Participants: Ellie Holmes, Kirsten Heskeith, Elizabeth Holland, Gerald Hornsby, Anita Belli, Maria Johnson, Rik Lonsdale, Sandy Stuckless, @VScreaming, Bradley Galimore, @JNathanialc56, @TFiredrake, Kathryn Barnett, Elizabeth Eckstein, Thorne Ryan.
Although we didn’t have a guest this week there was a lot of expertise in the room. I learnt a few things from this discussion. Rather than summarise I have tried cutting and pasting comments. They are not necessarily in the order that they were tweeted and there may be one or two where I have attributed them to the wrong person for which I apologise.
What does good dialogue look like?
Sandy: If I can hear the conversation in my head and it flows, it’s good dialog.
Elizabeth H: To me when I’m reading (and hopefully when I’m writing) good dialogue is engaging and either moves the story on or allows you to get to know a character and their personality/ relationship with others.
Kirsten: Yes, it has to have a role, but not read as though it does!
Anita: Good dialogue brings a scene alive and moves the action forward. It enables us to hear the characters in their own voice
Maria: Good dialogue is realistic, authentic conversation, just like you’d have in real life. ‘Action beats’ as dialogue tags are great at mixing up the pace. Honest dialogue that gives you an insight into the characters’ thoughts & personalities.
Elizabeth H: Authentic conversation is a good point to make! Dialogue should include colloquial languages, etc… to make it more natural.
Gerald: Good dialogue should also bring out some of the character behind the person; it should ‘read’ well, be realistic
Anita: (It should sound natural) But also, we need to take out a lot of the umms and errs to make it readable. And that’s before we get to dialect!
Kirsten: I just think dialogue is fun. I like reading it and I like writing it. I think it brings a piece to life
Anita: I love listening to how people talk, or at least I did, back in the old days when we could sit in cafes with a notebook, or just be out and about mingling. I jot down the best of them.
Elizabeth H: It can be really difficult! I try to imagine the characters having the conversation in my head and that really helps to know whether it flows and is believable.
Gerald: It should also be used appropriately. It can be used to break up exposition, and vary the pacing of the story.
Deborah: When writing an Irish man’s dialect, I watched Leap Year the movie a few times and jotted down expressions. It was a good excuse to watch a favourite rom com
Anita: A good ear is a gift. Being able to capture it on the page is a challenge. An actor once told me that he got a typical phrase from a dialect and when he felt the accent drifting, he would go back to that phrase in his head.
Gerald: Also, beware of using too many different dialogue tags. “She said” is perfectly acceptable. It’s not always necessary to tag the speaker in a two-person exchange
Elizabeth H: This is something I struggled with at first! The first story I wrote is still on my desktop waiting to be edited (one day) and I just know it’ll be littered with ‘she saids’ I’m still trying to stop using ‘she said’. I’ve improved but I know there’s still a long way to go! It’s a pet peeve of mine to have to re-read a line to see who said it, so I overcompensate in my own writing
Maria: Ah I like the variety and probably lean to using more than ‘said’, more so in my historical fiction, but that’s also because I’m trying to go for a ‘not quite modern day dialogue’ feel to capture it being another era/not quite our world
Elizabeth E: Avoid novel dialogue tags, stick with said and asked, unless there’s a volume thing going on, then shouted, cried, whispered will do. And add mannerisms. Let them fidget with a loose button, peel an orange, have a cookie. Visualise the scene without the sound on, then add that.
Maria: I’ve heard pardon the pun! there’s) quite a debate about the use of ‘said’. Some think it should all be ‘said’ as it’s then almost invisible to the reader, others say ‘said’ is boring & try to mix it up eg replied, answered etc. I try to have a mix of both.
Kirsten: I had heard the same and always put ‘said’ but one of my editors likes me to mix it up with whispered, replied, asked etc. I like variety too. It’s interesting. I have deals with two publishers ATM and there does seem to the a ‘house style’ I think
Ellie: That can be a bit of a nightmare. One publisher I work with likes double quotes for speech where almost everyone else wants single quotes. Tailoring an MS for them is extra work.
Kirsten: I find dialect really tricky. I’m new to it. If someone, say, says ”ere’ not ‘here’ do you put ”ere’ every time?
Elizabeth H: I wouldn’t concentrate too much on the way characters say things. Perhaps include a handful of words to emphasise just to reflect your character’s personality and then consistently use these throughout. I think consistency is key!
