Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Copyright 2003, by Linda Hope Lee

This and the next couple of tip sheets discuss how to to write
effective dialogue. First, we will consider the functions of
dialogue. In a story, dialogue must not be aimless or superlative.
You must make all dialogue exchanges work for your story by having
them fulfill one or more of the following functions.

1. Dialogue can show character.

A. Through what a persons says:

"Look, Mark." Jane held out a brown wallet. "I found this in the
grocery store."

"Take the money out and put it back where you found it," Mark said.
"Anyone who can't hang onto his wallet deserves to lose his money."

"No way. I'm turning it in. If it were mine, I'd sure want the person
who found it to do the same."
> From this exchange, we see that Mark has a "finders keepers"
> attitude while Jane honors the "do unto others" command.

B. Through how he says it (From P.D. James):
"It appears that the murderer swam across the canal," Inspector Marsh
told Adam. "Where were you on that night?"

"If there's any swimming to be done, my dear inspector, one must
leave it to someone else. One has one's asthma, you know."
Adam's referral to himself as "one" and to Marsh as "dear inspector"
show him to be a pretentious person.

2. Dialogue furthers the action of the story:
"I've made up my mind," said Amanda. "This house goes on the market
tomorrow. No, today. I'm going to give that real estate agent a call
right now."

"Wait a minute, honey," Joe said. "I thought we were going to think
about selling for a couple of weeks, then decide."

Amanda shook her head. "We've tried that before. It just means an
indefinite postponement, and you know it."

3. Dialogue conveys needed information:

"I just moved here from California," he said. "Been here only a
coupla months."
"I wondered where you got that tan," she said.

4. Dialogue can show the emotional state of the speaker:
A week later, Robbie ran through a glass door, cutting his hand to the bone.

"What's going on!" Matt exploded. "We were just at the hospital last
month when he fell and hit his head. And before that it was a
sprained ankle."

"It's normal for boys to have an accident now and then," Lynn said.
Matt ran a hand through his hair. "I'm beginning to wonder if there
isn't something wrong with the kid."

5. Dialogue can show conflict:
"Are you telling me we have to go tomorrow night?" Arlene asked.

"That's right," Martin replied.

"I wouldn't be caught dead at that party!"

"You'll go if I say so."
"Make me!"

6. Dialogue can build reader suspense:
"We'll drill right through the tunnel."
"Yeah? I remember the boss telling about the time he tried that. He
was the only survivor."
"The boss hasn't been on the job as long as I have. And I say we can
drill through the tunnel."

7. Dialogue can foreshadow.
"I hear Farley's back," Bob said. "He's coming over here tomorrow."
"I'm not afraid of him," Meg said. "Let him come."

8. Dialogue can characterize someone through the speaker's viewpoint:
"Did you meet Sarah yet?" Martin asked.
"Did I meet her! She bent my ear for nearly an hour with stories
about her ailments."

As I mentioned above, try to have your dialogue perform more than one
function. For example, in looking at 2., you'll see that in addition
to furthering the action of the plot, it also shows conflict between
the speakers.

Dialogue is the essence of real speech. Not everything that people
say in reality should be or needs to be put down on paper. In
reality, people do a lot of hemming and hawing, repeating themselves,
and taking more words than they need to convey the message. You must
condense real speech for your story. Consider the following passages,
the first as the speech was said word for word, and the second as it
was edited for the story.

"Well, believe me, Janice, you know as well as I do that your mother
knows best. And I say the best cure for loneliness is for me to treat
you to lunch next Wednesday. Well, believe me, I'm sure that will
chase those blues away."

"Believe me, Janice, no one knows better than your mother what the
best cure for loneliness is. I'm treating you to lunch Wednesday.
That will chase away those blues."
Mother uses the phrase "believe me" frequently. The second example
uses it only once. It will be shown in other speeches, enough to let
the reader know that is a pet phrase, but not so much that it is
distracting and annoying.

A good way to make your dialogue natural and convincing is to keep in
mind that when a person speaks, he uses only the words that someone
of his age, occupation, sex, educational background, temperament,
would use in talking. We all have three vocabularies: speaking,
writing, reading. Words that we recognize when we read may not be
part of our speaking vocabulary. Similarly, words that we use in our
writing we may not include in our speech.

Another way to make speech sound natural is to forget sentence
structure and rules of grammar. People do not always speak in
complete sentences nor do they use proper grammar. Here's an example
from Judith Guest's Ordinary People, between Cal and his son Conrad:
Conrad is conscious now, shading his eyes with his hand against the
light. "Time's it?"
"You just get home?"
"Yeah. What're you doing down here?"
"I couldn't sleep."
Cal laughs. "I see that."
"Time's it?"

He turns away to hang up his coat. "I just told you. Twelve o'clock.
Let's go to bed, okay? I'm bushed."
To help you learn to write more effective dialogue, develop your
listening skills. Try to shut off your other senses and just listen
to what people say. What emotions are behind the actual words? How
are the words being said? Listen for speech patterns and pet phrases.
Read plays to see how dialogue can carry a story. Read the masters of
prose dialogue, such as J.D. Salinger, Flannery O'Conner, and Ernest


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