Do’s and Don’t’s of dialogue.


Someone asked me what is my absolute favourite writing resource that I’ve come across in the library yet. The BMCC libraries offer a wealth of information on the topic so I really had to stop and think about it. What I settled on was a book written by editor Jessica Morrell called ‘Thanks, but this isn’t for us: a (sort of) compassionate guide to why your writing is being rejected’ (try say that fast ten times).

I referenced her in a prior blog post but I’ve decided I want to make a return to the book (seriously guys, it’s a great book). This time I want to touch on the do’s and don’ts of writing dialogue.

In her book, Jessica brings out that several writers already have a natural talent for writing great dialogue. However, most tend to need a little push in the right direction (or in rare cases, a down right shove). “Dialogue is never a copy of real-life speech – it’s more like conversation’s greatest hits,” states Jessica. “Good dialogue is spontaneous and natural, but it leaves out the boring parts of life and is often a power struggle or power exchange… it shows instead of tells.”

So what sorts of dialogue works and what doesn’t?

Types of bad dialogue may include:

As you know Bob “This type of dialogue is implausible because the characters already know the information but are chatting for the sake of dispensing information.”

Chitchat “Often writers include chitchat in their dialogue because they wrongly believe it lends an air of reality to the story. The truth is, chitchat is deadly in a story.”

Clipped “Beware of the characters who sound like an Englishman after dental surgery (“Precisely. I say. Exactly. Just so.”),” states Jessica. “While dialogue is necessarily concise, if it is too clipped and understated, it will not contain the breath of life.”

Drama Queen “Sometimes characters are drama queens and every time they open their mouths what comes out is excessive or hysterical or crazed or outraged.”

Expert Witness “Some genre writers, such as mystery writers, have special problems because they need to introduce a series of witnesses or experts to explain important facts or happenings in the story,” states Jessica. There doesn’t need to be a wall of text surrounding the witnesses’ story. Instead “use a character that is quirky or a character who is giving information under duress to create tension in the scene. Break up the dialogue with action and reaction along with mannerisms, gestures, or small bits of setting woven in to keep the scene from bogging down.”

Name Dropping “This means that simply the characters repeatedly refer to one another by name,” states Jessica. “We (just) don’t do this in real life.”

On the Nose “On the nose dialogue is a screenwriting term,” states Jessica. “It means the speaker says exactly what he means all the time, and explains exactly what he wants or needs.”

Preaching and Speech Making “The problem with preaching and speech making in fiction is that it is often the writer’s thinly disguised opinion on weighty matters,” states Jessica. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing about topics that matter to you – in fact, your best writing will often stem from your passions. But it is wrong to concoct characters who give speeches to espouse your views.”

Adverb Explosions “Good dialogue doesn’t rely on speech tags (she said wearily, he spoke wearily, Bob ventured sullenly) to express emotions or describe what is being said,” states Jessica. “In general, keep the speech tags to a basic, “he said,” “she said” format because we want the tag to be invisible. Use substitutions for “said” sparingly. While the best attributions are simple, use verbs when it’s necessary to describe the quality or volume of a voice, but not to describe the content of what’s being said.”

So what are some ways to come up with effective dialogue?

In this chapter, Jessica also brings out some ‘Quick and dirty tips for writing dialogue’.

-Eavesdrop on life, paying attention to how a variety of people talk.

-Listen for places where people don’t say what they mean.

-Collect quick comebacks.

-Learn the rules for punctuating dialogue and avoid exclamation marks.

-Ask yourself what your characters are feeling as they talk.

-Read your dialogue scenes out loud to hear where they lag, become entangled, or are just plain dull.

-For realism, look for places in your story where your characters might interrupt one another, their sentences trail off unfinished, and their dialogue overlap.

-Don’t think too hard or overanalyse what your characters need to say. Good dialogue comes from our instincts and intimacy with your characters.

-While it’s fine to demonstrate what the speaker is doing or to insert gestures and mannerisms, don’t make the character’s actions overshadow what he says.

Most importantly of all, have fun!

Happy Writing. 🙂


Source: Thanks, but this isn’t for us: a (sort of) compassionate guide to why your writing is being rejected by Jessica Morrell


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