Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Ten Tips to Writing Dialogue

By Jax Hunter

Hi, Campers.
This month, we’ll take a look at some ways to make your dialogue fantabulous. The first few of these are taken directly from a book that I just devoured. I highly recommend it. A director friend of mine turned me on to it. The title is Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays by David Ball. It’s short, but brilliant.

Okay, on to dialogue.

1. Characters only speak because they want something. Figure out what they want at that moment and put the appropriate words in their mouths. We think a lot of things. What actually makes it out of our mouths is important. I have an acquaintance who will say pretty harsh things - even nasty at times. Then, she’ll giggle and say, “Just joking.”

2. Dialogue is about what the character wants, not about what the author wants. Be very careful that your dialogue isn’t about the things that you need to convey to the reader. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up with characters who speak “out of character” and incessant chatter. More about this in number 4.

3. I speak to further my goals - to get around an obstacle. I tailor my words according to the obstacle. If the obstacle is my spouse, then I will craft my words one way. My spouse knows me and I can’t get away with as much with him. On the other hand, I know him as well, and know what pushes his buttons. If the obstacle is a complete stranger, I will be “winging it” so to speak, using the words and tone of voice that I hope will get me what I want. Maybe I need my supervisor to give me what I want. I will have to be a bit more sly, crafting my words to make it something she wants as well.

4. Rarely use your dialogue as exposition. Example:

“You know, Marie, I’ve been terribly upset since losing my job as a computer programmer, especially since I had that job for eighteen years and I was relying on my pension to take care of my mother who has cancer and has been living with me for three years.”

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. But you get my drift. If you need to convey information to your character, a messenger can be used.

“My Lord, Wallace has sacked York.” (Braveheart)

Even better if you can have as a messenger a character who, with his speech, is trying to
get what he wants as well.

5. Use character tags sparingly. If you can identify the speaker without a tag, do so. For example, in this exchange, we have two women, Claire and Julie, and three men, Nic D’Onofrio, Will, and Cruz. Claire begins.

“So, tell me about this Angel of yours?” she reminded them.

Cruz sat forward. “Sure, he’s great. Trustworthy, honest, honorable. . .”

“He’s a champion,” Julie interrupted quietly, “a true champion.”

All eyes went to Julie. D’Onofrio squeezed her hand, Cruz smiled, Will nodded.

“He’s a knight in shining armor,” she continued. “He’s loyal and. . .” Now she stopped and gazed at D’Onofrio, her voice husky with emotion. She looked back to Claire and smiled finally. “You can trust him.”

The room was pin-drop silent when she finished. Apparently there was little that needed to be said.

Claire let it hang there a moment, then turned to Pitkin.

“So, Will, had you heard about Gabriel finding his friend dead?”

“Yes. Well, no. Well, yes, I talked to Yoda this morning.”


“Lieutenant Quillen,” Cruz filled in, giving Will a look that Claire took as warning.

“Oh.” And, again to Will, “But you haven’t talked to Gabriel?”

“No, ma’am.”

If you must use tags, use 'said' as much as possible and be sparing with your adverbs.

Make their words do the declaring and, if you need sad, craft sad words.

6. Be very careful with dialect. A little goes a long way. The best way to create a character who speaks with an accent is to use an occasional word here and there to show it. Your reader will automatically add the accent from there on. The hero of my first book was French Canadian (think Patrick Roy). The main thing I did to convey his accent was to have him never use a contraction. On occasion I had him mix up his word order. And, he had one word he used several times that I spelled the way he said it. Here it is:

“You were outstanding back d’ere, Jamie!” A.J. said. “You were so focused. It was amazing.”

Another thing you can do to portray dialect is to find idioms from the region. When I write my big Scottish historical/paranormal/romance, I will spend time listening to Scots speak. I’ll use phrases such as “He fancies you,” and “riding a two wheeler without stabilizers on.” I have a file folder into which I stick Scottishisms when I hear them. They won’t all make it into the dialogue, but a few here and there will give my readers a taste of the language.

7. Subtext, subtext, subtext. What lies beneath our words? Flirtation? Threat? Deception? Make your dialogue do double (or triple) duty by using subtext. Dialogue is what your characters say. Subtext is what they mean. If you’ve ever answered “fine” to the question “How are you?” when you have a raging fever, you know about subtext. If you’ve ever had a perfectly innocent conversation with a member of the opposite sex that in no way was perfectly innocent, you know about subtext. Your characters know about it, too.

8. Keep it real. Real speech is messy and full of starts and stops. Real people leave sentences hanging as their listener reacts. Words get stuck because of emotion (anger, fear, sadness.) Real speech is full of mistakes, sometimes repeated habitually. Real speech is compressed. Use those things. Pay attention to how screenwriters do it. Take notes.

9. Remember that speech is action. And as such, it elicits reaction. It’s a give and take, with reactions, interruptions, and new thoughts coming as fast as words do. Also, to keep your story flowing forward, and to keep your characters from becoming talking heads, break your dialogue up with action.

Cruz jumped to his feet and dashed past, snagging Will’s uniform and dragging him to the lieutenant’s office.

“Tell him,” Cruz ordered.


“Tell Yoda what you just said to me.”

Okay, Cruz was seriously losing it. Perhaps it was coup-contra-coup from Red’s slap.

“I just said. . .”

But Cruz didn’t let him finish.

“I was just so pissed, Sir, that I didn’t even consider that he might not have had a choice. Jesus Christ, Sir. Permission to go find him, Sir.”

Then spinning around, Cruz flew from the room, leaving Will and Yoda staring at his wake.

The lieutenant snapped his fingers quickly, his usual signal for “Keep up, boys.”

“Already had him working on that, Sir?”

DQ shook his head dumbly. “You got it.”

10. Make sure your characters speak with a distinctive voice. Your Army enlisted man, who grew up in Mississippi and joined the military to keep from going to jail, will speak differently, use different words, even different grammar than the Colonel who grew up in Maine and graduated from West Point.

Go forth and study dialogue from your favorite authors. Mark up your books. Highlight great dialogue. Learn from those who are making it work.

Until next month, BiC-HoK, butts in chairs, hands on keyboards. Write, write, write. Practice, practice, practice.

Jax and

About the Author:  Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.

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