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Writing Help: How to Properly Write Great and Enticing Dialogue for Your Story
 
 

Writing Dialogue

Dialogue can make a story much more interesting. Properly written, dialogue not only enlivens the flow of your writing, it can illustrate the personalities, temperaments, and dispositions of the speakers. You can tell a story about what two or more people are saying, but you will often achieve greater impact by recreating the dialogue verbatim, or word for word. We discussed the use of quotations marks to set off conversation properly, but there is more to it than simply using the right punctuation. In order to write vivid dialogue, there are several writing conventions you can use.

One of the most common mistakes made when writing dialogue is using the same words to indicate dialogue repetitively. This is what makes the dialogue seem stilted and boring. Take a look at this passage:

We met to discuss our parents' anniversary party last week.

"Where do you think we should have it?" asked Mitchell.

"I was thinking about having it at the Montreal Club," said Joanie.

"That wouldn't be bad, but I think there's more room at the Saxon Club," I said.

"Do we really need that much space, though?" asked Joanie. "We're just inviting family."

"Which I've always said was a mistake," said Mitchell.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because they have lots of friends who will be disappointed if they aren't invited," said Mitchell.

The above conversation gives you the exact words of the conversation, but it is a boring read, isn't it? Words like "said" and "asked" are used over and over. We also do not get any indication of speech inflections or speaker emotions. By simply choosing your words more descriptively, the dialogue comes alive. However, beware of trying to put so much description and life into your dialogue that you wind up telling instead of showing, as in the example below.

We met to discuss our parents' anniversary party last week.

"Where do you think we should have it?" asked Mitchell.

"I was thinking about having it at the Montreal Club," suggested Joanie immediately.

"That wouldn't be bad, but I think there's more room at the Saxon Club," I replied.

"Do we really need that much space, though? Joanie questioned doubtfully. "We're just inviting family."

"Which I've always said was a mistake," Mitchell snorted, giving me a disgusted look.

"Why?" I protested, surprised by his anger.

"Because they have lots of friends who will be disappointed if they aren't invited," Mitchell said pointedly.


There are quite a few errors in the above example. They are errors that editors and publishers attribute to amateurs. The first error this writer made was using "-ly" adverbs to describe the dialogue. Most of the time, when you use an "-ly "adverb, you are being redundant, even though you may think you are showing how something was said. It was already described in the dialogue or the speaker attribution already made it clear. The excerpt from the example above proves the point.

"Do we really need that much space, though?" Joanie questioned doubtfully. "We're just inviting family."


Take a look at the highlighted segment. The adverb "doubtfully" is not needed. "Joanie questioned" is sufficient enough of a speaker attribution. The very fact that she questioned shows her doubt. It could be construed that the writer was trying to show her facial expression when she asked the question. However, if that were the case, then the word "doubtfully" is telling, not showing. It would be appropriate to describe her facial expression if the writer felt that was important to the scene.
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If an "-ly" adverb is not redundant, then it waters down the strength of the dialogue and the action taking place. An "-ly" adverb with a speaker attribution is never a good thing. It should be avoided no matter what.

"I was thinking about having it at the Montreal Club," suggested Joanie immediately.


Look at the example above and at the "-ly" adverb following "suggested Joanie." Why does the writer need to tell that she said it immediately? It is safe to assume that she replied immediately. If she had hesitated, that would have been told before the dialogue. Again, while the writer is trying to show how she said it, all it does is show the writer's insecurity with dialogue and weakens the entire story.
Another mistake writers make, and one that is prevalent in the full example you looked at earlier, is using speaker attributions after every line of dialogue. Too many speaker attributions take away from the dialogue. They take the reader away from "hearing" the voices of your character, essentially becoming stumbling blocks to becoming immersed in the story.

WARNING! Although you want to vary your attributions, do not try to be too clever. Nobody ever sighed a phrase or snorted words. Make sure everything you write is believable and realistic.

Take a look at the example again, this time written correctly.

We met to discuss our parents' anniversary party last week.

