Welcome back to this study on fiction. I’m Kenny noble, an instructor here at Indiana Bible College and today we’re going to be looking at the elements of dialogue.
We’ll be looking at some of the important features of dialogue and hopefully give you some pointers to improve your dialogue. First, let me say that contrary to what many think, dialogue and fiction is not the way people talk.
Rather, dialogue is the way that we want to think that people talk. I’ve taken my pen and paper and set down in a restaurant, in a coffee shop and listen to people talk and if I put that conversation exactly the way it happened it would be very dull and boring.
There wouldn’t be much impact to it, so dialogue is not really the way people talk. It’s the way we want to think people talk. Dialogue and fiction is much more condensed. It’s much more to the point and actually dialogue must accomplish several things at one time.
Each word must carry it’s full load. Each word must do two or three things and by that I mean in dialogue, you want to communicate the message that the character is saying, but also you want to communicate their mood.
You want to sometimes imply things and you always want to move the story forward toward the end. First, let’s get the mechanics of dialogue out of the way. It’s pretty simple and straightforward but it does take some particular attention.
Some of the problems students have are the comma and the period. Notice that the comma always goes before the end quotation mark. OIf course, all of your dialogue will be enclosed with quotation marks. If there’s a period at the end of the sentence, then the period will go inside the closing quote.
If there’s a comma at the end the comma will go inside the closing quote. Many times dialogue will have an attribution. Attribution is the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ that goes at the end of the sentence and notice how it’s done in this example.
There’s a comma, a closing quote the words ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, and then a period. So in that case the period goes at the end. If there’s a question mark, there’ll be a closing quote afterwards but notice there will not be a comma. There is still be a period at the end.
This might take a little bit of getting used to but all you have to do is keep a novel on your desk and open it and look for an example. There are only a few different ways to close dialogue, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find the exact example that you need.
Next, let’s look at this attribution, these speech tags that we have at the end of our dialogue. It’s tempting, especially as a novice writer, to want to spruce up, to add to, to modify your speech tags.
Instead of going with the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ we want to add ‘he said passionately’, ‘she said with a whisper in her voice’, ‘he replied bitterly’, ‘she said huskily’. We want to add those adjectives but really all we need is the simple ‘he said she said’ and that’ll carry it along just fine.
Another point we want to look at is the position of the ‘he said she said’. The position of the attribution – should you put it at the end or should you put it at the beginning of the dialogue? You could do either or but if you look at contemporary fiction that’s selling, and surely you want other people to read your fiction, if you look at that you’ll discover that most of the time it’s put at the end of the dialogue.
So I think that should be a good lesson for us. The most important thing is to stay consistent. Resist the urge to put some of the dialogue attribution at the end and some of the dialogue attribution at the beginning. Keep it consistent because it will disorient the reader.
As we read fiction, that ‘he said she said’ become so mundane that we just subconsciously use it to keep our place in the story, to know who’s talking. We really don’t notice it and if we switch it up sometimes, and put the ‘he said’ at the beginning, then that makes the reader stop and that’s something you don’t want to do.
That makes the reader stop reading and notice that, and you don’t want to do that. You want to keep the reader reading along smoothly, so that they’ll continually have those pictures you’re making with your words inside their head.
What you do want to use are action tags, so let’s look at action tags. Action tags are those words phrases or sentences that show the action that your character is taken, because as you know, as we interact with one another, we don’t just stand there with our arms limply by the side and have a conversation.
Instead, we do things. We sit in the chair. We scoot to the edge of our chair. We cross our ankles. We fold our hands, we pull on our ear. We scratch our head, we pick up our coffee cup. We do different things.
As you’re writing your dialogue, you want to add those action tags occasionally. This is what will take the place of those adjectives we were talking about that you should avoid. It’s perfectly alright to show action tags.
Here’s an example:
Manny Hampton nearly shouted in the phone as she wheeled her suitcase through the airport.
Instead of ‘she said or Maddie Hampton said’ we left that out and we could do double duty here because really were showing who’s speaking now. We’re also showing that she’s shouting, so she’s doing some action.
Here’s another one:
“Ma’am you’ll have to come with me,” the man’s soft voice was demanding.
There we have another action tag, after the dialogue, that gives us a descriptor. We know it’s a man. We also know that his voice was soft and demanding but the action tag doesn’t always have to be at the end.
In fact, you want to switch it up once in a while. It would look boring and mundane if you always had your action tags at the end of the sentence. In real life people do it both ways. Sometimes they’ll pick up their coffee cup stare into it a moment as if they’re concentrating and then speak.
At other times they’ll spout off something and speak and then pick up their coffee cup. Since we do it both ways in real life, then in our fiction we should show it both ways. Typically, the method we use in fiction is to first show the characters feelings.
Second, show the action and then show their speech, but there’s nothing wrong with, once in a while, putting the action tag in the front. So here’s an example:
He fisted his hands on his hips. “You know, we’ll be checking into it, so anything you lie about is only going to come back and bite you.”
There’s a good example of putting his hands on his hips showed his mood and then we gave the dialogue. Use action tags. Use them frequently and occasionally mix it up, and again, all you have to do is pick up any good novel and you’ll see some good examples of how they’re using action tags.
In fact, many authors keep a phrase book of phrases they see in fiction that they like, or phrases they come up with themselves, or action tags that they see that works really well. I got to tell you, you can keep pages and pages of these phrase books and when you’re looking for something to put in your own novel, you might look through pages and pages and still never find anything that works just right for you.
