The role of dialogue
Dialogue is important in all fiction. It sits with description, exposition, action and inner monologue in narrative balance. It can slow pace to real time. It helps to “show”. (More about that next time.) It can convey character, plot or atmosphere. It’s even better if it can do all three at once. It should never be used for exposition.
Setting out dialogue correctly
It’s really important to get this right. You can look very amateurish if you don’t get that right. It varies from language to language. Your best guide is a good book. Note the punctuation: it is included in speech marks with a comma at end if followed by a tag. There are several examples below. Study them well.
• Use said, whispered, shouted and asked only but mainly “said”.
• You don’t need to tag much if only two people are speaking.
• You do need to tag if more than two are speaking, if it goes on for more than half a page, and for reluctant readers.
• Try tagging with actions where possible.
Dialogue shouldn’t be too natural
· Try writing down some natural dialogue you hear. How engaging is it to read?
· Look at a few sample scripts. These are available from the BBC Writer’s Room. Note the stylisation.
· We are used to stylisation.
Dialogue should only say important things
Study this extract from Bryony Pearce: Angel’s Fury
“Well.” The Doctor stroked the edge of the table. “It seems we’ve found your talent.”
I shook my head. “No.”
She nodded towards the gun, needing to add nothing more.
“Part of you has, and you’re beginning to access that knowledge.”
I thought of Zillah and a sob hiccupped from my closed lips.
“What’s the matter?”
“Seth gets to sculpt, Kyle’s a musician, Panda draws and what’s my special talent?” The words exploded like water from a dam. “Putting together murder weapons.”
The doctor fondled the rifle. “I imagine there’s more to it than that. Your talent will extend a long way beyond just assembling a gun, so I’d better have a range built on the grounds.”
My hands tingled and I rubbed them on my thighs. “You want me to shoot?” (161)
• There is no small talk.
• Hints of subconscious awareness are beginning to emerge.
• The question at the end implies shock.
• There are no direct tags.
Dialogue should differentiate the speakers’ voices
Study Judy Waite: Game Girls
Fern seems to manage to relax. “You didn’t finish telling me about the bloke with the shoes.”
“Oh – right. We went up to the Love Nest – still with all those Shoe Express bags – and he wanted me to get out of my skirt and top. So I did that – and then he opened the first box and produced some red patent stilettos. He asked me to put them on. It was all very polite, though. He was a real gentleman.”
“He wanted you to do it wearing shoes?”
“No, that’s just it. He didn’t want to “do it”.”
“He paid for you to sit there wearing his shoes?”
“It was a bit more than that. I had to walk about in them, while he watched. And then he opened another box – and another – and another.”
We have clue that Fern speaks first. She is nervous, shows discomfort and seem incredulous. Alix is dismissive. This is a two person conversation so it’s easy to follow. We’re guided too by subject matter. However, there is something of each girl in each of her lines. What would happen if we cut them up? Would we still be able to tell which girl said what?
Each speech must give some information
Study Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (10-11) and see how every line of speech tells us something new.
“We could do it you know,” says Gale quietly.” Gale has an idea. That’s the sort of person he us. Yet he is a little unsure of himself as he says it quietly.
“What?” I ask.” Our protagonist has to ask. She is practical and straight forward.
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it,” says Gale.” We see more of Gale’s feistiness here. We also see that he has faith in our protagonist. He believes they can both make it. That increases her ability also in the readers’ eyes. Here we also learn something of the setting. We are quite near the beginning of the text. The “district” obviously has a hold as the notion of leaving it means that they would have to shelter in the woods.
“If we didn’t have so many kids,” he adds quickly.” This is intriguing. We know that Gale and Katniss are young adults so won’t have children of their own. We know then immediately from this that both of them are taking responsibility for other young people. It’s also interesting that Gale adds this quickly. He anticipates how Katniss will respond. He knows her well.
This short exchange is followed by some inner monologue and then followed by:
“I never want to have kids,” I say.” We might assume that the responsibility of what she is already doing weighs heavily on her.
“I might if I didn’t live here,” says Gayle.” We are given further information about his character here. He’s an open sort of person and likes people. The place they live in, however, is not friendly.
“But you do!” I say, irritated.” Katniss is the practical one and Gale’s tendency to ream irritates her.
“Forget it,” he snaps back.”
There is not always total harmony between the two friends. Often small talk is avoided. Each line of speech tells us something new.
- Katniss practical and straightforward.
- Gale is feisty.
- Responsabilty weighs heavily on Katniss.
- Gale is an open person and likes people.
Dialogue should convey mood, character and reaction
Study Sara Grant: Dark Parties
I almost believe it’s possible. “Ok,” I say. Think slogan.
“Open with care.”
“Open and closed.”
I’m not sure that makes sense. “Don’t we need to make sure people understand we’re talking about the Protectosphere?” I ask.
“Yeah, right.” She mashes and bangs a little more. She dips her finger in the bucket. Her hand is red and looks like it’s dripping congealed blood. Congealed blood with bits in it. She rubs the red between her fingers. “I think it’s about done.”
“But we don’t know what we’re going to write!” I smooth a curl behind my ear and think of my grandma.
“We better figure it out. Once this stuff sets, we can’t use it.” She drops the bat in the tub. A spray splatters the yellowing tiles. She grunts as she hefts the bucket out of the tub. She closes the shower curtain and turns on the water.
“No Protect Us Fear,” I say as the slogan pops up in our head.
