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Writing Authentic And Readable Dialogue by Carmel Harrington

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Article by Carmel Harrington ©.
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Imagine watching a movie without any dialogue. Now think of the last movie you watched that was full of cheesy, badly written, cliched lines. I’m looking at you Serena (Netflix). Even with the talented Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper onboard, the terrible dialogue was too much to save the movie for me.

The same goes for writing fiction. Get the dialogue wrong or use it too sparingly and readers will be moving on to their next book. In order to make the readers experience a great one, us authors have to master the skill of writing authentic and readable dialogue.

So why is dialogue so crucial to the overall novel? We all know the importance of show not tell, right? Well, one of the easiest ways of ensuring you do this is in your dialogue. When our characters speak, they give us an insight into their moods, their hopes, desires, fears and dreams. In a well crafted conversation, characters become real to us. It can also help to build tension and drama.

With every book I’ve written, I know that my technique has improved. I’m not a perfect writer, but who is? Every day I strive to improve my style, learning from others and applying that to my own work. I’ve accumulated some tips over the past five years and in no particular order, here they are! The dialogue examples I share below are all from The Things I Should Have Told You (HarperCollins) which will be published on September 8th.

carmel harringtonFirst and foremost, if you only add one thing into your writing routine, make it this one! While editing, always read your work aloud. It’s effective and a must do to ensure your dialogue is authentic. When I read aloud, I can hear my characters. I immediately get a sense if their wording is too formal or perhaps too casual for them or their situation. I notice poor word choices and if my sentence structure is awkward. When I read silently, my eyes skip over these errors. So put yourself in your readers shoes and pretend you are recording the audio version of your book. Release your inner actor and I bet you notice and correct lots of issues.

A question I’ve been asked on a regular basis when I teach creative writing, is how to punctuate dialogue. Rule of thumb: Begin a new line for each new speaker. Use quotation marks – standard for US is double, UK & Ireland it’s single. End the dialogue with a comma, when using a dialogue tag. (he said, she asked.) End with a full stop when adding an action.

Speaking of dialogue tags, keep them simple and to a minimum. In a conversation where you have just two people, you can skip tags after the first couple of interactions. Readers are clever, they can keep up. You can also skip using a tag altogether and go straight to an action.

You dont smile enough anymore. I worry about that. A life without laughter isnt worth living at all.

And please try to avoid using adverbs. It’s tiresome for readers when authors say things like, ‘she pleaded beseechingly.’ I admit, I was a chronic adverb abuser in the early days. Sometimes I still find myself falling into bad habits. If you don’t listen to me, pay heed to the master himself – Stephen King.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

In your edits and rewrites, be careful that a character isn’t drifting into the monologue area in a conversation. It’s rare that any of us would get to talk for more than a minute or two at most, before being interrupted. You need to break up those long blocks of speech with some descriptive text. Some things to consider – where is your conversation taking place? What can they hear, see, smell? What are they doing as they speak?

Its near time for painkillers and then Ill be all… I hold up two thumbs and smile, encouraging Olly to do the same.

Next up is the use of accents in writing. It’s tricky not to get cliched here. In The Things I Should Have Told You, my family are on an European road trip and they come across many nationalities. My rule of thumb is, less is more. Works for much in life really! In France, I was worried I could find myself in Allo Allo territory, so my trick was to replace words like ‘the’ with ‘ze’ the odd time, throwing in the odd, French phrase too. The Guinness family also meet a Welshman called Aled and for him, I included some phrases that are used a lot in Wales. Tidy!

I think all great writers are active eavesdroppers! Pay attention to how others speak to make your dialogue realistic. But having said that, realistic doesn’t always read well. If you were to transcript me speaking, there’d be a lot of um’s, aah’s and so’s at the beginning of sentences. That soon becomes receptive and boring for the reader. So aim for a decent impression of real speech, rather than an actual transcript!

Also, remember that each of your characters should have their own speech patterns. In The Things I Should Have Told You, there are three generations – Pops, in his seventies, Olly and Mae, in their late 30’s and the children Evie (13) and Jaime (7). Evie for e.g. at thirteen, doesn’t tend to say much.  A lot of what is going on with her, is in her head. So her dialogue is stilted, short.

My next top tip, is to arrive late and leave early! In other words, you don’t need to fill in all the blanks when you are writing dialogue. You can cut out the polite talk about weather and crops and get straight to the meat of the conversation.

Don’t be afraid to play around with alternate forms of communication too. Like text or PM’s and DM’s. Evie, my troubled teen in The Things I Should Have Told You, shows us what’s really going on with her in PM conversations on Facebook with her friend, Ann.

AnnMurphy: Your folks still at it?

EvieGuinness: Yep. Whisper-fighting now. Like, yeah right, we cant hear you.

AnnMurphy: Scarlet for them. When Mam and Dad fight, they go at it like hammer and tongs. All shouters in our house.

EvieGuinness: Mine use silence like a weapon of mass destruction. And the looks they are throwing at each other, all the time. Cant cope.

And last but not least – try not to use characters names overly in conversation. In real life we don’t use peoples names with every sentence we speak. I put my hand up and admit guilt to this, in my first novel. But as my Dad always says, every day is a school day.

Whether writing dialogue comes easy to you or you have to work hard to get it right, it forms an essential part to a novel.

(c) Carmel Harrington

About The Things I Should Have Told You

Every family has a story…

But for the Guinness family a happy ending looks out of reach. Olly and Mae’s marriage is crumbling, their teenage daughter Evie is on a mission to self-destruct and their beloved Pops is dying of cancer. Their once strong family unit is slowly falling apart.

But Pops has one final gift to offer his beloved family – a ray of hope to cling to. As his life’s journey draws to a close, he sends his family on an adventure across Europe in a camper van, guided by his letters, his wisdom and his love.

Because Pops knows that all his family need is time to be together, to find their love for each other and to find their way back home…

The Things I Should Have Told You will be in bookshops soon or preorder online now!


Carmel is a bestselling & award winning author from Co. Wexford, Ireland. The Things I Should Have Told You, (HarperCollins) her fourth novel, will be published September 2016. Her page-turning novels are translated into nine different languages and are regular chart toppers. She is Chair of Wexford Literary Festival, a regular panelist on TV3’s Midday Show, writes features for The Irish Independent and is a popular keynote speaker.