writing dialogue

Writing & Editing Tips Revisited – Contractions in Dialogue #wwwblogs #writingtips #WritingANovel

writing-dialogue

A very quick tip here for writers struggling with dialogue.

One of the issues that I find in a lot of the manuscripts I edit is that the dialogue can seem forced and contrived. Realistic, believable and authentic dialogue is a must for a good novel, and authors need to make sure they get it right. But many new writers think they have to write ‘properly’ and they think this means eschewing contractions.

Generally, if you want to make your dialogue flow and for readers to believe in it, then you need to use contractions (there are exceptions to this, in particular types of fiction). Think about it. How many people do you know (however posh they are and however ‘properly’ they speak) who say things like this:

‘Please do not walk on the grass.’

The answer is no one. No one ever (except perhaps the queen and probably not even her) speaks like that. It sounds horrible.

So remember:

‘Don’t’ not ‘do not’
‘They’ve’ not ‘they have’
‘Should’ve’ not ‘should have’ (and definitely NOT should of)
‘I’ll’ not ‘I will’
‘Can’t’ not ‘cannot’
You get the point.

There are three things you can do to improve your dialogue:

Listen – actually listen to people talking. This has the advantage of also often being very entertaining.
Read – when you’re reading, make a note of dialogue that really works, and why it works
Speak – read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound right?
Contrived, formal, awkward dialogue is, I’m afraid, the sign of a writer still learning their craft. Get it right, and your writing will be smooth and professional and your dialogue a pleasure to read.

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Dialogue Tags – Again #wwwblogs #writingtips #amwriting

writing-dialogue

This is a subject I’ve written about several times in the past, but it is an issue I keep coming back to, time and time again.

I’m a huge fan of self-publishing and of independent authors. I’ve read some absolutely amazing books by indie authors and have worked with some amazing authors that have self-published. There are so many great indie authors out there and many that are as good as, if not better than, traditionally published authors.

However, one thing that sets apart the majority of (but by no means all) traditionally published authors from some self-published authors and authors published by small presses is the proliferation of complicated dialogue tags in the work of the latter two. Now, I’m not saying it’s all indie authors that do this, but there is a lot of it about, and it’s usually a sign of an author who hasn’t had their work professionally edited or critiqued.

Dialogue tags are those words used instead of ‘said’ and ‘asked’; words like ‘exclaimed’ and ‘sighed’ and ‘insisted’ and, horror of horrors, ‘interjected’. Many authors that I advise not to use these complicated tags will argue that using them is the sign of a good writer, that they’re showing off their writing skills.

But they’re not.

Because the point of a dialogue tag is to signify who has spoken. That’s it. Nothing else. It shouldn’t indicate how something was said. It shouldn’t indicate the tone or the volume of the words. It should simply show only who is speaking.

Why? Well, lots of reasons. (If you are a client and you have read all this before then I do apologise.) Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over those words, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. The reader is also suddenly reminded that they’re reading a book. They’re not actually in an eighteenth century English prison, or on a spaceship circling Mars, or on a beach in Sydney. They’re suddenly pulled out of that world and back into reality. “Look at me,” the dialogue tag says, “the author looked me up in a thesaurus because they wanted to sound interesting. Also, they didn’t have enough confidence in their own writing to know that the character’s words, actions, situation and emotions are sufficient to show that the character was shouting, or that you, the reader, were clever enough to work that out yourself.”

Think about it. If a character is speaking, and their words are cut across by another character, that shows that the second character has interrupted; you don’t need to tell your reader that they have done so. If your character is telling another character a story about their past, it is obvious that they are reminiscing, or remembering. You don’t need a dialogue tag to hammer the point home.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that most dialogue tags don’t really make sense. Take ‘chuckled’ for example. No one really chuckles a word. They might say a word and then chuckle, but you can’t do the two things at once.  Dialogue cannot be laughed, smiled, giggled, nodded or screamed. Dialogue tags only serve to draw people out of the story, to distract.