"Where do you think we should have it?" asked Mitchell.

"I was thinking about having it at the Montreal Club," Joanie said.

"That wouldn't be bad, but I think there's more room at the Saxon Club," I replied.

"Do we really need that much space, though?" Joanie questioned. "We're just inviting family."

"Which I've always said was a mistake," Mitchell said, giving me a disgusted look.

"Why?" I asked, surprised by his anger.

"Because they have lots of friends who will be disappointed if they aren't invited."


There are a few things you need to note. In our correction, we left "Joanie questioned" in there. It is okay to use alternatives sometimes, especially when you have a conversation involving two or more people. Those conversations need more attributions. Using "said" and "asked" all the time would start to sound repetitive. Also, we removed the attribution that was given to Mitchell in the last line. Although there were more than two characters taking part in this dialogue, it was clear that the last speaker was Mitchell. Remember, show, do not tell. If you feel like you need to use improper mechanics, such as in our earlier examples, to explain or convey your dialogue, then consider the possibility that you need to add descriptions that show your reader what is taking place or strengthen the dialogue itself.
Read through some of your favorite novels or short stories that feature dialogue. Choose some passages of dialogue that are compelling and study how they are structured. What words help move the dialogue along? Are words used that illustrate the emotional state or personality of a character or characters? Keep these types of style devices in mind when you are writing your own dialogue.
Interior Monologue
Part of being a great fiction writer instead of just an average one is knowing the tools and techniques to make your fiction stand out to readers, publishers, and editors alike. Let us face it. Most writers with a shred of ability can write a decent fiction story that is at least halfway enjoyable to read. However, it takes skill and knowledge of writing that surpasses the average hobbyist or amateur to make your writing stand out. Interior monologue is one such technique that you can use in your writing that really makes your narratives draw the reader in.

Thefreedictionary.com defines interior monologue as "a passage of writing presenting a character's inner thoughts and emotions in a direct, sometimes disjointed, or fragmentary manner." To explain the effect it has on your writing, consider that interior monologue gives your text the kick it needs to come alive and speak to those who read it. It can also make showing, rather than telling, a lot easier for you, as the writer, because you can climb inside the character's head rather than just telling about his or her thoughts.

Read the passage below to get an idea of exactly what interior monologue is and how it is used.

Jamie drove home from the hospital, flipping through radio stations as she drove through town. Could've prevented the whole thing from happening, if she wanted to. Tony always felt like Superman after a few drinks, but he could have been stopped. All it would have taken was grabbing the keys out of his hand. He'd have been angry at the time. Sure. Really angry. But he'd have been in a heck of a lot better place than he was now. A broken leg, a concussion. Dammit! What kind of girlfriend lets her boyfriend get behind the wheel after he'd been drinking? Only a crappy one! He could have been killed! She punched the steering wheel as tears streamed down her face.

As you can see in that passage, the reader can move from a description of Jamie's actions to her thoughts and back again without any confusion or even noticing the transition. That is the great thing about interior monologue. You can express unexpressed thoughts seamlessly. You can let your readers into your characters' heads as they "watch" their actions.

Another great thing about interior monologue is that it makes it easy to give information to your readers that might be hard to express in dialogue, such as why Jamie is leaving the hospital. It also allows your readers to get inside your character's head and learn exactly what the character is thinking and feeling. This creates a bond between your reader and character because the reader truly feels as though they know and understand the character, even if they do not necessarily agree.

However, the thing that is dangerous about using interior monologue in your fiction is that it seems so easy to write that it is often overused. Many writers like to follow every bit of dialogue with interior monologue, thinking that it is needed. It is not. It is okay to leave some things to your readers' imaginations. Besides that, it is irritating to have every bit of dialogue interrupted with interior monologue. It destroys the flow and takes your readers away from the conversation happening. If you take them away, chances are that they will become so irritated with trying to "get into" the scene, they will put your story down completely.

Below are two passages. The first uses way too much interior monologue, while the second uses it more sparingly and appropriately. Read through both and notice the differences.

