Writing dialogue can be daunting for some writers, and for others it is second nature. For me, I think I fall somewhere in the middle. When tasked with writing this article on giving advice on how to write dialogue, I felt like asking for advice myself. I can safely say, I have made many errors in writing dialogue and I have contradicted, on many occasions, what I’m about to say here. The key thing I’ve learned is that there are no hard and fast rules.
On a writing course I did with Irish Crime Author Louise Phillips some time ago, she advised that the first thing one needs to do when writing dialogue is to listen to people speak. Eavesdrop on conversations. Use your ear. Listen to how people cut across each other; finish the other person’s sentence; know what the other person is going to say before they say it.
This exercise will give you an idea of the reality of dialogue and conversations but it will not translate well into the written word, as it wouldn’t make for great reading. You must be able to give the impression of that reality. Be able to listen and take from it what is important and bring forward into your writing the heart of a conversation.
Use dialogue to:
- a) develop a character,
- b) provide information,
- c) move the story along,
- d) break up prose.
The way a character talks can determine his or her relationship with other characters. It can set the character apart from others. How you use words in dialogue can help your reader establish a relationship with your character.
Dialogue tags. He said. She said.
I can hold my hands up here and say that initially I was prone to overuse of dialogue tags. But I now realise that minimum usage of tags, speeds up the conversation.
There is no need for me to use, Lottie said, Boyd said, on every line of dialogue in a conversation between those two characters. Perhaps insert the tag on every fifth line in order to guide the reader. It is important that you don’t lose your reader and this can happen if they have to read back over the piece to find out who is talking. A good exercise is to read your work out loud, see where you need to fit a tag into the conversation so that your reader doesn’t get confused.
Rather than writing in a dialogue tag, have your character doing something while talking. She took off her coat. Opened a cupboard. Slapped the table. This will add action into the conversation and at the same time give the reader an impression of what the character is like or what mood the character is in.
Here is a short example from The Stolen Girls:
Trying to make conversation while searching, Lottie asked, ‘How are you doing since the-’
‘The wound healed up quickly,’ Boyd cut in. ‘Mentally? I’m as screwed up as ever.’
‘Thought I was the mental one. Password?’
‘Under the mug.’
She tapped in the code. ‘Thanks.’
In these few lines, we can garner that Lottie is a bit scattered. She doesn’t know where her password is. We can see the rapport between her and Boyd especially where he cuts in on her diaglogue- he knows what she is going to ask before she has the words out. This points to a close relationship.
I write crime novels, and I have found that dialogue is a good tool to introduce tension and conflict. The choice of words in the piece and the action attached to that dialogue can let the reader know what is going on in a situation quite quickly and this in turn adds to the pace of the novel. Personally, I think dialogue helps the story to zip along. And in a crime novel, pace is crucial.
In conclusion, I think the main thing to remember is that whatever way you choose to write it, the dialogue in your story must have a purpose.
(c) Patricia Gibney
About The Stolen Girls:
The young woman standing on Lottie’s step was a stranger. She was clutching the hand of a young boy. ‘Help me,’ she said to Lottie. ‘Please help me.’
One Monday morning, the body of a young pregnant woman is found. The same day, a mother and her son visit the house of Detective Lottie Parker, begging for help to find a lost friend.
Could this be the same girl?
When a second victim is discovered by the same man, with the murder bearing all the same hallmarks as the first, Lottie needs to work fast to discover how else the two were linked. Then two more girls go missing.
Detective Lottie Parker is a woman on the edge, haunted by her tragic past and struggling to keep her family together through difficult times. Can she fight her own demons and catch the killer before he claims another victim?
The Stolen Girls is a gripping and page-turning thriller that will leave you breathless. Perfect for fans of Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen and Helen Fields.
Order your copy online here.