Remember, writing should appear effortless (although it is far from it) and a dialogue tag that stands out reveals the author, reveals that the world has been crafted. To paraphrase Stephen King – you have told your story well enough to believe that when you use ‘said’ or ‘asked’ your reader will know how it was said or asked.

So shut that thesaurus please, and have a little more faith in yourself, in your words and in your reader.

Writing and Editing Tips – Part 1: Writing Dialogue

dialogue

Dialogue is a hugely important part of writing fiction. It can move the action forward, reveal character, emotions and motivations, and can help prevent exposition. Good dialogue will draw your reader into the story. The good news? It’s not that difficult to achieve.

Listen

Writing excellent, realistic and informative dialogue begins with listening.  Pay attention to how people actually speak to each other. Listen out for elements such as turn taking, pauses, figures of speech, contractions etc. This last one is really important. If you listen to people you will notice that hardly anyone says ‘would have’ or ‘did not’, for example. What they will say is ‘would’ve’ and ‘didn’t’. Make sure you use these contractions in your dialogue. Nothing sounds quite as unrealistic as someone saying:

‘I did not go for a walk. I could have but it was raining.’

What they will say is:

‘I didn’t go for a walk. I could’ve, but it was raining.’

(OK, so that’s not exactly the most enthralling thing I’ve ever written, but you get the point.)

Say it

Whenever you write dialogue read it out loud. If you can, get someone to read it with you. It’s not until you actually hear the words spoken, that you can tell how natural it is, if it flows, if it works. Incidentally, I tend to read all of my own writing out loud. This really helps to pick out errors, repetitions and sentence structure issues (it helps that there’s not usually anyone else in the house but the dog).

 Leave out the boring bits

I know I said dialogue needs to be realistic, but it can’t be exactly the same as real speech. If you listen to an actual conversations, you will notice lots of pauses, lots of sounds that aren’t actual words (ums and errs etc.) and lots of ‘fillers’ that are completely irrelevant. Your dialogue has a purpose, and while it should be ‘real’ it should also achieve something. Get rid of anything that doesn’t add to the plot.

Beware dialogue tags

In a previous life I worked in a school. I spent a lot of time teaching children to avoid using the word’ ‘said’ in their writing. In fact, I have spent whole sessions putting together lists of alternative dialogue tags. Now I spend a lot of time editing these same tags out of manuscripts. The problem is that exciting, exotic dialogue tags only draw your reader’s attention away from what is actually being said. They detract from the story. And, if your writing is peppered with words like ‘exclaimed’, ‘bellowed’, ‘croaked’ etc., it looks like you’re trying too hard to come up with something different each time. Which you probably are. Stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ for the most part. Your reader shouldn’t have to be ‘told’ how your character is speaking; she should gather that from the words, the actions, the situation etc.

Break it up

While dialogue is exciting and adds variety, you don’t want line after line of dialogue. Break it up with some action. Actions can also work in place of dreaded dialogue tags. For example:

 ‘Did Ted drop off the package?’ asked Linda.

‘I don’t know,’ said Sophie.

‘For goodness sake,’ Linda sighed. ‘I asked you to remind him.’

Can be transformed into:

 Linda burst into the office.

‘Did Ted drop off the package?’

‘I don’t know.’ Sophie glanced up from the screen, her lips pursed.

Linda flung her bag onto the desk.

‘For goodness sake! I asked you to remind him.’

It’s completely clear here who is talking. Also, there is a sense of where the action is taking place, an idea of what the characters are doing and how they’re feeling.

Avoid exposition

I know I said above that dialogue can help with exposition. However, you must be very careful to ensure that readers do not feel that dialogue is being used simply to let them (the reader) know certain facts. Let the reader ascertain things from what your character is saying. Trust your reader – don’t force feed him details.

Read

Anyone who is serious about writing needs to read. A lot. And reading someone else’s work can help a great deal when it comes to writing dialogue. When you come across dialogue that works really well, work out how the writer did that. And when dialogue doesn’t work, again, work out what went wrong. You’ll then know what to do and what not to do when it comes to your own work.

Got any great tips for writing dialogue? Do post them here.

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be. You can contact me here.