Today’s post is the first in a four part series on writing dialogue.

Are you talking to me?

Writing Dialogue: Part 1

By: Jeanne Marie Leach

Aim at nothing and you’ll succeed

Dialogue is a huge part of fiction. If written well, it can provide information and will move the story along quicker than narrative.

Unless a speech gets too long, make sure the speaker’s actions and words remain in one paragraph and change paragraphs when speaker changes.

These days some people are teaching not to use the word said at all. The result is an annoying book filled with ‘clever’ verbs like retorted, screamed, joked, etc. Your writing should be strong enough so the mood of the speaker doesn’t have to be explained all the time.  It is best to intersperse “said” with other tags and beats.

Beats are sentences that break up a dialogue, usually showing action or emotion rather than telling them to the reader.

Tags are exactly that – something tagged onto the end of a sentence, such as he said, she explained, etc.

Here is an example of poorly written dialogue:

 “This can’t be right. My son is a good boy,” Mattie insisted. “You don’t believe this, do you, Mister?”

“Name’s Braydon, Ma’am. Cyrus Braydon. It’s not for me to judge whether it’s true or not,” he spat out.

“Then why are you looking for him?” She asked warily. Then the man’s purpose for standing on her doorstep came to her. “You’re a bounty hunter, aren’t you?”

Silence.

“Answer me!” she shouted angrily.

“Yes, I’m a bounty hunter,” he said.

She began to cry. “It’s not true!  Not one word of it!  It’s all lies!” she shouted at him.

 Below is the same dialogue the way it appears in my book, The Plight of Mattie Gordon, published by Mountain View Publishing, copyright 2007. Notice how the emotions are more intense, and the reader gets a clearer picture of how Mattie reacts to this news about her son. I deleted all tags and didn’t use “said,” but used beats instead. You can “see” the dialogue between the two much better than in the first example.

 “This…” Her voice became barely more than a whisper. She put her hand to her forehead to rub away the ache forming there. “This can’t be right. My son is a good boy.” She looked into the stranger’s eyes and saw something that hadn’t been there before. Was it compassion? “You don’t believe this, do you, Mister?”

“Name’s Braydon, Ma’am.”  The man tipped his hat. “Cyrus Braydon. It’s not for me to judge whether it’s true or not.”

Mattie helped herself to the rocking chair. “Then why are you looking for him?” With all the force of a locomotive, the realization of the man’s purpose slammed into her. “You’re a bounty hunter, aren’t you?”

Silence.

Mattie felt her cheeks turn hot, and her breathing became shallow and rapid. She wanted to kick him and his calm resolve.

“Answer me!” She jumped to her feet and faced him squarely.

“Yes, I’m a bounty hunter.”

Hot tears now stung her eyes and began rolling down her cheeks. “It’s not true!  Not one word of it!  It’s all lies!”  She plopped backward into the rocking chair.

Keep in mind this was released five years ago. There are two “errors” in this scene, but I’m not going to point them out to you. This technique is easier to do when there are only two people speaking, but when a scene has three or more characters talking together, it is important to keep straight who’s saying which line. This can be done with tags and beats. “Said” is not a bad word, and sometimes is the best way of communicating who is speaking.

Once in a while, you don’t even need tags, but only when there are only two people speaking to one another. Consider the following example:

 “Thanks. How much longer is it going to take?”

Cyrus plopped down beside her on the grass and she sat up. He looked everywhere but at her.

“Cyrus, did you hear me?”

“Yes. I heard.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No. I’m thinking.”

“About what?”

“About how I’m going to tell you what I need to tell you.”

Mattie looked at him and frowned. “I’ve trusted you with the whereabouts of my son. Now it’s your turn to trust me.”

You knew exactly who was speaking, and to put “he said” and “she quipped” would have slowed down the scene and made it cumbersome to read. Whenever you can edit dialogue and remove tags and beats, do it. The pace of the novel will flow better. Allow the dialogue itself to convey what’s going on in the story.

Consider the same section of dialogue above, but written with beats. This is huge pet peeve of mine when I’m editing fiction.

 “Thanks. How much longer is it going to take?” Mattie smoothed her skirt.

Cyrus plopped down beside her on the grass and she sat up. He looked everywhere but at her.

“Cyrus, did you hear me?” She stared at his face as a bumble bee buzzed in front of her. She swatted it away.

“Yes. I heard.” He still refused to look her way, and he pulled a blade of grass out of the earth.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, her voice showing her annoyance with him.

“No. I’m thinking.”

“About what?”

“About how I’m going to tell you what I need to tell you.” He finally looked up at her.

Mattie gazed at him and frowned. “I’ve trusted you with the whereabouts of my son. Now it’s your turn to trust me.”

 Did the scene have the same impact as the first version? What I notice is that the dialogue gets lost amidst a bunch of unimportant actions. The actions and the conversation are warring with each other and are unrelated to one another. This type of fragmentation of dialogue is more common than you’d think. Determine what parts of the narration is actually important and what is not. Does the scene move the story forward, or does it get stalled throughout the dialogue?

In the first example, the story moved along quickly and maintained interest. The second one kind of slumped and slowed down the story. Slow stories are boring stories. Now, some stories are considered “gentle” reads, such as those by Jeanette Oke. Even these type of stories can be interesting to the reader when written well.

 

 

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