10 Mar 11 ways to create great dialogue
I love languages and Italian, as we all know, is particularly passionate and evocative.
Years ago, I spent a summer learning Italian in Perugia. I have a vivid memory of sitting on sun-baked steps eating a mozzarella-filled panini dripping with olive oil and fresh oregano. I remember thinking, ‘There is nothing better than this.’ I’ve never tasted a sandwich like it.
So even though my grammar is very rusty and I’ve forgotten half my vocab, just being in the class made it all rush back. Afterwards I walked through Leichhardt – little Italy, for those who don’t know – and wanted to say ‘Ciao’ to everyone I met.
Of course, it wasn’t the exercises that made me excited, it was watching the teacher and being part of the group. I was mesmerised by her gestures. How she joked and drew everyone into the conversation; how she listened, her head cocked to the side. How she conducted the evening class as if it was an orchestra.
Capturing how a person talks is crucial to making your characters come alive on every page.
Here are 11 ways to keep your dialogue fresh:
- Interleave dialogue with action. This helps create a scene so the reader feels like they are seeing something in real time. i.e. She picked up the cup. ‘It’s chipped,’ she said. ‘Mother won’t be pleased.’
- Use ‘telling gestures’ that reflect the character of the person who’s talking. These also help to break up quotes.
- Condense an exchange. We don’t need every ‘um’ and ‘aagh’.
- Paraphrase some sections as a way to cut to the chase. If you paraphrase, you don’t need punctuation, as you’re not quoting the person word for word.
- Edit your dialogue to the strongest moments. Avoid those waffly bits – this is especially true in fiction where there’s a tendency to let dialogue drag. Keep it sharp.
- Include information – or exposition – in dialogue. Be aware this needs a light touch (especially in fiction.)
- Show what isn’t said between characters with ellipsis. i.e. ‘I was hoping you’d stay …’ she trailed off.
- Capture the rhythm of how a non-English speaker talks, rather than relying on dialect.
- Include a few foreign words to get the flavour of the language & include the English translation. i.e ‘Basta! Enough!’ said the mother as the child stamped her feet. (You can italicise the foreign word if you want.)
- Keep with ‘said’ as your speech tag. Writers often worry that ‘he said/she said’ gets boring, so they replace it with umpteen other words. Actually we don’t notice these tags when reading and it’s distracting if you have ‘hollered / murmured / responded’ etc.
- Be careful with swear words. They come across much more strongly in text than in speech.
So over to you, how do you use dialogue to humanise your stories?