Here’s the twentieth episode of the Writing Talk Podcast.
In this episode of the Writing Talk Podcast, we’re looking at ways that you can write effective dialogue.
Plus this week’s writers’ toolbox tip and some listener feedback. There’s also a quick review of my news.
Hope you enjoy listening.
NB: You can support the show by subscribing from the links above. Please also consider sharing the show with your writer friends.
It’s been very busy and interesting couple of weeks. I’ve finally released Outcast, the second full-length novel in my Darkeningstone series, and it was nice that it had a few pre-orders. I only put it on pre-order for about two weeks, because I tend to release new books at a reduced price anyway – generally half price. The book launch went quite well, but nothing astronomical. The hard truth is that it takes time to build an audience and gain momentum. But at least I finally have another book out in the series, and it feels like an important milestone. I know that everyone always says you must write a series, but the penny hadn’t really dropped for me until now. The nice thing about adding another title to a series, is that all you really need to do is to keep promoting the first book, so that although you’re adding to your back catalogue, you’re not adding to the burden on the marketing side. If anything, you’re making the marketing much easier because you can do cool things like set up the series landing page and links on Amazon.com. The series link and series landing page are supposed to happen automatically, provided that you have set everything up correctly on the KD P dashboard, but after waiting a while I asked KDP to set this up for me, and they were prompt and helpful.
Here’s my series landing page: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01HF3I20O/
After the last Writing Talk Podcast, which was about writing courses and writing communities, I decided to set up a Facebook group for this podcast so that anyone interested could join and benefit from giving and receiving a bit of support. The link is http://facebook.com/groups/WTPworkshop
I have plans to tie the group and the podcast together, so it would be a good place to go along and make requests if there’s anything you’d like me to discuss on the podcast, as well as a place to share hints and tips on writing craft. I’d like to start a new writing clinic feature on the podcast and the Facebook group could come in very useful for that.
Main Topic – Writing Effective Dialogue
Good dialogue is the key to creating an engaging story. Dialogue can move the story forward, paint your characters so they seem real, deliver subtext, and express emotions in a way that is immediate and keeps your writing in the moment. All of these combine to draw the reader in.
First, let’s cover a few basics.
Speech attribution – the key here is to keep it simple and keep it clear. I hate it when I’m reading a story and I don’t know who is speaking. If you look at a piece of your writing and there can be any doubt as to who is speaking, then perhaps it’s time to use the character’s name. If that would lead to writing that is too repetitive, then use another way of identifying the character, e.g. the old man, the security guard, her mother.
That said, don’t deliver your dialogue in a monotonous way. We don’t want an endless stream of sentences that all begin with he said, she said. One of the ways you can avoid this is to move your reporting clause around. If you’re not sure, a reporting clause is the name given to the chunk of your sentence that tells us who speaking, such as ‘he said’. It’s easy to fall into the rhythm of always putting your reporting clauses in the same place, but it can provide a bit of variety for the reader if it is sometimes at the beginning of the sentence, sometimes at the end, and sometimes in the middle. Placing the reporting clause in the middle of a character’s speech works really well when it occurs at a place when the character might pause; it’s a subtle way of forcing the reader to follow your characters speech patterns. For example:
“But you knew that,” Cally said. “I thought you understood.”
You can imagine the character pausing in exasperation, and in fact the sentence would read very badly without the reporting clause in that position.
Another nice way to avoid constantly repeating your reporting clause is to let your readers know that it’s time to focus their attention on a certain character by telling them about the character’s body language. For example:
Cally bit her bottom lip. “Do you think anybody heard us?”
In the above example it’s perfectly clear that Cally was speaking, and so no reporting clause was needed. This works best if the body language ties into the characters speech. Here’s another example:
The younger man stared at Tom. “Perhaps, if you hadn’t –“
Similarly, describing a piece of action can work in the same way:
Sceort drew his knife and smiled. “I’ll cut his throat. That’s the quickest way.”
In dialogue, two handers are always easier. Tread very carefully when writing dialogue involving three or more characters. You must be very careful that the reader is left in no doubt as to who is speaking, while at the same time need to maintain the flow through the scene and keep the story moving forward. In this sort of scene, watch out for head hopping. This is a place where it’s very easy to accidentally slip into another character’s point of view.
There’s an old idea that you should only ever use ‘said’ as the verb in your reporting clause, and it’s a good rule of thumb. The word ‘said’ does its job and then disappears into the background. But you really need to introduce some variety into your dialogue or it will become far too repetitive and then you’ll inadvertently draw attention to your reporting clauses. People are very good at spotting patterns, and a pileup of ‘he said said/she said’ will spoil your readers’ enjoyment.
Also, it’s important to know whether everyone can hear something that’s been spoken, so using verbs such as ‘whispered’ and ‘murmured’ are very useful. Similarly someone speaking under her breath might say something which other characters are not intended to hear. By contrast, verbs such as ‘yelled’ and ‘called’ have a very useful role. I use a fairly limited number of verbs, but I do like to use a few descriptive ones because they can be a very economical way of showing an emotion, e.g. I like the verb ‘hissed’. Something to avoid here is the use of adverbs. They are generally clumsy in reporting clauses and often redundant. For example if you want someone to use a threatening tone you would not use the word ‘threateningly’. You might say:
And when she spoke, her voice was a savage whisper.
