If youre writing fiction, the dialogue is arguably one of the most important parts. And its the bit thats the easiest to mess up, if were strictly honest. And why not? Theres so much going on in that single sentence that any number of them can go wrong; voice, character, tone, point of view, punctuation. Well start with punctuation, because Ive already written that bit.
Go here. I was originally going to copy and paste that part of the lesson into this lesson, but then the thing wound up being ten pages long. So, read that, and then come back to this if you feel you might need help with the mechanical bits.
When to use Dialogue
Right. So, youve got a story all set up in your head (or on a piece of paper if youre inclined to pre-write), and its great. Your hero is blasting through space with a whole heap of misfits, and youve just come to the poignant moment where someones heart and soul is about to be bared before the entire crew.
The thing to keep in mind when writing fiction is that you are not writing a script or a screen play. The reader wont have the same luxury as a film or theatre-goer of having everything interpreted by a director, and then acted out before him. You have to do the acting. Most times, this is easy, since people arent apt to giving long, Shakespearean monologues in day-to-day living.
° Its even warmer, Nicholas pointed out, taking off his jacket. Whys it so hot?
As we discussed earlier, by sticking the tag into the middle of the line, it forces the reader to imagine that the character is talking rather calmly, and that hes not rushing to get the words out. You can also stick a bit of action to the tag, so that youve got an actual reason to tag in the middle of the line.
Its not always just one person talking. In fact, it rarely is. People dont (usually) just talk to hear the sound of their own voice. They talk to communicate; to exchange information, or even just get angry at one another and shout a bit.
° Danny didnt seem very happy, Rose stated uncertainly.
You know him?
Yeah, Rose responded as they walked into the TARDIS. Hes Aunt Irene and Uncle Franks boy. How did he know about Calais?
The pacing in this bit is fairly subdued. Just a bit of reflection, really. Because theres not a whole lot in the way of action going on, its okay for the lines to be a few sentences long. You dont want to get too long, though. Well touch on that in a bit.
° EXTERMINATE!! One of the remaining Daleks shouted, aiming its blaster for Saxon as he rushed out of the airlock.
Bob? The dog shouted desperately. Moments later, Walker pushed through the mayhem and followed his friend.
Wait! Nicholas shouted after the officer, not sure if he should follow or not.
A loud blast rocked the entire ship, stunning everyone left for only a few moments. One of the two remaining Daleks had been blown in half,
I missed my daughter grow up because of you bastards! Trillian screamed harshly from behind everybody. She gripped tightly to a very large blast gun, its sights aimed at the invading creature.
Here, we have the big climactic moment. Nearly all of the characters are present and accounted for, and theres absolute mayhem on the ships bridge. Scenes like this are a delicate balance, because you want to get the details of the battle down, but you dont want to compromise the pace.
The first thing you want to do is keep the lines short as possible. No more than two sentences at a time. And each time a character say something, tag the line with action. The Daleks are shooting at things, the officers are running in fear, and the astrophysicist is ready to kill every damn thing on the ship. Well get more into painting verbal pictures in a bit, but part of those pictures is to do with pacing your dialogue.
But say youve come to a scene where, goddamnit, your character has got something to say, and theres no force in the universe going to stop him saying it all. The absolute last thing you want to do is flood the page with an entire paragraph (or more) of nothing but quote. After about two sentences, your character will stop being a character, and just become a voice in your readers head.
° Nicholas took a moment to think about what Janine had said. Is that was this is about? he asked. This, right now? He looked down at Travis, stunned, before returning his attention to Janine. If you think that theres been a single day gone by that I havent regretted what happened, I think youve got some rethinking of your own to do! he said, his face turning red. If you want to take it out on me, then fine! Thats why I moved out to Gloucestershire anyway.
Youll want to inject some acting somewhere into the text. As a general rule, you dont have to start a new paragraph if no one news started talking yet. In this example, the protagonist is having a rather spectacular row with his ex in a pub, who hes by chance run into during a visit back to London. Even as hes pouring out all of his emotions onto the sticky, bitter-covered floor, hes still doing other bits of acting.
And this bit brings us to another point about dialogue.
What can my Characters Say?
In the example immediately above, the character is so upset that hes tripping over his own words. In one sentence, he used think in one form or another three times. One thing to keep in mind is that the films and the television shows we watch dont really portray real dialogue. If youve ever watched the bonus features on a DVD, youll almost certainly have seen gag reels where the actors have tripped over lines or got them backwards or just said the completely wrong thing.
Because thats what people do. As were speaking, we dont have the luxury of a writer putting the words down, and then an editor or a script supervisor going through and fixing bits up.
Verbal tics are a great way to make a character feel more real. Let them occasionally repeat themselves or say the wrong word. Slangs great too. Just keep in mind that you dont want to put any of these into the narrative.
° Danny shrugged. Iunno, he said. But Id put a fiver on it that that yob there on the scooter prangs it here in a bit.
Nicholas sighed. And if he crashes his scooter, its our responsibility to help him.
Just bear in mind that slang can be like a foreign language to some, and you might want to subtly translate it for your readers not from the area. And balance it out. If youve got a character whos rather a bit relaxed with their grammar, make sure that another character actually paid attention in class. Too much slang or missing bits from sentences, and your readers bound to get bored and walk away.
Some people find it a bit difficult to write children, because they run into one of two issues. Either the child sounds too old, or too young. Children dont always have the best grasp on grammar, and depending on their age, their vocabulary might be rather limited as well. Kids are also a bit fearless, in that if they dont know a word for something, theyll just say the next-closest thing they can think of, even if it is completely and totally wrong.
° Hes the best superhero ever! Cameron explained loudly.
Hes not either a superhero, you pillock, Robert said, giving Cameron a heavy shove. Hes a spy!
° Dont touch it! Nicholas barked, slapping Jamies hand away from the bloody mess on his arm. Hurts.
You should clean it, Robert pointed out. You got all that duck mud all over you.
With what? The duck water? Nicholas asked. No way.
The single best way to learn how children talk is to talk to them. If youve got young kids in the house, volunteer to take them out to the park for a few hours to give poor mum a rest, and rather than just sitting on the swing talking on your mobile, actually play with the kids.
One more note on Slang
If youre putting slang into your dialogue, please, please, PLEASE make sure that its time and setting appropriate. Youd never hear an American say something like, thats the dogs bollocks, or a colonist call someone an airhead.
When it comes down to it, if youre not sure, err on the side of caution and dont use it. Its better to come up with something slightly less-fitting that you do know the meaning for, than to say what you think sounds better, and have it be completely wrong.