Check out some books by your tutor Fiona Veitch Smith … (click on the book covers to find out more)

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free creative writing courseThis is the sixth session in my online creative writing course. This week we’ll be looking at:

In my experience as a creative writing teacher I’ve discovered that there are two types of writers: those who are good at dialogue, and those who are not. If you are good at dialogue, make sure you’re not just writing a script; if you’re poor at dialogue, you need to allow your characters to break out of their headspace and address the reader face-to-face.

Finding your voice

dbc-pierre-vernon-god-littleWhen a publisher or editor talks about finding your voice, they’re not just talking about how your characters speak, but your distinctive tone of voice as the writer. In any piece of writing, the author, whether intentionally or not, becomes a character in their own work. This of course is more obvious in a first person text where the author is consciously taking on the voice of one of the characters to tell the story. Take for example this extract from Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre:

Ole Clarence Whoever was shaved clean like an animal, and dressed in the kind of hospital suit that psychos get, with jelly-jar glasses and all, the type of glasses worn by people with mostly gums and no teeth. They built him a zoo cage in court. Then they sentenced him to death.

Exercise 22:
Now rewrite the above passage in the voices of a male judge, a female reporter and the grandmother of Clarence. How does your voice change? How have you achieved it?

But your voice will also take on a character in a third person text where the narrator is distant and not part of the story. What do I mean by this? Writers adopt a tone to tell a story appropriate to the period, genre, intended readership and style of a piece of writing. For example, ‘she enjoys walking through a pile of leaves’ could be written in different ways:

She loves the scrunchity scrunch of the leaves on her wellies – for a children’s book

She finds a rare pleasure in walking through the leafy shed of Autumn’s fall – a historical novel

Exercise 23:
‘When he looked at her he realised for the first time that he liked being with her.’
Rewrite this for a young adult novel, a contemporary romance, a historical and a children’s book. How does your voice change? How have you achieved it?

Dialogue

Dialogue reveals character and the relationship between characters. No two people speak alike and you should try to give your characters a verbal as well as a physical distinctiveness. Do they use a certain turn of phrase? A slang word? A swear word? Do they stutter or um and ah? Are they pompous or verbose?

Exercise 24:
Take the three characters you used in Exercise 22 and work on giving them verbal distinctiveness.

val-mcdermid-the-mermaids-singingDialogue is also a means of exposition (communicating essential information to the reader about the background of the story) and is one of the basic ways of activating your text by showing not telling. That may sound strange but allowing a character to tell the reader something rather than just narrating it in the text, is a legitimate means of ‘showing’. Let us listen in to the following conversation between two women, Carol and Penny, in Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing:

‘What happened to sisterhood, Carol?’ she complained. ‘Come on, give us a break. Surely there must be something you can tell me apart from “No comment”.’
‘I’m sorry, Ms Burgess. The last thing your readers need to hear is ill-informed off-the-cuff speculation. As soon as I’ve got anything concrete to say, I promise you’ll be the first to know.’ Carol softened her words with a smile.
She turned to walk away, but Penny grabbed the sleeve of her mac. ‘Off the record?’ she pleaded. ‘Just for my guidance? So I don’t end up writing something that makes me look like a pillock?’

Exercise 25:
What does the above dialogue reveal about Carol and Penny’s characters? What does it say about their relationship? Who has the power in this exchange? If you don’t know the book, what do you think the characters’ respective jobs are?

Exercise 26:
Now take the grandmother and the judge from Exercise 22 and write a dialogue exchange between them. Do not mention that they are a grandmother and a judge – you should try to communicate that through their speaking style, vocabulary etc. The first time you do this, make sure the power is with the judge, then rewrite it with the power dynamic reversed. How did you achieve this?

Dialogue layout and punctuation

Look at ‘The Mermaids Singing’ passage from above and note how the dialogue is laid out.

Speech marks – single speech marks are used. This is the more modern style, although double speech marks (“) are preferred in children’s texts. Double speech marks are used in the passage to indicate a quote or indirect speech (“no comment”) within direct speech. It’s also considered quite ‘postmodern’ not to use speech marks at all. Sometimes the start of a speech is indicated with a dash (-) or sometimes it just flows continually in the text. The idea behind this is that the tone of the speech and the individual verbal tics, distinctive syntax and vocabularly of the character should be enough to cue the reader that someone is speaking. See for example the extract from ‘Trainspotting’ later in this post.

