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About Writing Right: The Blog

"Strong Talk - Writing Effective Dialogue

Anyone can put a few words between two quotations marks; but not everyone knows how to make those words sing. If that's your problem, here's a tip you can take to the bank. Describing your character's dialogue to your reader means you're writing ineffective dialogue.

Sad but true, and it's all too common a shortcoming in writers of all calibers.

Now, admittedly, different writers handle dialogue differently. That's one of the things that helps to establish a writer's literary voice. It's one of the things that defines his style. But there are effective ways of handling dialogue, and there are ineffective ways. Take a look at this example:

"I hate you," she screamed shrilly.

What's wrong with that, you ask? The writer tells us that she screamed and that her voice was shrill. Isn't that merely an example of good descriptive dialogue, of being specific?

Well, it may be specific, but it's not good dialogue. Why use the weak adverbial modifier, "shrilly," to get the point across when there's a better, sharper, more effective way of delivering the same message. Take a look at this:

"I hate you!" she screamed.

Surprise, surprise. By leaving off the adverb "shrilly" and emphasizing the word "hate" through the use of italics, we've killed two birds with a single deletion. We've economized the writing, and we've strengthened the dialogue. Now, when a reader reads "I hate you!" he gets the message at a glance. In fact, provided there are only two people in the conversation and it's clear who is saying what, you may not need the words, "she screamed," at all, thus strengthening the dialogue even further:

"I hate you!"

Of course, there are ways to strengthen dialogue without putting words in italics. Take a look at this example:

"I don't want to see you anymore," he said, a defiant, final tone in his voice.

Not bad. But how about this?

"You're out of here. For good!"

Wow, totally different words delivering the same message, although the second example does so through the clarity and finality of the words. And there's no awkward explanation needed. Hmmm. You know what? There really is something to this effective dialogue stuff.

Strength through Words
Another way of creating strong, realistic dialogue is by replacing the word, "said," with a stronger, more defined, more graphic word. Here's the weak way:

"Bring him to me," he said. There was a certain authority, a terseness to his voice that Charlie couldn't mistake.

Now we have not only weak dialogue, but also weak supporting structure in the explanatory sentence following the quote. A sure way to get around those shortcomings?

"Bring him to me!" he snapped.

Do you see how changing a single word--deciding how the speaker's voice is supposed to sound and then using a more powerful verb to communicate that thought to the reader more effectively improves the dialogue? A word of caution when using this technique. Use dialogue-defining verbs such as "snapped" sparingly. Use the general word, "said," as the rule-of-thumb and all other verbs as the exception. See how overusing other verbs can end up sounding stilted:

"What are you doing?" John demanded.

"Washing my feet," Bill explained.

"That's a queer thing to do at this time of night," John offered.

"It's a queer thing to do at any time," Bill proffered.

"I guess so," John admitted.

Ouch! Does that sound a bit awkward, as if the writer is just aching to be precise? As if he's hung up on telling the reader more than he needs to know? Uh-huh, I think so, too. Here's a much simpler way of handling the same exchange:

"What are you doing?" John asked.

"Washing my feet."

"That's a queer thing to do at this time of night."

"It's a queer thing to do at any time."

"I guess so," John said.

Notice how leaving out most of the attributes helps to move the dialogue along. Assuming the reader knows there are only two people in the conversation--John and Bill--it's pretty easy to guess who said what after the introductory question is attributed to John.

Rambling Man
By now you're beginning to see how using weak verbs and rambling explanations to illuminate a character's dialogue only weakens the dialogue and slows down the reader's progress. Descriptive passages belong in all writing, of course, but not where dialogue is concerned.

What's that, you ask? What if you have a whole lot of information to get across and don't want to sound as if you're rambling? Check out this example:

"Go get me my hat and coat so that I can put them on and leave here, because I no
longer feel wanted," Mary said annoyedly.

Well, there's an easy way around that rambling, disjointed dialogue, too. It's as easy as cutting Mary short, as in this example:

"Get my hat and coat," Mary snapped. She knew when she wasn't wanted.

By shortening Mary's dialogue and moving part of what she was feeling out of quotes and into a straight expository sentence, we've made the dialogue crisper and more believable without sacrificing any of the thoughts we wanted to get across--namely, that Mary was leaving because she knew when she wasn't wanted.

I think you get the point. Dialogue has to be crisp, sharp, and pointed to be effective. Once you begin stringing it out in a prolonged effort to drive home all of your thoughts, once you fall into the trap of using adverbs as descriptive modifiers to enhance your dialogue, you've lost game, set, and match.

So, keep your dialogue believable; keep it simple; keep it crisp. You'd be amazed at how far you can go in creating a really strong piece of writing. Make your dialogue ring with the sound of reality, and you'll keep your readers coming back for more.

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