alice Munro’s story “The Beggar Maid”:
Patrick gave her a diamond ring and announced that he was giving up being a historian for her sake. He was going into his father’s business.
She said she thought he hated his father’s business. He said that he could not afford to take such an attitude now that he would have a wife to support.
Indirect dialogue is appropriate when you need to dispense with trivial dialogue, as when someone answers the phone, for instance. Instead of using verbatim dialogue for the “Hello?” “Hello, it’s Janine.” “Oh, hi, Janine. How are you?” etc., you could summarize the pleasantries and then move on to the meat of the conversation. For instance: Ella answered the phone. It was her friend Janine, wanting to borrow the lawnmower.
“You’re welcome to it,” Ella said. “But it’s about out of gas.”
“Go out the side door,” Ella said. “If the bull’s in the yard, wait.”
“If you go out the side door,” she said, “be sure the bull’s not in the yard.”
“Don’t go out the side door.” Ella was alphabetizing canned goods in the cupboard. She kept her back turned. “Jake’s got the bull in the yard.”
New speaker=generally new paragraph. You don’t always have to attach dialogue tag if it’s clear who is speaking. For instance:
“What should we do?” asked Mike.
Ella shrugged. She’d had a long day; the bull still needed to be fed, and Jake was nowhere to be found.
“Can’t you think of anything?”
A note on dialogue tags: What is being said should imply HOW it’s being said. If your characters are snorting, grunting, giggling, hissing, cackling, etc. the story will start to sound like it’s taking place in a barnyard. Furthermore, there’s a level of inaccuracy to indicating that someone “snorted” a line of dialogue. A snort is a discrete sound. People don’t actually snort out lines of speech. Nor do they giggle out sentences; if someone’s laughing, it’s going to be difficult for her to talk at the same time. Therefore, stick to the neutral “said” “asked” “answered” for your dialogue tags, and avoid unnecessary adverbs (said happily, said witheringly, etc.)
Three Exercises to try:
1. Write five speech fragments that reveal character, as in the examples at the top of the first page.
2. Incorporate action into the conversation. Write a scene in which the characters are engaged in an activity while they’re having a conversation. They could be washing dishes, cleaning out the garage, giving the dog a bath, building a fire. Consider how various activities can affect the conversation and what happens in the scene.
3. Write a dialogue between two people who know each other well, each taking the opposite side of an issue or problem. The issue should be something immediate and particular, like whether to spend money on a vacation or replacing the old refrigerator before it breaks, rather than a large and abstract issue, like whether the War on Terror is justified. Make each character’s speech distinct in terms of style and tone. Be fair—don’t load the argument in favor of one character or another.