Commas – commas and other punctuaion (. ? !) precede the close speech mark. Note that when the reported speech was at the end of the sentence, the full-stop came after the close quote mark but before the close speech mark ‘ … “no comment”.’ However, if “no comment!” ended in an exclamation mark, it would have to be before the close quote mark as it was part of the original quote. Hence it would read ‘ …”no comment!”.’ If dialogue is broken at the end of a sentence, then resumed (eg ‘‘Off the record?’ she pleaded. ‘Just for my guidance?’) then the restarted speech will begin with a capital letter but the dialogue tag with a lower case one. If the speech is interrupted mid-sentence, then it resumes with a lower case one eg ‘Could you tell me,’ she pleaded, ‘will this be off the record?’

Paragraphing

A good rule of thumb is that every time a character speaks, it starts a new paragraph. However, if one character speaks then performs an associated action then speaks again later, it can remain in the same paragraph. You can also have mixed actions by more than one character in one paragraph, but not mixed dialogue. For example:

John hovered in the doorway, wondering if he needed to wait for a hostess or just sit down at the first table he could find. ‘Oh miss … ‘ he said, trying to catch the uniformed blonde’s eye. She ignored him. ‘Oh miss …’ he tried again.
‘Yes!’
John fought back an urge to salute. ‘What is it?’ she snapped, looking at his finger nails.
‘I er, was wondering … er, nothing. Sorry. I’ll go somewhere else.’

Dialogue tags – the ‘he said, she said’. These should be kept to a minimum as otherwise it reads like verbal ping pong. When only two characters are talking, you only need to use a dialogue tag the first time a character speaks, thereafter the individual voice of the character should be recognisable without additional clues. You can also remind readers of who is saying what by interspersing it with action relating to the speaking character. For example: ‘… you’ll be the first to know.’ Carol softened her words with a smile.’ This technique is preferable to ‘… you’ll be the first to know, ‘ Carol said with a soft smile.’ or even worse: ‘ … you’ll be the first to know,’ Carol said placatingly with a smile.

Exercise 27:
Take this imaginary scene between the judge and the grandma and rewrite using the minimum of dialogue tags and superfluous adverbs:

‘I’m sorry Ma’am, I don’t have time to talk,’ said Judge Logan impatiently.
‘But you must,’ said Grandma Clarissa pleadingly. She grabbed his arm and held him as forcefully as her eighty years would allow her.
‘Please unhand me!’ demanded Judge Logan.
‘Not until you hear what I have to say,’ Grandma Clarissa stated steelily.

Talking heads

Beware of allowing your characters to carry on talking for any length of time without breaking it up with action or description, otherwise you’re in danger of producing a radio script.

Dialect

david-almond-the-fire-eatersThe use of dialect in prose is a controversial issue. Some authors say you should never try to reproduce a character’s dialect, but others have no qualms doing so. Take this example from Irvin Welsh’s Trainspotting:

Any minute now though, auld Jean-Claude’s ready tae git doon tae some serious swedgin.
- Rents. Ah’ve goat tae see Mother Superior, Sick Boy gasped, shaking his heid.

Then compare it to the more accessible use of dialect in David Almond’s The Fire Eaters:

Dad winked at me.
‘When tomorrow comes,’ he said, and he changed the subject to McNulty. ‘Mebbe he’s there every Sunday morning,’ he said. ‘I should try to get to talk to him, eh?’
‘Aye,’ I said.

With so many variations of spoken English around the globe I think it would be arrogant to say that only one form is acceptable. However, I think it’s possible to reflect regional variation without clouding the meaning of the text. The key for me is the use of the occasional words in dialect and the use of local syntax and rhythm as long as they can be understood without too much deciphering. Less is more, as they say. But if you’re not very familiar with a dialect, don’t use it at all as it will just sound like a Dick van Dyke caricature.

Exercise 28:
Take the passage in Exercise 27 and rewrite it in a regional dialect with which you are familiar. First try writing the whole piece in dialect then just the odd word to give it flavour. Which do you prefer?

As usual, please feel free to post your comments or questions below. In the next creative writing course session, local poet Andy Philip will be talking about how to write poems.

72 comments on “Writing dialogue

  1. And I thought I was great at this, but! I tend to overdue the “she/he said” line after characters. Writing is so enjoyable yet a lot of work! Thank you again.

  2. Deathmajestic on said:

    Your use of quotation marks differs from how I’ve always been taught how to use them, and by extension, how I continue to use them even to this day. In fact, how you have suggested thier use here directly opposes my education on their correct usage. I’ve been taught to use double quotation marks for direct speech/quotations, and to use single quotation marks for indirect speech/quotations. Not to mention the novelty of dismissing quotation marks altogether; who do the radical grammarians think I am, E.E. Cummings. If so, I’m more than willing to admit that I’m not. :)

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      I do the opposite too! I’m obviously hopelessly old fashioned. This is not my use of quotation marks; I’m pointing out how it is used in the extract from ‘The Mermaids Singing’ – which reflects a more contemporary style. However, both styles are still commonly used. I think the key is to choose one and remain consistent. If you get published a publisher will have a house style that you should follow.