However, the idea of writing other action tags down and writing down other people’s phrases tends to help build those qualities inside your own mind. Another thing I want to mention about dialogue is, everything doesn’t always have to be straight forward.
In other words, sometimes you want it to be off the nose, and that means the character isn’t always saying what they mean. They say one thing and they really mean another. We show that in our own normal conversations. With a wink, I could indicate to the other person that you really are being sarcastic.
When we’re doing our dialogue and our action tags, when you do it, have things that are off the nose. For example, two people are talking and one says “what’s the matter, aren’t you feeling well today?” and the other person says “oh I’m feeling just great.”
We don’t know exactly how they said that. They could have said “well I’m feeling just great” but when you add the action tag of ‘they slammed the book down on the table’ or ‘they kick the chair back into place’, then we know that what they said is not necessarily what they mean.
You want to look for that in your fiction and try to add that. The reader, of course, is at least as intelligent as the writer and the reader will pick up on that. What about dialect?Sometimes in your story you’ll have someone that has a very bad accent. Perhaps they’re not a native English speaker, and you want to show that.
What I find that many authors do is they show it too much. All you really need to show that this person has a difficult time with the language is to show it once at the outset and then occasionally remind the reader of it.
You don’t need to show their poor dialogue in every sentence. It gets difficult to read after a while and the reader gets tired, so just remind the reader of it once in a while. Sometimes all it takes to remind the reader of the poor dialect is just a sentence that says the character had to think a minute about what they said.
Of course, you want to make sure that your characters don’t all sound alike, because we don’t sound alike. One of your characters will probably have extremely good grammar, one may have poor grammar, one person may talk in long sentences, one person may use short sentences.
Typically, women have better sentences than men and it’s not uncommon for a man to just answer with one word or two, instead of giving a complete sentence. You want to put that in your dialogue. Think about your characters at the outset and think ‘well, who has the best grammar here? Who’s using long sentences? Who’s using short sentences?’
Sometimes people in our daily lives talk very little. All they’ll say as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘maybe’, and you might have a character like that. Of course, then you want to think about the words your characters use. Some characters use longer words, some characters use shorter words.
Some characters will say ‘all right’, others will say ‘ok’. Some characters have particular words that they use over and over again, and even in our own lives, there are people that habitually scratch their head and we can put that in our fiction.
If someone tugs on their ear a lot, someone folds their arms a lot, someone Huff’s when they speak. Sometimes a character will answer a sentence with a question. We’ve all known those people that when they talk to you, they always have to add an affirmative tag at the end of their sentence.
“That car looks nice, don’t you think?” “I’m hungry, aren’t you?” “I’m ready to go to town. You going with me?” and we could use those ideas in our fiction. listen to how other people talk and you’ll get ideas of how your character should talk.
Well crafted dialogue will reveal whether your character is smart or dumb, whether educated or not educated, whether they’re passive or whether they’re active. You know, the Bible says that ‘out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh well’.
That works with your characters also because the dialogue reveals what the character really cares about. Dialogue is very crucial in developing your character, as well as the actions they have because the actions say a lot about a person.
We know if a person is disinterested, he doesn’t like someone, because they avert their eyes or because they glare at them. Typically, when a person folds their arms they’re in doubt. All of us have a certain personal space about us but there are some people that their personal space is a little bit larger than everyone else’s.
So if someone sits by them at the table they might scoot the chair over a little bit or pull their glass in their table a little closer to them. Watch other people and how they act and record it and use these in your own dialogue.
Last of all students often ask ‘how much dialogue should be in my story?’ Should it be mostly narrative and a little dialogue, or vice versa, because your story should be a mixture of dialogue narrative and description.
Like spice on your salad, you want to mix that up until it’s just right and it doesn’t always have to be the same mixture. I went through several novels that I liked and used the highlighter to highlight all of the dialogue and I compared it with a narrative.
It seems that the novels that I like typically are around forty percent of dialogue compared to the narrative and description, so I think that’s a good ratio. I look at my pages after I’m finished with the novel and try to verify.
Do I have at least forty percent dialogue? I think most of us like to see white space on a page. We think it’s going to be a good read, an interesting story if we have more dialogue on the page. You pick up a book that’s very dense, and there’s a lot of long sentences, and not much white space and we tend to want to push that away.
We tend to be attracted to the pages, at least most of us, tend to be attracted to the pages that are full of white space and I should also mention dialogue runs. A dialog run is just several lines of dialogue without description or narrative and we like those.
Sometimes they kind of speed up the action and kind of give us a break, kind of a sigh of relief, and they’re interesting. We don’t always need an attribution in a dialogue run as long as there are only two people in the conversation. We alternate back and forth.
Then after the fourth or fifth line, then we have to add some kind of attribution to help the reader keep their place. We don’t want the reader to have to stop and go back, and figure out person, which characters said the line.
Use dialogue runs. They they look good on the page and readers like them. Last of all I want to mention contractions. Don’t be afraid to use contractions in your dialogue because that’s the way people talk.
In fact, you may want to have one person that always uses contractions and another character in your story who seldom uses contractions, or doesn’t use them at all. Contractions are okay to use, so don’t be afraid to use them.
We’ve covered several important things about dialogue and hopefully there’s some things there that you can use in your own fiction. Of course, there’s much more that could be said but we’ll stop there and I hope to see you in another lecture.