Wednesday, February 17, 2016

SAY WHAT? The Delights and Difficulties of Dialogue

By E. E. Kennedy
Many writers dread writing dialogue, but it can be fun and useful in telling your story. There are a few basic concepts when putting dialogue in your fiction that makes it more readable to editor and reader alike.
1)      Remember, dialogue isn’t just transcribed communication. If you were to put in everything that went into an actual conversation, you’d have a wealth of ums, ers, repetitions and irrelevant comments that would really slow down your story. Record a discussion sometime. You’ll see that it’s full of random stuff that doesn’t belong in your story.  In our weekly writers’ group, I encourage people to “streamline” their dialogue, using only that which moves the plot forward. Of course, there are exceptions; for example, when you want to illustrate a character’s shy or hesitant personality, you might use a few ums or ers.

2)      When writing accents and dialects, try to avoid straight phonetics. I can name two examples where a well-known writer did this and made their work virtually unreadable. 

a)      The Uncle Remus Stories by Joel Chandler Harris. If you were to try to sit and silently read these stories, it would be exhausting. However, I did learn that if you read them aloud, they take on a rhythm and poetry of their own and are delightful. My children loved them.

b)      Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery, The Five Red Herrings, features a heavy Scots dialect that is really difficult to follow. Perhaps reading it aloud would help, but I lost patience about halfway through the story.  
“But I have a Frenchman in my story,” you protest. “How can I give him a unique voice?” Businessman Etienne LeBow in my Miss Prentice mysteries has a French accent, but I only use his quirky pronunciations sparingly, dropping initial h’s, for instance, and peppering his conversation with the occasional French word or phrase, being careful to make sure the reader can decipher it, usually from the context. Here’s an example of Etienne having a conversation with his business partner:
                             “Amelia, à l’arrière, c’est superb, mais . . .
                            he trailed off as he gestured towards the front door.
                            “Yes, Etienne, the back garden is gorgeous; you did a fabulous job
                            on it. But—”
                “We ’ave ’ad two summer weddings booked there already.”
3)      Speaking of repetition, avoid having your characters sharing the same information over and over. It’s irritating when we have already digested a pivotal scene, only to hear it recounted again unnecessarily. Many writers use resort to something like this:
                      I told Manfred all about what had happened at the horse barn.
4)      A page that is only dialogue can be as tiresome as one without it. I try to balance my characters’ speeches with plenty of intermittent narration.

5)      Tags, that is, “said Henry” or “she shouted” are important, but they can become cumbersome when used too much. A good rule of thumb is to try to make sure that we know who is speaking at all times. A neat trick is what I call “stage business.” Instead of
“he said,” I might have the character do something to draw attention to his identity.

                “It’s late.” Susan fingered her watch nervously. “It’s time we left.”

6)      Sometimes, what you don’t say in a scene is as significant or as much fun as what you do say. One of my favorite scenes in Incomplete Sentence is between Amelia and her nephew-by-marriage, Vern Thomas. Vern is telling Amelia about spending long cold hours at a taxi stand, swapping jokes. The following illustrates his silly sense of humor:
                             Knock-knock,” he said suddenly.
                             “Vern.” I gave him the teacher stare.
                             “Go ahead, humor me.”
                             I sighed. “Who’s there?”
                             “Yodel lady.”
                             “No,” I said.
                             “Come, on.”
                             He could see that I was adamant. “Okay. That was Fleur’s
                 joke. I thought it was pretty good.”

7)      I always separate the different characters’ speeches. I never combine two distinct voices in the same paragraph, if I can help it. Sometimes, if two people say the same thing simultaneously, I might, but that’s the only exception I can think of. This rule of thumb helps to clarify who is saying what much better.  

8)      By all means, use dialogue to convey elements of your story rather than simply “telling.”
It comes across much more naturally. In Incomplete Sentence, we learn of the Rasputin killer’s crime through a conversation between the B&B’s housekeeper and the manager, as they describe a TV program:
                             “They found her body in a big trunk in his apartment,”
                             Hester said with a disapproving shake of the head, “wrapped up in a
                 quilt, they said on that show.”

9)      As many writers will tell you, characters often insist on having their own say. In the climax of Irregardless of Murder, Amelia Prentice faces death at the hands of a selfish and ruthless villain, experiencing what any of us might in this situation: shock, disbelief, fear, bitterness, helpless rage. It is a very angry scene. In the first draft, I was strongly tempted to have her use profane language to express her feelings, but the scene just didn’t feel right that way. I went back over what I knew about my protagonist: she was a proper, ladylike teacher with a large capacity for compassion and a strong sense of justice, stemming from her belief in God. Would Amelia, at the moment of her death, be likely to use irreverent language just before she was to meet her Lord? Most assuredly not. How, then, would she handle the situation? Since the story was in first person, I had Amelia explain it herself:
                “No! You rotten--” Vile, hateful, blasphemous names for [the villain]
                bubbled up from my throat. I swallowed them. I was determined that those
               would not be my last words on earth.

Now it worked. I had been true to Amelia. I could almost see her nodding approval as she read over my shoulder.


E.E. Kennedy is the author of The Miss Prentice Cozy Mystery series. Her website is To enter a drawing for a free mystery book, just make a comment below, being sure to include your email address.



  1. Thanks for sharing. You know, I never thought about it before....that there would be so much more if a conversation was written verbatim.

  2. Great advice! Thanks! Also thank you for not using "profane" language. If you had I wouldn't have finished the book or read any of the others. I read only Christians books that have none of that "stuff" in them.
    Bev (An EEK avid reader!)

  3. It was interesting to see dialog from a writer's point of view. Thanks for the post!

  4. Very interesting. I have never thought of conversation for a writer's point of view. Nice to learn something new :) Thanks for sharing.

  5. 2) is known in the business as "Poirot's English" because it makes your character sound like David Suchet in his rôle as Hercule Poirot: Mysteriously, he uses all the difficult English words flawlessly but fails at the basic ones that real learners would manage during the first few lessons. That is little plausible. It is much more common that non-native speakers have grammatical twirks as their trademarks, like, getting their cases mixed up or placing the verb at the wrong place (think of Yoda). Once, when a character was supposed to speak in a language she managed only basically, I asked a non-native speaker to write down those sentences for me and only corrected the spelling errors. It felt much more credible that way!

  6. Love learning new things. Thanks, Kristie tklovenest {at} (aol) . [com]

  7. Thank you for the suggestions; as a reader, I can appreciate all of them. As a wannabe writer, it is even more enlightening. Thank you! jeaniedannheim (at) ymail (dot) com

  8. I must admit to reading books that smothered me with local dialects. It's hard reading at times.

    I only need broad hints really.