Writing Dialogue for Scenes

Tips on Writing Dialogue

by Deborah Greenspan

Dialogue not only needs to sound realistic, it has to accomplish certain tasks and avoid certain pitfalls:

  1.  Dialogue creates immediacy and overcomes emotional distance. It pulls the reader into a scene in a way that exposition cannot. Writing dialogue is necessary in all your pivotal scenes.
  2.   Never write small talk. It’s boring.
  3.   Dialogue should always show conflict. No two people should have a dialogue unless they disagree at some level.
  4.  When writing dialogue, don’t preach unless the character is a preacher-type who can’t help it. No one likes to be lectured, especially not readers.
  5.  Wherever dialogue can be used to intensify conflict, use it. For instance, if you’ve got two people who hate each other but haven’t yet become violent, you can use dialogue to show their feelings. Remember War of the Roses? He said, “I love you.” And she said, “I hate you.” They both said exactly what they meant, but he didn’t believe her. What if it had been written, “I love you, too,” she said, but really didn’t mean it.  This is boring and doesn’t create the tension that writing dialogue should create.
  6.  The word “said” is largely invisible. So use it when needed and avoid using phrases like “she replied, she offered, he suggested, he added, she remarked,” which all mean “said.” You can use these words if you feel it’s necessary, but remember that they draw attention to themselves and rarely add much in the way of plot or character development. Also, when writing dialogue, carefully consider using words that describe body language as part of speech: “she laughed; he smirked.” These are actually actions that should be shown as action, not to replace the word said. For instance, compare these two scenes:

Using Replacements for “Said” Instead of Action When Writing Dialogue:

Judy strolled through the crowd, the end of summer festivities flowing all around her. Although she’d tried to avoid him, her father’s raspy voice caught her in mid-stride, and she shivered, though it had nothing to do with the weather. “Judy,” he said. “You really know how to throw a party.” “Thanks, Dad,” she smiled. “That’s high praise from someone who’s dined at the White House.” “Ah, don’t make so much of it,” he responded. “I’m just another soldier.” “Oh, is that soldier of fortune or fighting soldier? Mercenary? What kind of soldier would that be?” she smirked “Oh, probably the kind that steals women and demands tribute,” he laughed. “Like a Roman soldier. How like you, Daddy. Conquest always was in your blood.” “Winning is like a drug. Better than sex. Better than—” Thank God, she was saved from hearing what else it was better than by David’s greeting.

Writing Dialogue Using Action Instead of Replacements for “Said”:

Judy strolled through the crowd, the end of summer festivities flowing all around her. Although she’d tried to avoid him, her father’s raspy voice caught her in mid-stride, and she shivered, though it had nothing to do with the weather. “Judy,” he said. “You really know how to throw a party.” The smile on her face felt pasted on. “Thanks, Daddy. That’s high praise from someone who’s dined at the White House.” He tipped his cocktail at her and donned his sheepish I’m just one of the guys look. “Ah, don’t make so much of it. I’m just another soldier.” “Oh, is that soldier of fortune or fighting soldier? Mercenary? What kind of soldier would that be?” His eyes glittered, predatory and dangerous. “Oh, probably the kind that steals women and demands tribute.” He laughed and slipped his arm around his latest trophy wife. Judy bit her lip and looked away. Why was he still living? “Like a Roman soldier. How like you, Daddy. Conquest always was in your blood.” “Winning is like a drug. Better than sex. Better than—” Thank God, she was saved from hearing what else it was better than by David’s greeting. Darling David, who actually liked her father.

EXERCISES:

Consider how much more we’ve learned about the characters from this exchange in comparison to the first one. Then, for practice in writing dialogue in scenes, work on one of your pivotal scenes in detail using dialogue, action, and description. When you finish, go over your scene again and rewrite it. Condense dialogue; get rid of as many words as possible. Make sure the feelings you want to convey are in the spoken words or action, and that you’re not supporting them with phrases like “he argued” instead of showing the argument in the dialogue and in action. For more information on writing dialogue and other aspects of fiction, go to The Secret Sex of Books: A Writer’s Guide by Deborah Greenspan published by Breezeway Books.

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