Thursday 17 March 2022

Talking dialogue by Tracy Darnton



I’m talking about dialogue in my teaching this week so thought I’d share my thoughts and tips. 


We all know good dialogue can add energy and pace, further the plot and provide characterisation. It can bring instant drama, volume and variety to your work. Sometimes all of that at once. I like the white space it provides on the page as a break from full prose.


Bad dialogue can make us all too aware of the author behind the writing, or can be a clumsy info dump, or tell us exactly what everyone is really thinking. “Oh no,” moaned Arthur.


So, what should we be thinking about when writing dialogue?

“It’s all about the subtext,” shouted Anya.

 First off, however tempting, don’t think dialogue is a cunning way to ram in all that back story:


“Hello Matt. I hear you were kicked out by your hated step-dad Steve for splitting up your identical twin Felix and your secret crush Millie.”


Instead, the words you omit, the sentence which trails away, silences and pauses are much more interesting and engaging. Readers like to join the dots themselves.


“But I recorded an actual conversation,” insisted Bertha.

Remember, dialogue is not a transcript. If it was, it’d be extremely dry, and constantly going off at a tangent. You’re aiming for an authentic feel, not word for word actual conversations. It’s a storytelling construct. So:

·       Use fragments, let characters cut across each other so it feels real.

·       Cut those fillers – um,er,so.

·       Cut the niceties of getting into and out of conversations. “Good morning.” “Goodbye.” You will rarely need them.

·       Monologues are unusual in the real world. If a character in a conversation says three sentences, that’s possibly the time to switch to another speaker. 

·       Beware of slang which dates quickly and can be toe-curlingly cringey before you know it. “Wassup, groovers?” See, cringey.

·       Watch out for overusing names as “Hello, Peter” “Hello, Paul” can sound unnaturally stilted.


 “Don’t just stand there!” she yelled.

The dialogue isn’t hanging in space – the setting is integral to making it work. What are your characters doing while speaking? Thread that through the conversation. Break up sentences to put attributions in different places.

Having an action also reduces the need for a tag to attribute the dialogue.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ned staggered back against the door.

“And who are you anyway?” she asked.

Remember I said at the outset that good dialogue provides characterisation. Can you take lines of dialogue and know which character is speaking? This does not mean everyone needs a verbal tic or a strong accent, but we all have our own syntax and vocabulary.

 Avoid the bad dialogue trap of authorial voice over your character, tempting as it is. Are you reflecting your own speech or opinions, rather than your character’s?

“I think the cook is as incompetent as (Sir!!!) Gavin Williamson,” said Prince Smartypants from his highchair.


“Flipping heck!” spat Kat.

The level and frequency of swear words always needs thinking about and can dramatically affect tone and impact in the book. If you’re not sure, review on editing when you can see the whole effect.


“Tags,” she hissed, “I love them.”

I’m a big fan of mostly ‘said’ as a tag so the eye can skip over it. Though there was an exchange on Twitter this week which insisted ‘said is dead’. So up to you all, but I’ll go with the occasional ‘asked’, the odd ‘whispered’ and ‘muttered’ but never ever, ever ‘smiled’, ‘grinned’, ‘yawned’.

I know my middle grade friends need to add more tags like ‘moaned’ and ‘yelled’ and use more adverbs than the YA gang, but keep me happy and use sparingly to let the dialogue do the work. “I beg you,” she pleaded heartily. 


“And finally…”, she murmured.

My final tip is to read your dialogue out loud. Better still, get someone else to do so. You’ll pick up the clunky and definitely the cringeworthy.

 Happy talking.


Tracy Darnton writes YA thrillers. Her next book, Ready or Not, is out in May. She’s an Associate Lecturer on the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. She talks a lot.


Nick Garlick said...

Great post. Bad dialogue can drop a book dead in its tracks. And I still think 'said' is(almost)always the best.

Susan Price said...

"Agreed, Nick," she said.