It came as some surprise to realise that, in all the time I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve given little mention to what has to be my favourite part of writing – dialogue. All of us who read a book, watch a movie or just turn on our favourite soap every night know –perhaps subconsciously – that dialogue can really make or break. Good dialogue is like style – if it’s there, you won’t even notice it. And if it’s missing, it will stick out like an alligator at a crocodile party.
Equally conspicuous but for the opposite reason is that ever-rare thing – great dialogue. This is the stuff we talk about around the dinner table. Writing like Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide (“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime – doubly so.”), Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (‘With a gun in your mouth, you speak only in vowels’) and Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing (‘I see we’re spelling ‘hallowed’ with a pound sign.’ ‘We’ll fix that.’ ‘So the pound sign’s silent?’) – these all show us the difference between something that will glue us to the last page or frame and something that gets chucked back on the shelf after five minutes.
There are those who think that the ability to write dialogue is more a talent than a learnable skill, but the deluge of folk online telling us how to do it would suggest otherwise.
In fact, we don’t have to go very far from here to find some great advice on dialogue. On writing.ie, long-time editor and Editorial Director at Kazoo Publishing Robert Doran suggests that it’s dialogue that will bring our characters and story to life. He suggests that dialogue should be strong enough to stand on its own two feet without the aid of descriptive dialogue-tagging or adverbs.
Over on Script Frenzy (one of the best scriptwriting websites around, it has to be said), playwright Daniel Heath gives us his colourful insight into writing dialogue, offering seemingly-paradoxical-but-actually-not advice on developing and honing the skill. He tells us that we should avoid writing the way people talk in real life as so much of that is, in fact, just filler – we spend a great deal of time not actually saying anything of consequence. It’s this filler should that be avoided when writing dialogue.
Author Ali Luke knows the importance of good dialogue through her experience of both writing and reading. She admits to quite often flicking through books in a book shop and if the dialogue doesn’t pop, it’s back on the shelf it goes. She also knows that its with dialogue that many writers struggle, and she offers some down-to-earth and practical advice on getting those conversations jumping off the page.
You might think I’m on commission from Writers Digest with how often it gets a mention on this page, but it really is hard to ignore such a wealth of good advice, and their tips on creating good dialogue are no exception. They cover, not just the spoken words themselves, but also how the writing is framed around the dialogue, such as tagging (he-said-she-surmised-he-wondered). It also touches on what we should be trying to achieve through our dialogue.
If you’re starting out as a writer, the correct formatting of dialogue within a piece of prose can be difficult to nail. The different types of quotation marks and how to use them, proper locations for commas and full-stops, and how often to use dialogue tagging – these can be, at times, unclear and are often debated amongst even seasoned writers. BubbleCow’s ‘Quick and Dirty’ guide to correctly formatting dialogue is just that – a no-frills how-to into ensuring your dialogue is clear, easy to read and grammatically correct.
“Writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself.” – Tom Stoppard.
Don’t Stray Too Far.
On Writing.ie, editor and publisher Robert Doran knows what makes good dialogue.
“Dialogue involves your reader in a way that descriptive passages, however well written, simply cannot.”
Get Into A Frenzy.
Script Frenzy’s Daniel heath gives us his original and thought-provoking dialogue advice.
“Nothing brings on the man-tears like achingly perfect dialogue.”
The 10 Step Programme.
Author Ali Luke’s path to perfecting dialogue.
“Many writers list dialogue as one of the key things they struggle with.”
It’s In The Digest.
Writers’ Digest Scott Francis’ 5 best ways to make your characters’ conversations seem real.
“It’s difficult to make the things your characters say convey the important details of the story without sounding forced or fake.”
Quick And Dirty.
BubbleCow.com on how to correctly format your dialogue.
“It can appear that formatting dialogue is a black box of contradictory rules.”