"Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs."
Dialogue should be the simplest thing to write. After all, we spend the greater part of our lives listening to people speak, ramble, argue, whisper, and scream. We listen to them in real life, on television, in movies. Strangers and friends and family. We converse. We eavesdrop. We use our own voices.
So why is writing dialogue so damn hard?
Because we don’t write like we speak. We hear dialogue differently than we read it. Here’s the test: pick your favorite television show, one that has kick-ass dialogue that brings the characters to life. Now go check out the transcript for that show. Read it, and try not to read it in the characters’ voices. Just read it dry, like it were dialogue in a novel.
Sounds terrible, right?
The truth is, we don’t want to write realistic dialogue at all. We want to write good dialogue—dialogue that reads as though it’s being spoken. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it sounds as though it is. [Click to Tweet]
Since there are a plethora of awesome resources out there for writing solid dialogue (like The 7 Tools of Dialogue from WritersDigest), I'm going to focus on the one cardinal sin that great dialogue-writing tips can inadvertently lead writers into:
Overwriting Your Dialogue
1. Accents and Dialect
How we speak is not how we read.
Less is more.
I’m from the South. I understand. We slur. We combine words and separate syllables and leave the -g off the –ing. But if every sentence your character says has fifteen apostrophes, it’s going to get in the way of the writing. Don’t ask your reader to decipher and decode your work. Incorporating dialects should enhance your reader’s experience, not hinder their comprehension.
For example, I (not me, personally, because I’m one of them there educated southerners, eh-hm) might say, “Lookit that durnded yungun, ain’t listenin’ t’a word!”
That might be what it sounds like in real life, but it reads differently. Instead, I might write, “Look at that durn young’un. Ain’t listening to a word!”
Keep some of the phrases (“young’un,” “ain’t”), but pay attention to the spelling. Rather than spelling everything phonetically, consider how your reader will understand the words by sight. Also, don’t be afraid to tone things down (“durnded” to “durn”). Let your reader get the feel of the language without experiencing every syllable—or lack of.
Of course there are always exceptions, like George Washington Harris’s “Rare Ripe Garden-Seed.” (Although there is a conversation to be had about exactly how effective the language is.)
Same idea. If your character stutters with every word, try adding one to the beginning of the sentence.
“I-I w-went to the s-s-store and b-bought eggs and m-m-milk.”
That would get very annoying very quickly. But writing it like this might be bearable:
“I-I went to the store and b-bought eggs and milk.”
Your reader is going to imagine more stuttering than you actually write. Again, it’s the feel of the dialogue that is important, not the actual words on the page.
Two of the most dangerous pieces of punctuation for a writer: semi-colons and ellipses. I won’t discuss semi-colons right now, but I have abandoned many a book for their use.
Ellipses: Chances are . . . you don’t need them.
Dashes, commas, periods. Any of these will likely be better than an ellipsis. Yes, there are times when your character is trailing off, and the cursed three dots are necessary. But try something else first. If you don’t need it, don’t use it. Because those little things get very tiresome to poor reader-eyes.
Just another reason why written dialogue has to be different than spoken dialogue. It has to flow with the tags. Yes, floating dialogue is great, but your reader will need a he said or she said at one point or another. A reader doesn’t care if the dialogue sounds great spoken aloud if it’s jarring to read. They didn’t sign up for a rollercoaster ride.
And while we’re parked here, let’s go ahead and get that old bit of writing advice out of the way: There is nothing wrong with he said and she said. Don’t try to be clever with your dialogue tags. Save that for the scathing speech in chapter twelve.
To sum it up:
Written dialogue ≠ Spoken dialogue [Click to Tweet]
Use what you need to get the feel across, no more.
Don’t overwrite the thing. Let your reader do some of the heavy lifting.
Author & Editor