"Jeff, I think we need to buy a new car." She stated this to him in what she hoped was a firm tone. He was against buying a new car if it was an option; she knew that much. So, she hoped to present it to him as a fact so that he couldn't make excuses or say no.

"There's nothing wrong with the cars we have," he said.

"They're getting old. There's going to be something wrong soon." The truth was that she had test driven a new car earlier that day. It was nice: heated seats, mirror defrost, and all the little features her decade-old car didn't have. But she couldn't tell him that. No, he'd never consider better features as a reason to buy a new car. He was too much of a tightwad for that.

"Well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. We're not there yet."

Cammie shook her head. He was impossible when it came to buying something she wanted, but didn't need. If he had decided they needed it, he would have bought it without asking. There had to be a way to make him give in.

"Sweetheart, both of our cars are new enough that if they break down, it's going to cost hundreds of dollars to fix them. Why wait until that day comes? We can buy a new car now for one of us to drive and, by the time we pay it off, the other car will need to be replaced. Why wait until we have problems? That means one of us won't be able to get to work." If only his car would break down on the way to work tomorrow. Then he'd listen. She wouldn't get that lucky, though. Things never went that easily.

"Now's just not the right time. We don't have the cash to spare to make the payment." His voice was firm, and she could tell by his tone that the subject was closed for discussion. Another word about it and he would start to get aggravated with her. How could such a good man be so unreasonable and so unwilling to consider what she wanted? She worked just as hard as he did. If she wanted a new car, she should get one. He was right, though, and she knew it. They didn't have the spare cash. Damn him for being so practical. She couldn't help but think that if he wanted it, he'd have found the cash somehow.

Take note of how all the interior monologue and text between the dialogue distracts the reader from the actual conversation that is taking place. Then, read the revised version below.

"Jeff, I think we need to buy a new car." She hoped she sounded firm, as if she was giving him no other option. It was all she could do to keep from getting a pleading tone to her voice.

"There's nothing wrong with the cars we have," he said.

"They're getting old. There's going to be something wrong soon."

"Well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. We're not there yet."

Cammie shook her head. He was impossible when it came to buying something she wanted but didn't need. If he had decided they needed it, he would have bought it without asking. There had to be a way to make him give in.

"Sweetheart, both of our cars are new enough that if they break down, it's going to cost hundreds of dollars to fix them. Why wait until that day comes? We can buy a new car now for one of us to drive and, by the time we pay it off, the other car will need to be replaced. Why wait until we have problems? That means one of us won't be able to get to work."

He flipped through channels on the TV and settled back into his recliner.

"Now's just not the right time. We don't have the cash to spare to make the payment."

In this last example, there are not nearly as many explanations of the dialogue. In fact, if you find yourself using a lot of interior monologue with your dialogue, then what you are actually doing is explaining everything your character says. Either this means you do not believe your dialogue is strong enough to stand on its own, or it really does not stand on its own. Remember to show and not tell. If you use too much interior monologue to explain what your characters are saying, then you are telling and not showing.

Remember: The golden rule about interior monologue is that it must not be obtrusive. If it interrupts dialogue or otherwise affects the natural flow of the story, then you should not use it.

If you are using interior monologue too often, or as a way to explain the dialogue, it is obtrusive.

Below are some other rules for using interior monologue.

  • Never use quotes with your character's interior monologue. It is poor style and grammatically incorrect.
  • Never have your characters mumble to themselves or talk under their breath. It is not necessary.
  • Get rid of speaker attributions whenever possible to make your interior monologue less obtrusive.
  • If you are writing in the third person point of view, put your interior monologue in third person point of view.
  • Get rid of phrases in your interior monologue such as "he wondered," or "he thought," by turning it into a question instead. Example: "He wondered why she was always so angry," can be replaced with "Why was she always so angry?"
  • You can use italics to set your interior monologue apart from the rest of the text, especially if it comes in the middle of an action scene.
  • Whenever possible, keep interior monologue brief. Otherwise, you end up telling, and not showing.
 
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