We detect the excitement. Note the body language. There is also caution. An atmosphere of secrecy is hinted at.
Your checklist for dialogue
- Is it set out correctly?
- Is your tagging right?
- Is it too natural?
- Does it only say important things?
- Does it differentiate speakers’ voices?
- Does it convey mood, character and reaction?
- Does each speech give information?
- Does it multitask?
Study the following text. Can you set the dialogue out correctly? The answers are supplied below.
In there. He nodded his head towards the top drawer. Close the door will you? I don’t want anyone else to know. Barney opened the drawer. He took the sketch book out and the small tin of water colours. Get the water commanded Nick. Barney pushed Nick up to his desk. He spread the plastic sheet out for him and arranged the latest picture so that Nick could get to it easily. He unscrewed the tube of white and then opened the lid of the tin. Hurry up with that water, man! Nick’s face was going red. That always happened when he got frustrated. Barney hurried over to the sink with the jar. He had just filled it and carried it back, when there was a knock on the door. Barney covered the picture with a sheet of kitchen paper. He opened the door. Mrs Fletcher was standing there with a tray of drinks and biscuits. Thank you, Barney, she said. Nick sighed. Mum. Do you mind? Barney and I have got things to do. You need to drink, love Mrs Fletcher replied, quietly. Barney, do you think … Yes, it’s all right, Mrs Fletcher. Really. Mrs Fletcher nodded and smiled. Nick pulled a face. I grew out of baby cups a long time ago. He pointed to the invalid cup. Barney walked over to the tray and took the cup. Don't let it get to you he said. Nick didn’t resist as Barney held the cup up to his lips. He even managed to lift his hand up so that it looked as if he was actually holding the cup. Barney tipped a little of the fluid into Nick’s mouth and then straightened the cup up as he waited to hear Nick’s laboured swallow. At last it came. Then he was able to tip a little more into Nick’s mouth. Slowly, slowly, the cup emptied. Barney took a few sips of his own drink to keep Nick company.
Dialogue exercise answers
“In there.” He nodded his head towards the top drawer. “Close the door, will you? I don’t want anyone else to know.”
Barney opened the drawer. He took the sketch book out and the small tin of water colours.
“Get the water,” commanded Nick.
Barney pushed Nick up to his desk. He spread the plastic sheet out for him and arranged the latest picture so that Nick could get to it easily. He unscrewed the tube of white and then opened the lid of the tin.
“Hurry up with that water, man!” Nick’s face was going red. That always happened when he got frustrated.
Barney hurried over to the sink with the jar. He had just filled it and carried it back, when there was a knock on the door. Barney covered the picture with a sheet of kitchen paper. He opened the door.
Mrs Fletcher was standing there with a tray of drinks and biscuits. “Thank you, Barney,” she said.
Nick sighed. “Mum. Do you mind? Barney and I have got things to do.”
“You need to drink, love,” Mrs Fletcher replied, quietly. “Barney, do you think …?”
“Yes, it’s all right, Mrs Fletcher. Really.”
Mrs Fletcher nodded and smiled.
Nick pulled a face. “I grew out of baby cups a long time ago.” He pointed to the invalid cup.
Barney walked over to the tray and took the cup. “Don't let it get to you,” he said.
Nick didn’t resist as Barney held the cup up to his lips. He even managed to lift his hand up so that it looked as if he was actually holding the cup. Barney tipped a little of the fluid into Nick’s mouth and then straightened the cup up as he waited to hear Nick’s laboured swallow. At last it came. Then he was able to tip a little more into Nick’s mouth. Slowly, slowly, the cup emptied.
Barney took a few sips of his own drink to keep Nick company.
“Do you know what? I get really stuck on setting out dialogue[GJ2] ,” said the Creative Writing student.
“It’s not really all that difficult,” replied[GJ3] the teacher. “Do remember to start a new paragraph when a new person speaks[GJ4] .”
“Oh, is that when you start a new paragraph in the middle of a conversation?” The[GJ5] student looked as if a light bulb had gone off in her head. “And what are the rules about where the speech marks go?”
“They always go around the speech[GJ6] , with the normal punctuation marks inside it[GJ7] ,” said the teacher[GJ8] , “although you use a comma instead of a full stop at the end, if you are assigning the speech. And if you put the assignation in the middle of the sentence, you don’t start the second bit with a capital letter and you put another comma in front of it.”
“It’s actually a good idea to have this in front of you when you’re working on a dialogue in a piece of fiction.” Now it was the teacher’s turn to grow a light bulb[GJ11] . “Or, even, have a well written book open as you work. You can see the pattern. It’s easier than trying to remember[GJ12] .”
“How often should you put “said”?”
“As little as possible. But actually you must use it if otherwise the reader wouldn’t know who was saying what – for example if the conversation goes on for a long time or more than two people are speaking[GJ13] .”
“Okay. But doesn’t it get a bit boring for the reader?”
“What about other words – like expostulated, screamed and so on?”
The teacher shook her head. “Best not to. They draw attention to themselves. “Whisper”, “shout” and sometimes “reply” are all right.”
“Okay. Thank you for your help.”
“My pleasure. That’s what we’re here for.”
Further workCheck the dialogue in your novel to date. Are you obeying all of these “rules”? As you read, pause and look at how the dialogue is used and formed
[GJ5]We have used no word to assign. We have reconfirmed that this is the student speaking by telling you something else about her.
[GJ8]The teacher has not finished her sentence so we have a comma here and no capital letter at the beginning of the remaining speech.