Kirsten: That’s what I’ve done so far, but I don’t know if it’s annoying to read. For example, hubbie and I say ‘bath’ differently but I was writing out a conversation between the two of us, I would spell it the same for both of us.
Maria: I read a book once where the spelling would be emphasised for different dialogue pronunciation eg capitalising the ‘H’ of ‘has’ (I think, it was a long time ago so can’t quite remember) to show the character was trying to speak in ‘Queen’s English’ while in school.
Deborah: Can there be too much dialogue?
Elizabeth H: I think there can be. I know when I’m reading if the dialogue isn’t moving along quick enough then my mind starts wandering and I get bored.
Gerald: It depends. It can get boring unless the dialogue is extremely important and lively. I would always break up long sections with some reactions, or pauses, or sighs, or something.
Maria: I think too many stretches of long paragraphs can make a scene feel stilted not just because that’s not how people actually talk in an informal situation. If your characters need a long chat, use lots of different voices & split up with tags or interject description.
What are the common mistakes that new writers make with dialogue and what were/are your bad habits?
Anita: Usually layout/formatting. Also, too many tags which slow it down. And trying to be too clever in the use of tags, she says, effusively …
Gerald: One I saw was a writer deliberately trying to avoid “said”. Characters shouted, exploded, tutted and sighed pieces of dialogue. Which is just weird.
Ellie H: I think new writers can be too literal in their dialogue – they include every little detail. Whereas more experienced writers know the dialogue needs to look and feel realistic but with the boring bits taken out.
Anita: As Alfred Hitchcock said @EllieHWriter! About films rather than writing. ‘Real life with the boring bits taken out!’
Rik: Common mistake: not using contractions in dialogue Bad Habit: Using another character’s name in dialogue to avoid assignments.
Rik clarified this by adding:
Fictional dialogue is never truly ‘realistic’. It omits all the sub vocals and pauses, mispronunciations, erms, ums etc. And it also has to have a purpose in terms of the story. So, it must both sound ‘real’ but be ‘unreal’.
Deborah sked why this might be a bad habit and Rik explained:
Okay now and then, but when I come to edit and read the dialogue, it’s often more frequent than is needed and makes the dialogue less fluid, less realistic. If the dialogue is realistic assignments become invisible to the reader.
Deborah: When to start a new line after dialogue is something I have had to learn
Kirsten: For me, using … when someone trails off or is interrupted. I used to do it ALL THE TIME
VScreaming: I was re-reading a story I once liked and in once scene there was an Alex, Alexa, Alexis, Lexi, Alice, and Alison. No there was no lampshading, either. I nearly had a migraine.
Sandy: My most common failure is making all my characters sound distinct. Also, if it’s too formal, it throws me off. On the flip side, if you’re using too much dialect and actual speech patterns, it can be jarring
Maria: Punctuation typos, e.g., speech marks in the wrong place that can be jarring /misleading for reader and take them out of the scene. I was reading a book like this recently and though the story was good, the speech typos did take me out of it a bit.
There was a discussion on using em dashes and dots:
Maria: So difference would be A. “I was wondering what to do about…” B. “I was wondering what to do about-” Others may disagree, but for me the 1st one looks more like someone unsure/trailing away in thought, whereas the 2nd person is being interrupted by someone else.
Elizabeth H: I’ve kept away from interruptions because I’ve always been a little afraid on how to properly convey them. Thank you for your input today! You’ve given me the confidence to write the odd one in
Maria: I use em dashes to interrupt I don’t do it very often as I don’t want readers to find a character annoying, but sometimes it suits. Eg in my current project my MC has just discovered stuff that scares/angers her, so she is interrupting people she isn’t very calm.
In a tweet after the chat editor @ThorneyRyan helpfully explained that an Em-dash is so called because it is the length of an M, and a En-dash is the length of an N.
How do you give each character a different voice?
Ellie: If you have a clear idea of your various characters in your head then their voices should automatically be distinct when you write their dialogue. Knowing your characters well is the key.
Anita: My character #RubySixpence has little phrases she uses a lot. Flattened vowels, Northern inflection and calls everyone ‘dearie.’ Her voice is in my head a lot!
Ellie: I think you really need to have explored your character’s personality. Have a conversation with them in your head. What words do they use? Are they sarcastic? Blunt? Do they speak softly? Is their voice gruff?
