The Writing Life
ever read a court transcript? It accurately
gives a word-by-word report of exactly what
each person says. But is it interesting?
Uh-uh. If we wrote verbatim the way we talk,
our readers would execute us at dawn (or maybe
earlier). So what do we do to create "natural"
must listen to the way people talk—both
choice of words and the rhythm of those words.
People rarely speak in long sentences or
without pausing, so we must write dialogue in
fragmented sentences and in short bursts.
must decide which of these spoken words are
worthy of writing. For example, in real life,
when we greet someone, we generally say,
"hello," then ask how he is, maybe how his
family is, and so forth. But this is boring
stuff to a reader. The reader is smart enough
to realize small talk occurs and impatient
enough to want to get immediately to the meat
of the conversation. Therefore, we need to
eliminate the "niceties" and get on to what
the reader wants to read.
we need to add body language and action to
dialogue to convey its true meaning. For
example, a character says, "You jerk." Without
body language, we don't know what the
emotional value of this statement is. Consider
the following statements:
"You jerk," he said, his eyebrow cocked
just enough so I'd know he was challenging me,
that he was checking to see if I would back
down or not.
"You jerk," he said, and the twinkle in his
eye told me that I'd finally earned his
"You jerk!" Carl slapped his knee and laughed
from his belly until I feared he'd fall down.
you can see, it is the action and body
language that allows us to interpret the
meaning of the words. Since the reader cannot
see the character talking, it is our job as
writers to describe all the information the
and body language to our prose also
accomplishes another task: it slows the
pacing. Now, there are times when rapid-fire
dialogue is necessary, such as at high-drama
points when things are moving quickly, or
after a long descriptive section to pick up
the pace. In monologues, the story the writer
tells holds the reader's attention, so he
doesn't need to break up the monologue with
tags or action.
no precise rules for writing dialogue, but you
develop an ear for how it should sound by
reading aloud. Do you start drifting? You need
action. Do you forget who's talking? You need
a tag. Is the conversation moving too quickly?
You need a break—narrative
or action—to even out the
some quick tips for writing dialogue:
- Don't sound out sound effects. This is
annoying. Simply state, "The gunshot echoed
through the chapel," instead of "Bang! Bang!
Bang!" (An exception to this is children's
- Take it easy on dialect. Sounding out
words becomes distracting and
time-consuming, and most readers tire of it
quickly. Instead, use the grammar and rhythm
of the character to insinuate the dialect or
tag it with an explanation, such as: "she
said, her Polish accent thick, the way it
was when she was tired or sick."
- Don't include "well," "uh," and other
such nonsense unless it serves a very good
purpose. (Such as a character whose only
word is "uh," or a character whose main
distinction is prefacing every statement
- Keep your tags invisible (see the tip
Tags" for help with this).
- Keep your tags either interspersed with
action and description or at the end of the
quote. A tag at the beginning (although
occasionally okay) tends to make the writing
of the following carries the most power:
He said, "Help me. I need help."
"Help me. I need help," he said.
"Help me," he said. "I need help."
"Help me." He crawled toward his victim. "I
need to be able to visualize our characters as
they talk -- do they roll their eyes, clench
their teeth, smile—any
the visual clues that help us interpret the
intent of the words.
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