“That can’t be right.”
These are the first lines of three different stories. Notice anything? They all start with a child talking. Forget setting and description. Open the child’s mouth and hear what that child has to say.
Three Ways to Use Dialogue
“Stop!” yelled Tim. Amy whirled around. “You left your stuff.”
“Thanks,” said Amy, taking her backpack. She felt silly for running down the hall. She’d already missed the bus.
Let conversation carry the plot. There is time for narration and back-story. Why was Amy running down the hall? Maybe Tim and Amy will take a walk together and discover something. So will the reader. Weave action and description with dialogue. Your readers should be able to see and hear the characters in their heads.
Too often, we start our stories too early. By the time we understand our character’s background, the reader is yawning and reaching for something else to do. Chances are, if you involve the reader immediately in the story, he or she will understand our character’s motivation by the end of the story.
I don’t mean that you should always start your stories with people talking. Sometimes, a sentence or paragraph is required to set the mood. But just as an exercise, try writing a scene beginning with talk. Take your story-child to a park, a zoo or a bus-station. Let the child talk and find out what happens. You may be amazed at how fast the story unfolds. Let dialogue quicken the pace your story.
Watch children at a library or a bookstore. They will flip through a book and select a snippet to read. And more often than not, they are reading dialogue. Dialogue means at least two people talking. It is not idle chit-chat, unless you want to show that the character is concerned with the trivial. Dialogue moves the story forward. And it gives the reader a chance to get to know the characters you have created first-hand.
Give everybody talking a unique voice. For that, you have to let your characters talk in your head. A young child may speak of being scared of the dark or loving the whoosh of the slide. An older child may complain about homework. A teenaged girl may agonize over and over-analyze the actions of a boy she likes. Foreign kids may pepper their speech with their native language. Let your characters talk to YOU. I do that and sometimes the chattering in my head is so loud that I cannot sleep at night. Although this may seem like an insane thing to do, you won’t regret it. My characters love to talk and they do things that surprise me. I pick up my pencil and scribble down what they’re saying as fast as I can. Let dialogue bring a flat, puppet-like character to life!
Dialogue: What It’s Not
Staying true to your characters doesn’t mean that you must use slang, bad language or dialects. It is distracting, difficult and entirely unnecessary. Readers will supply the accent when they read it. Dialogue is meant to resemble people talking, not a literal transcription. My very first writing teacher, Peggy King Anderson, said, “Dialogue is the illusion of conversation.”
Five Rules to Remember:
Dialogue is one place where your mechanics can get sloppy. So brush up. You don’t want to have a great story sent back because the editor is wary of working with someone who is careless.
Rule 1. Always change paragraphs when you change speakers.
“Molly’s gone!” said Tim.
“She’s in big trouble,” said Mom, glaring.
Rule 2. Tag your dialogue.
It isn’t always clear who said what in a long exchange or when the characters first start talking. Help the reader, especially the beginning reader. It’s enough to say, Tim said, said Mom, etc. Keep it simple. You’ll bring attention to the tags if you use perfectly correct verbs like, responded, answered. Use them sparingly.
Rule 3. Make sure your characters say, speak, yell or shout those words. The words will NOT glare, laugh or blink.
Wrong: “She’s in big trouble,” glared Mom.
Right: “She’s in big trouble,” said Mom, glaring.
Right: “She’s in big trouble.” Mom glared.
Rule 4. Use correct punctuation.
Spoken words and punctuation marks, like commas, periods, question marks, dashes and exclamation points go inside the quotation marks. Do not capitalize the beginnings of tags unless you start a new sentence. Here is a scene containing several examples of correctly punctuated dialogue.
“That can’t be right.” I think aloud in my math class.
“What?” asks Mr. Hatch, turning around.
“You can’t divide by a minus b,” I say slowly, “because earlier you had set them equal to each other and division by zero ...”
“...is illegal.” Mr. Hatch completes my sentence. I hate that.
Rule 5. Read it aloud.
I always read my stories out loud to see where I stumble. But reading dialogue aloud will help you to hear whether the speech sounds natural.
Dialogue: it’s not just people talking. Let it carry the plot, quicken the pace and bring your characters to life. Lee Wyndham said it best. “Let them do the talking!”
1. John C. Hodges et. al. 1994. Harbrace College Handbook (Twelfth Edition). Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
2. Vincent F. Hopper et. al. 2000. Essentials of English (Fifth Edition). Barron’s Educational Series.
3. Lee Wyndham and Arnold Madison. 1989. Writing for Children & Teenagers (Third Edition). Writer’s Digest Books.
"Dialogue: It's Not Just Talk" was first published in the Oct. 2003 issue of ICL's Rx for Writers.