Gerald: I think word choice (fancy words or simple ones), dialect, pacing, physical tics when they’re speaking (scratching, looking elsewhere) etc
Sandy: A character’s career is a big driving force for me. They will use language associated with their job. Their upbringing / setting is also important. A country person will talk differently than a city person, etc
Bradley: Specific wordplay and speech patterns. Every person you know, speaks using a certain lexicon. If you pay attention both identifies them and also shows you inconsistencies in their statements.
Maria: Be consistent with how characters speak e.g. little mannerisms or tags that might be unique to them. Trying to show their personality in how they might interact with others.
Sandy: I write a lot of SF&F, which means alien/fantasy creatures. With urban fantasy particularly, I’ll have my fantasy character not understand a turn of phrase or reference from pop culture. Definitely helps distinguish them.
What challenges have you experienced in writing unfamiliar dialect or language (maybe a different era)?
Ellie: When I’m writing historical stories, I have to watch no modern phrases are creeping in. I do a separate fact check style check on the dialogue on an edit to weed any of these out.
Elizabeth H: In person I’m a little socially awkward and find interacting with people I don’t know quite daunting. Because of this, I found writing dialect didn’t come naturally to me. Now, I try to study the way people talk (in person or just on television) and this has helped.
Gerald: Which is one reason why I write contemporary novels! I’ve written dialogue for American characters, which is difficult to keep up, especially with a ‘light touch’. I just listen to the voices in my head
Anita: My biggest challenge was writing The Traveller and The Rose set during the Spanish Civil War. How much Spanish to include (with translation, obvs!) And how to present Rosa’s Spanish accent? She called the hero Kit Brown – Keet Broouun – adding as many vowels as possible.
Deborah: I have occasionally used Google translate if I need to say a few words in a different language
Anita: Me too! And you can even listen to the pronunciation! Did you have this issue in The Borrowed Boy @DeborahKlee?
Deborah: In The Borrowed Boy I did a lot of research on Poland and Polish phrases. There are lots of Polish sayings in that book
Elizabeth H: Do you find yourself struggling against the British English/ American English? I’ve had American readers tell me certain words are spelt wrong because it’s the British spelling.
Deborah: A Copy editor asks which dictionary you favour e.g. Oxford English. Make a decision then stick to this throughout.
Rik: I think the setting should determine the spelling. Which would make China interesting, but you get what I mean? If I need to place a character geographically, I’ll look up some common phrases in the area and drop them into the speech pattern. But I would never write dialect. If the word choice is accurate there should be no need. I have a ‘west country’ character in my WIP, but give them no accents at all, only a couple of key phrases that they use, just enough to hint at the region. This avoids anyone having to ‘translate’.
Anita: Using regional phrases is a good way to express a sense of place. I hate having to ‘translate’ what a character is saying and too many punctuation marks to manage the dialect just clutter up the page IMO
Maria: With my historical fiction novels particularly, I decided not to try to include actual Brythonic Celtic language lol. I just used a few Celtic names etc and tried to have my characters speak in a slightly different way to contemporary English. My MC sometimes says that someone is speaking in a ‘different tongue’ or that he notices a different accent when speaking to others.
What is your top tip on dialogue for new writers?
Elizabeth H: At first, don’t overthink it! For your first draft, write what feels natural – you might surprise yourself.
Gerald: Speak less; listen more. Also: don’t listen to what people are saying, listen to how they are saying it.
Ellie: Read your dialogue aloud – if it is easy to read and clear to follow it works. If not, it needs an edit.
Sandy: Read it out loud. If it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth, consider revising. That’s my top tip for the whole story, actually. I catch so many glitches when I read it out loud.
Maria: Avoid endless paragraphs of speech, unless your character is actually giving one! Have lots of dialogue with different characters, people interrupting. Pepper with different tags & action beats or even lines of description to give the reader a breather.
Anita: Before you can write convincing dialogue, you need to listen to people talking. When you have written it, read it back out loud. Don’t use fancy tags, she expostulated. Don’t make it banal. Make sure it has a purpose to move the action forward or display character
Rik: There seems to be a consensus about reading aloud. I use the ‘read it to me’ function in word often. Especially for ‘sticky’ passages.
Next week’s Friday Salon Tweet Chat is on the different routes for getting published.