On the flipside of that, you might say that the character ‘kept her voice steady’.
Short descriptive sentences that add colour to the dialogue, are much better than describing the character’s thoughts or emotions overtly – we can interpret their emotions and thoughts from the way in which they speak.
If you do use a descriptive phrase , please be aware that it may not be a reporting clause and you must be careful with your punctuation. Only reporting clauses are separated from the speech by a comma. Also, it’s a good idea to use descriptive phrases and reporting clauses rather like salt and pepper – don’t overdo them.
Let’s go onto the content of the dialogue.
On-the-nose dialogue is a total deal breaker. If you haven’t heard that phrase before, on-the-nose dialogue is any speech that overtly describes or explains the story or the situation. If you find yourself veering toward on-the-nose territory, backup and rewrite it. We want your readers to be engaged with your dialogue, and that means that we have to do let the readers put their imaginations to work. It’s not your job to point every little detail out of them. And anyway, in real life, what is not said is at least as important as what is said. The more difficult or tense a situation is, the less likely it is that the characters can simply talk it over as if they were discussing the weather.
And remember, when there are gaps in the dialogue, the reader will instinctively pick up on the tension that is building up between the characters. As the writer, you have control over how long you allow this tension to build. You can either leave the tension unresolved, or it can all be released in an explosion of action or dialogue. That doesn’t have to mean the characters yelling at each other, it could be that someone simply stands up and stalks out of the room slamming the door behind them, or perhaps, in an act of passive aggression, leaving the door deliberately wide open.
It’s up to you. Play around with it and see what works.
As with all your writing, it’s good technique to make every word pull its weight. Although we definitely don’t want your dialogue to be on-the-nose, the things that your characters say should reveal something about their character or move the story forward—or both! Readers will soon lose interest in dialogue that appears to be there just for the sake of it. This is something to look for in the revision stages because you may not realise that you are doing this while you’re in the full flow of your first draft.
A great way to pick up on effective dialogue, is to pay special attention to the dialogue in really well written films and TV shows. Screenwriters can be wonderful experts in the craft of writing effective dialogue. For my money, radio plays are even better because they are a very pure form of dialogue driven drama. There are always plenty of radio dramas to listen to via the BBC’s website, and it’s worth listening to a variety of them to see which ones work and which ones don’t.
Another often quoted piece of advice is to listen to the speech patterns of real people, and that is particularly valuable if you are writing characters that are outside your own experience, e.g. if your character is a different age or gender to you. Coffee shops and cafes are great places to eavesdrop, and while I don’t recommend making notes or recordings while you sip your cappuccino, it’s a good habit to try and make mental notes of any interesting snippets that you accidentally overhear.
I did have a couple of bits of listener feedback from the last show.
On the website, Mark mentioned a writing group that had set up in their local community centre. This group had the great idea of clubbing together and hiring an experienced writing tutor to leave their sessions each week.
That does sound like a fantastic idea and a wonderful resource for those lucky writers.
On spreaker.com which you can access directly from my site via the player widgets, Stephen Smith said that he hadn’t paid for any online writing courses because so far I’d found everything he needed available for free. And Stephen was kind enough to mention a free online course that is available on YouTube. The course was run by a writer called Brandon Sanderson and I plan on watching it. I will give a link below.
So thank you very much for those contributions.
For this week I like to do something slightly different and it ties in with the writer’s toolbox section.
The resource in our writer’s toolbox this week is the new Facebook group that I’ve set up to accompany this podcast
While comments are very welcome on the website and on spreaker, I’m going to try and get this Facebook group going, so for this week please head on over to http://facebook.com/groups/WTPworkshop and post up your comments and questions on the subject of dialogue, and I will try and answer them in next week’s show. But the purpose of the group is not just to revolve around me, so if you join the group and you can answer someone’s question within the group, then please feel free to do so. The whole point of the group is to provide mutual support.
That’s it for this week. I hope you found this episode useful, if you have, please share the podcast with your writer friends, e.g. you could post a link in any writing groups you’re a member of. Also, please consider supporting the podcast by subscribing. The show is on itunes, stitcher, youtube, and spreaker.com or you can subscribe by other methods on the site at writingtalkpodcast.com e.g. you can have new episodes emailed to you.
Thank you very much for listening and for all your support. Until next week, keep writing, keep tapping at the keys, keep scribbling, and above all, keep smiling.
The site mentioned, punctuationmadesimple.com, appears to be offline.
Here’s an alternative basic punctuation guide: www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/punctuation
US readers may see some differences in the usage of punctuation on UK sites.
A popular site is Grammar Girl: www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl
Many other grammar sites are available.
Brandon Sanderson’s BYU course:
Older version of the full course:
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