Part 7. How to Write Good Dialogue
Dialogue is direct speech as opposed to reported speech. Give thought as to which is the better method according to the given circumstances and the emphasis you wish to put on the imparting of information. There are occasions when a short account of reported speech may be more succinct, ultimately producing more impact on the reader than imparting the same information by means of a long section of dialogue.
There are some who advocate a sprinkling of dialogue for purely visual reasons because the passages of dialogue break up what might be considered too uniform a page. I would be inclined to give literary considerations priority over the visual appearance of the page. This is really a matter of the writer developing his own judgement.
Writers are sometimes advised that the first page of a novel should contain some dialogue in order that the reader should immediately feel involved. This advice seems ill-founded when one considers the number of first class books whose authors have not employed this technique.
As in life, each character will speak in his or her style. Do remember that it is the character speaking so you must use his or her mode of speaking, not your own. What you want to convey is obviously determined by you but the words and style of speech must be in keeping with the character as portrayed and the mood appropriate to the particular exchange.
If the conversation is a short one and only two characters are involved, the content of what is said may make it clear which character is speaking and there may be no need to keep adding he said or she said. But be sure that if there is any risk of confusion in the reader’s mind that you do indicate who is speaking.
Many writers agonise over the use of he said or she said and go to great lengths to avoid using them in a repetitive manner. However, most readers, if they are sufficiently absorbed in the story do not even notice these little words. Use them where necessary without worrying or spending too much time trying to think of alternatives.
A simple indication of who is speaking is all that is required. Try to avoid too much of the type of treatment where you say things like, “she gurgled”, “Tom groaned”, “he chuckled”, “she whined”, as this is clumsy and tiresome. If she really did whine and you need to say so because the whine is not implicit in what she is saying, it would be preferable to write something like: ‘There was a whine in Celia’s voice as she replied, “But I don’t want to go, not today.”’
Punctuating dialogue correctly
You will notice that I have placed the whole of that sentence within single inverted commas because I am quoting it within a passage of writing. The passage contains what Celia said so I have placed her words in double inverted commas to indicate that Celia is now speaking. Obviously, if you were really incorporating a passage similar to this in your novel then the single quotation marks would not be necessary.
It is a matter of choice whether you use single or double inverted commas to indicate direct speech. Different publishers have different house rules and if necessary will alter or ask you to alter your manuscript to comply with their preference. What is important is that you are consistent with the style you choose. If you decide to enclose dialogue in single inverted commas then, if you require that piece of dialogue to include a quote, that quote must be enclosed in double inverted commas. For example:
‘I met Mark yesterday,’ said Celia. ‘He went out of his way to be disagreeable; he actually said, “I think you’re seeing too much of Tom”, wasn’t that a cheek!’
If you’re style is to use double inverted commas then, obviously, the remark attributed to Mark would be enclosed in single inverted commas.
If you think there is a danger that you are going to give your character too much to say or that he may be recounting something your reader already knows and you wish to avoid repetition, then a combination of indirect and direct speech may be the answer. For example:
They listened patiently while John, unaware that they already knew what had happened, recounted his experience of the day before. “What do you make of that?” he asked, but before anyone could reply he launched into an indignant summary of his own interpretation, concluding with a tirade directed at Lucy, “It is quite obvious to me that…”
It is sometimes effective to break dialogue up a little by having the speaker move about or be engaged in doing something while he is speaking:-
“I don’t like the sound of that at all!”
Paul paused to wipe the grease off his hands before continuing,
“It seems to me that it’s your responsibility to…”
A cliché is an over-used expression which is often used carelessly as a substitute for original thought. Examples include: last but not least, slowly but surely, in this day and age etc. While in your narrative prose you should avoid the use of clichés, remember though, that these do occur in dialogue and a judicious use of clichés may make dialogue more convincing. The same applies to slang. The degree to which you use clichés and slang would depend on which character is speaking, some of the people in your novel may be the types who would rarely, if ever, resort to either.
Slang and catch-phrases go in and out of fashion. Many people still use the expressions which were in vogue when they were younger – you can make use of that to indicate the vintage of a character and, perhaps, indicate his or her background. Certain occupations foster their own particular jargon, soldiers, sailors, the city or the stage.
Unless you particularly want, for dramatic purposes, to incorporate swear words or obscenities into your dialogue, you can skirt the issue by phrases like, he mouthed a stream of obscenities or, he swore under his breath. If you do feel that you need to be more explicit, then remember that a very economical use of words, which some may find offensive, may be far more effective than a liberal use of them.
I want to note here that there are great novels that incorporate slang and obscenities – such as City of Bohane by Limerick writer, Kevin Barry. In that work of fiction there is both slang and obscenities, not only in the dialogue but also in the narrative. Barry uses these to such good effect that he almost creates a language of his own…amazing!
Exercise caution in the use of dialect. Trying to convey a strong regional accent by distorting spelling, dropping aitches, and so forth can be disastrous. It is preferable to concentrate on the rhythm of speech or the idiosyncratic order of words peculiar to some dialects. For instance, Wad ye be wantin’ it noo? sounds like corny stage Scots; but, “Would you be after having it now?” gives the flavour of a Scotsman or woman speaking but without a hint of caricature. Don’t attempt a dialect with which you are unfamiliar, you will almost certainly end up with a pastiche.
I have advised that you exercise caution but once again I refer to City of Bohane as an example of a subversive approach to such rules (about dialect, slang, obscenities) and a total abandonment of conventions, with astonishing results – but that is a rare gift.
Avoid crude mimicry and keep in mind the danger of sounding patronising. If you are really uneasy about your skill at writing dialect, then, particularly if the character is only peripheral, simply state that he spoke with a pronounced Dublin, Liverpool, Cockney …accent.
The writer need not directly inform the reader as to a character’s temperament, political affiliations, moral principles, opinions etc. – instead the character can reveal himself through what he says.
The purpose of dialogue
Finally, make sure that the words spoken serve a purpose. The reader should learn more about the characters or the events surrounding them each time a person speaks. Characters must never talk for the sake of talking or the story will become flat and static. Dialogue must carry the story forward.
You may find it helpful to read some plays as the writing of good dialogue is a primary skill of the accomplished playwright. But however good the playwright’s dialogue may be, s/he knows that a great deal depends on the actors’ skills in fleshing out the characters and, by gesture and look, conveying the unspoken nuances of the dialogue. The writer of the novel has the advantage of being able to take the reader into the character’s mind.
The spoken word can be used to conceal real intention and the novelist can use dialogue in this fashion more easily, perhaps, than the playwright. The fact that the character disguises his real intentions in his spoken words also tells one something more about that character. An example may be helpful:
“I would love to come” said James with apparent enthusiasm but already constructing in his mind the excuse he would proffer when he failed to put in an appearance.
The playwright would have to rely upon the actor’s expressions or gestures to convey that contradiction between declaration and intention.
The novelist can choose between telling the reader about some development and putting that information directly into the spoken word by way of one of the characters. The playwright has no option but to tell the story by way of dialogue and by reading plays you can gain a valuable insight into how skilfully that can be achieved. Just bear in mind that you are trying to create characters whose speech serves some purpose and whose manner of speaking is realistic.
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.