  3. jon stein on said:

    just editing my first novel and found the guide on dialogue layout v. useful – thank you!

  4. Claire on said:

    I’m only thirteen, and I stumbled upon this website when I was checking the dialogue in the novel I am writing. I would like to thank you for this; I had been searching for a dialogue guide for quite a while. It really helped.

  5. nicolas on said:

    Hi there!
    I am writing my first novel, so I am grateful for the advice!
    English is my second language, but I want to persuit a degree in English (start college this year).
    I’ve just finished my first chapter, and this will help me to improve my dialogues!
    thank you!

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Are you writing your first novel in English Nicolas, or your own language. If I were you I would consider writing in your own language and then translating it. It’s best to write first and foremost in the language of your heart.

  6. nicolas on said:

    thanks for the quick answer!
    I am writing it in English as a challenge, but I try to write things in Spanish as well.
    I’ll follow your advice and see how I do. thanks! =)

  7. Thank you for creating and developing this websit.I am 15 and i am quiet an ambition reader.I loved reading novels and I dreamed of writing one myself.I have been praised for my creativity many times but when it came to deciding the plot,the charecterisation and the dialoge for the novel i used to come up blank.After taking the first five courses I hv improved enormously.I am on the verge of completing my novel.Your website inspired me to write it.Thank you and I am truly grateful for creating such an awsome website.<3 :)

  8. Heya.I finished reading all your coursess just amazing.Just one question-Why are you offering this advice for free???If you publish this 8 week course it will be a best seller in a month.I know everyone wants to have it for free but the course is amazing no other website offers this and I have been to over 20 free creative writing websites.All they have in mind while creating their website is how do they sell the books which they have made for creative writing.They offer one-forth informaton and say the other three-forth is in the book which you can buy! Thanks again for this wonderfull website. :D

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hi Noon, there has been a Crafty Writer book in the pipeline for a while now. However, as I am a full-time writer I have my own deadlines to meet and so it always seems to go on the back burner. Hopefully it will come out one of these days though. My motivation in putting up this course is to equip writers rather than making money. I do earn some money from the advertising on the site though, so I’m not starving :)

      Thanks for the encouragement,

      Fiona

  9. this was great really helped my book come to life!!!!

  10. all the best for your book!!!…..hopefully it hits the market soon.It is very nice of you to help writers.Hope to read more about creative writing.Thanks for the help. See ya. :)

  11. Nicole on said:

    I’ve got to say I am loving this course, I’m planning on entering a short story competition as I’m a newbie and this course has helped me a lot to refine my skills.

  12. Alesia Jarrett on said:

    hi i don’t understand this dialect thing i and would like the full understanding of dialect please and what does it means but otherwise this course is the best i ever took its amazing thanks for the help.

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Dialect is the way people speak the same language differently in different places or in different class groups. So people is Scotland for instance speak English but their dialect is Scots. It’s not just a matter of accent but different phrasing, word choice and syntax too. The question this session is asking is whether or not writers should write the dialect phonetically so that the readers can ‘hear’ it as spoken, or just write it in standard English and leave the dialect to the reader’s imagination.

  13. Jamesd Gray on said:

    Very insightful, and also reassuring that I am on the same page to most of your tips ,, although, I must say dialog with complete dialect has away of enlightenment with perserverance,, anyway, take your point with a flavor can also work,, but mindful how lazy the UK reader is compared with USA readers..

  14. Joshua Kerrigan on said:

    This is a great post, I think you should turn it into a 2 or 3 part series.

  15. Dolores on said:

    Thank you for all the good information; all your hard work was definitely appreciated.

  16. Oh my gosh, all my life I have loved describing. In a way that I find it hard to write dialect, but the descriptions I use aren’t poetic enough for my poems. I can’t exactly write a book of descriptions, but I am starting to get the hang of dialect and this lesson has helped me greatly. Thank you.

  17. Ibrahim Rashid Kamara on said:

    Nice Teaching!

  18. Rupa Rao on said:

    I am glad to have found this course; covered all essentials on creative writing. I shall keep it as valuable reference source for my writing aspirations.
    Thank you

  19. Lisa Bell on said:

    Thank you for this class. I am slowly but surely getting through it. When I have tried to take a class locally they get cancelled so yours is reliable.

  20. wanda barlow on said:

    I am love everything that you have to say now that I have learn some things I am confident that I can write my novel . so thank you

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