What She Said -- My Monologue on Dialogue

Katherine Longshore 5 Monday, September 12, 2011
I love dialogue. Part of me credits it to my acting background, the fact that on stage so much has to be conveyed through speech. Part of me blames it all the voices I hear inside my head. And the rest of me recognizes that I find it easy to write and relate to dialogue, and therefore depend on it.

However, there is a drawback to all this. In my current WIP I’ve found that all my characters do is talk. I joke that it's like the movie My Dinner with Andre only in costume, but it's a joke that hits all too close to home. So my first draft is full of dialogue, but I can fix that in revision, adding setting, depth, and texture. At least that's the plan.

I've been trying to think of good advice for writing great dialogue, but I’ve found the best advice comes from others.

Anne Lamott, in her fabulous book on writing and life, Bird by Bird, tells us that we should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different, and they should not all sound like the author. She suggests reading your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds in the mouth the way it reads on the page.

In The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing, Dwight V. Swain suggests listening.  Listen to the world around you speak.  When watching movies or TV shows that have been recorded or TiVoed, stop and go back and listen to inflection, word choice, sentence structure and meaning.  He says that men speak differently when they’re in a group without women.  That teens speak differently from grandmothers.  That people from different backgrounds have different rhythms of speech.  It doesn’t mean write in dialect.  Just write with an ear to the differences.

In the same book, Loren D. Estleman gives us reasons for using dialogue in a novel.  It brings immediacy, provides a change of pace, creates character.  Estleman, too, suggests listening to people and reading your own dialogue aloud.  But also writing plays – depending on dialogue is a good way to strengthen it.  But the most important advice I got out of the article was to relax.  Pushing dialogue, like pushing theatrical performance, makes it wooden.  Flat.  You want your dialogue to soar.

On the rather contentious issue of dialogue attribution, Stephen King (in On Writing) says that the best form of dialogue attribution is said.  He makes a great case, giving examples of overly-adverbed tags (shouted menacingly, cried bravely, etc.) and tags with implied adverbs (grated, gasped, jerked out).  But I still find this the most difficult part of dialogue.  Long ago, I heard a writer in England disparage Enid Blyton’s style with the accusation that “All she ever does is use said!”  Ultimately, “said” should be invisible at best.  If possible, don’t use attribution at all.  If you’ve done the rest of your dialogue work, and you only have two people talking, most of the attribution should be obvious.

So with so much advice, how do you go about writing dialogue?  Just do it.  Let the characters take you through a scene word by word and see what happens.  Anne Lamott suggests putting together two people who would do anything to avoid each other and see what happens.  It doesn’t have to go in your novel, but it could certainly strengthen your characters’ voices.

And just for fun, I leave you with a taste of dialogue that got cut from GILT.  I like this interaction OK, but in the end, it didn’t move the story forward.  So it had to go.  Thanks again, Stephen King, for the phrase “killing my darlings.”  In this scene, Catherine Howard (Cat, who is queen to Henry VIII) is trying to elicit a promise from my protagonist, Kitty Tylney, to keep a very dangerous secret.

“I would never betray you, Cat, you know that.”
“You can’t even speak of it in the confessional.”
“Why would I?” I asked, thinking it wasn’t my truth to confess. 
“Because he’s the head of the church,” she said, ignoring my question.
“That doesn’t make him all knowing, Cat,” I said.  She was losing her power of reason.
“Don’t be stupid, Kitty.  If he were truly a god on earth, he would be able to heal his ulcers and maybe lose a few pounds.  But regardless, anything said to any priest will get back to the king one way or another.  Not through divine intervention.  Just cold, calculating ambition.”
“Oh.  Of course.  Either way, I won’t tell.  None of us will.”
“The Coven would sell their souls to the devil for a crumb of gossip.”
“Then throw them out.”
“I can’t.”
“You’re the queen.  You can do anything.”
“And when they leave these rooms, there will be no one to stop them from saying whatever they please,” Cat said. “They could disbosom themselves of every morsel of scandal gleaned from Norfolk House.  No, they’re staying with me.”
“Then we shall have to do our best to keep them happy.”
“Is that a royal ‘we’?” Cat asked.
I laughed.
“We wouldn’t presume,” I said, speaking with royally clipped consonants and clear vowels.  Then I dropped to a whisper. “I mean you and I.  We’re a team.  We’ll make it through.”
“A team,” she echoed. “Sisters of the soul.”


Great post, Katy and very timely for me as I've been going over and over the dialogue in my novel, cutting adverbs (and putting some back in...). I love the line from "Waiting For Godot": 'That was a good little canter.' So wonderful when the dialogue flows, working. The hard work that goes into making this happen!

I wonder why dialogue is so easy for certain characters of mine, yet when others "talk" I feel like the Grand Puppetmaster, moving their little mouths, making them say what I think they should say.

Just wondering.

You killed your darling...but then resurrected it for this blog post! Thank you for sharing it.

Oh, the adverbs, PB! I honestly think that sometimes they're necessary. Just, perhaps, not every tag.

And I don't know, Beth, maybe when your characters feel like Muppets, you can do some exercises to create more backstory, get more deeply into each character's head, and then, perhaps, the voices will come.

Aww, I love My Dinner W/ Andre!! yeah, dialogue is something that I've had to learn how to do the hard way (aka, lots of awkward first attempts that were lovingly shot down by my writer's group). But when I read, I generally appreciate simple tags that let you know what's going on without being repetitive.

Dialogue was one of the things I really struggled with initially - which is bizarre when we're surrounded by the spoken word, isn't it?
I plugged away at it, and was eventually told I had achieved a good voice - weirdly I'm still not convinced.
I agree with Steven King though, about "said", you just don't see it - it blends in, yet at school, the teachers insist the pupils use adverbs for the sake of interest. It's a funny old world:)

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