Draggy Dialogue? Reeking Repartee? Why the Chit-Chat Can’t Be Idle

Tracy Fabre is guest hosting my blog today. Fabre is the author of Evan’s Castle, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Stonegarden Publishing. Fabre says:

Dialogue (unless your novel manages to avoid it entirely) is something both difficult and essential to get right.  It serves two key purposes in fiction: it furthers the plot, and helps the author build the characters.  (It can also entertain, frighten and inform, as characters joke, threaten, and sometimes pontificate, but we’ll keep it simple for this post.)

Here are a few things which must be taken into consideration as you write your dialogue.

It must be believable and natural.  It must be plausible that your character would speak, shout, wheedle, cajole, or threaten with the words you choose for him.  Are you writing about a twelfth century cleric?  Then he’d better not say, “Dude, that habit is, like, so five minutes ago.”  Are you writing about a teenaged NYC prostitute?  Then she’d better not say, “Fain would I fathom the nature of a bespectacled pigeon, forsooth.” 

It must fit the scene, and the words you use to describe how it is uttered.
        “I am so extremely happy,” Lulella intoned.
But intoned implies dull, flat, ponderous–okay, so does her speech–so if you were trying to show she’s actually happy, none of it works.
        Roderick stated, “I love you.”  Does that seem right?  No.  Stated is another word which implies flat, dull, boring; if that’s not how you meant him to sound, you need a new qualifier.  I could write a whole book on how said is really the perfect word, much more so than physiological impossibilities such as:
        He smiled, “Hello!”  
                No, he didn’t.  He said it.  He smiled while he was saying it.
        “Baby,” he rushed into the room carrying vermicelli, “you’re here!”
               No, he spoke as he was rushing; there’s a difference.
Don’t be afraid to use said.  It becomes invisible, and the speech itself takes precedence, as it should.  There are places where other impossibilities such as purred and barked do work, but limit your use of qualifiers such as laughed and smiled because, kiddo, you can smile your dialogue all you want but it’s just going to sound like a buncha mumbling.

Don’t feel you must use any variation of said at all if the speech explains itself.  
           “I think I’m going to have to slather you with butter.” He smiled.
           She smiled back.  “I think that would be very interesting.”
I think we know what’s going on there… unless of course he’s really about to kill her, in which case I’m sure you’ve written the rest of the scene to show her being brave and clever and escaping unbuttered.

Make it clear who’s speaking, but don’t over-do it in a heavy-dialogue scene. 
         “I don’t like gazpacho.”
         “You’ve never had gazpacho.”
         “Yes, I did, in Boise,” Velmarine insisted.
         “I don’t remember that.”
         “You weren’t there. It was a Tuesday.  Where’s the butler?”
         “What butler?” Claude looked around, puzzled.
         “The one I hired last Tuesday to clean the gutters.”
         “We don’t have gutters. This is a condo.”
         “Oh, that explains the snooty people in the lobby.”  She sipped her tea.
Also, make sure the first pronoun to follow a bit of dialogue refers to the person who spoke.  In the above lines, it should be clear that Claude said “What butler?” and Velmarine mentioned the snooty people, without a single said being present.  Remember that readers generally take things literally, in order, so keep your curve balls to a minimum.

Say it out loud.  Really.  If you know your characters well (as you should), then say their dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds right.  It’s okay, you can whisper it; no need to alarm the neighbors.  But say it. 

Cut what you don’t need.  Some dialogue isn’t necessary: you don’t need every greeting, every farewell; you need to concentrate on the key elements of plot advancement and character development.  You may have written some incredibly profound bit of pontification but if it doesn’t fit the scene or the character and adds nothing to the plot, cut it.  You may have written the funniest freakin’ bit of repartee the literary world has ever known, but unless you need it… erm… you don’t need it. 

Speaking of cutting, I’ll stop here. 

What have your challenges been as you write dialogue? 
What do you consider your successes? 
Would you be willing to post to the discussion short samples of your dialogue which you either love or hate?

3 Responses to “Draggy Dialogue? Reeking Repartee? Why the Chit-Chat Can’t Be Idle”

  1. Bertram Says:

    Thank you, Tracy! Good tips. Congratulations on getting your book published!

  2. Aaron Paul Lazar Says:

    A wonderful post, full of great tips. It took me a while to learn the “just use said,” rule, and even longer to realize I don’t need dialogue tags if my beats are clever. Amazing how long this learning process is. I hope it never ends. ;o)

  3. Martin Ott Says:

    Awesome I enjoy examples of articles that have been written, and especially the comments posted! I will come back!

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