Dialogue can be one of the trickiest parts of writing. So when Matt de la Peña, YA/MG author of Mexican White Boy, the upcoming The Living, and Curse of the Ancients, the fourth Infinity Ring book, gave a session on dialogue at the Missouri SCBWI conference, I jumped at the chance to attend. Matt said one of the most profound things I'd ever heard on the topic.
"Dialogue isn’t just what’s inside the quotations marks but also what’s around it."
Just think about that for a minute. It’s not just what the characters say, but how they say it, how it’s blocked out in the text, and even how the setting can contribute to the conversation.
And now that I have everyone’s brains churning, I’m going to share the wonderful advice I learned during Matt’s session.
Step 1: Get out of the reader's way:
This is more commonly referred to as author intrusion. The writer tends to creep into the text more when it comes to dialogue. But it is the writer’s job to fade into the background and let the character do the work. The dialogue should represent your character while the tag is the writer. So let the character’s words speak for themselves as much as possible.
Step 2: Understand reader psychology:
Readers like white space. They start skimming or skip over text entirely when they see large walls of it. But when a page with a lot of breaks or white space comes along the reader pauses and may start reading again. This is where dialogue comes in. It creates white space on the page. It’s inviting.
Step 3: Decide how much your characters are going to say:
Writing a novel is knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. Elmore Leonard said, “Get to the good stuff.” So there will be times when you want an entire conversation to play out. There will be other times you want to summarize conversations so you can “get to the good stuff”. Not every conversation can be in your book nor should it be. So when in doubt, start your scene late and end the scene early. Cut out the boring stuff and leave the reader intrigued but not confused.
Step 4: Make your dialogue tags as useful as possible:
As stated before, it’s not just what’s inside the quotation marks that’s important. Don’t just tack on tags to your dialogue haphazardly. A few examples to illustrate the different placement of tags:
1. “I like the way you look,” he said. This example is just matter of fact. We know who spoke and what they said.
2. “I like the way you look,” he said, “especially when you smile.” This example creates a very different rhythm to the words that are spoken. Using he said in the middle of the dialogue creates a natural pause for the character without having to say “he paused”.
3. “I like the way you look,” he said admiringly. Here an adverb was added to explain how the character spoke. But if you use adverbs, make sure they are really necessary. Ask yourself if it’s clear from the dialogue the way the words were spoken. If so, then ditch the adverb.
4. “I like the way you look,” he murmured. Using an alternative dialogue tag can help express volume or how someone said something. In this case since the sentence is murmured, maybe the speaker is shy or afraid to say it so they aren’t speaking up. Alternative dialogue tags can be useful from time to time but if abused, they can annoy the reader because they become noticeable.
5. He took her hand. “I like the way you look.” Here is an action tag with the dialogue. Using the action adds to the scene and it eliminates the need for a formal “said” tag. We know who is speaking based on the action performed.
6. “I like the way you look.” This has no tag at all. Typically when there are only two people in the conversation and it’s back and forth, the reader can tell who is talking without needing a tag.
Once you’ve figured out your tags, read your dialogue out loud to get a good sense of how it feels and how it flows. Do you like the way it sounds? If not, adjust accordingly.
Step 5: Know your characters:
Dialogue should be natural and focused, but every character will speak differently. Are there certain words one character likes to use? Do they have an accent or dialect? Do they have verbal ticks or quirks? Are they sarcastic or serious? All these can help differentiate one character from another when they are speaking. If you distinguish your characters well enough, you shouldn’t need dialogue tags at all. The reader should be able to tell who is speaking based on what they say and how they say it.
Step 6: Check for authenticity:
Dialogue should be artful. It should also carry the scene forward. If you use too many beats it might make the conversation sound mechanical. Conversely, if the characters talk in circles the scene will never go anywhere. Think about the context of your story and the characters in the moment of the conversation. Their actions and words will vary in different situations. Real conversations are far from clean. People talk over each other and interrupt. Your conversations in the text should reflect that. Conversations in writing don’t have to be perfect, because they aren’t in real life.
Some additional tips:
- Often people don’t name the thing they are trying to say especially if they are scared or keeping a secret. They will dance around the topic rather than getting to the point.
- People sometimes speak to each other but don’t really listen. This kind of conversation feels disjointed because the people involved aren’t addressing each other directly.
- Don’t have a conversation “bitch”. The other person will want to talk about things outside of what’s happening to your main character.
- Don’t overload with exposition. It’s fake and lazy. Maintain the integrity of your characters.
- What your character thinks internally doesn’t always match what they are saying. People are afraid to say things, so their words may come out meaner or some other way than intended. Representing the internal vs external is more human. But if the internal response is expected, you might consider leaving that out.
- If you take a risk, make the things around it easy. Don’t over complicate everything.
When in doubt listen to the way people speak. Really listen. Are they talking to each other or at each other? It can make a difference. Dialogue doesn’t have to be a giant headache inducing part of your manuscript. It can help the flow and add layers to your story. So get out there and get those characters talking!