Writing tips: Dialog

Hey everyone,

One bit of feedback I get pretty regularly from readers is that the dialog in the Shelby McDougall series works. I think this means that readers find the dialog natural, with a cadence and rhythm that mirrors the way people actually talk. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve learned a few things about dialog:

  • Avoid expository dialog. That is dialog that explains what’s happening. Dialog that provides backstory. Dialog that reveals plot points. I found a great blog post on this: How to Write (and Not Write) Expository Dialog.
  • Be sparing with dialog tags, those pesky little words like “said,” “asked,” or “explained.” They’re easy to overuse and they can really slow down a scene. In my case, I try to keep it simple, avoiding words like “chuckled,” “exclaimed,” or “shouted.” (I know I don’t do this all the time!) A good post on this: Dialog Tags: What Are They and How To Use Them
  • Keep it natural. Use contractions. Use character names occasionally. Avoid fillers like “Well” or “Let’s see”.
  • Leave things unsaid. This is the hardest thing. What can be left out but inferred with gestures, glances, container, or movement?

Here’s an example of dialog from The Found Child, the most recent book in the series. I enjoyed writing this scene. Shelby has just arrived at her brother’s home and she’s hanging out on the front porch with her niece, Annie (12) and nephew, Max (4). Max has set up an elaborate Hot Wheels track while Annie is reading.

   “Very cool, Max,” I said. Looking at Annie, I asked, “How are you?” I reached over to give her a hug, happy I was part of their family bubble.
   “Good,” she picked up a book sitting on the porch next to her and waved it at me. “I’m already ahead in my reading list for school.”
   “Excellent,” I replied. “That’s great. What are you reading?”
   “It’s called Stars Beneath Our Feet and it’s about some kids in Harlem who like to build things. It’s good,” she added, “but I like adventure books better.”
   “That sounds interesting,” I said. “How’s school going anyway?” I asked.
   Her tone grew serious. “It’s okay,” she sighed.
   “How’s Olivia?” I asked.
   Annie scowled. “She’s fine, I guess.” I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. Max barreled past, turquoise car in one hand, yellow in the other.
   “Watch, Aunt Shelby, watch.” I smiled at him, while saying to Annie, “You want to talk about it?”

What I like in this exchange was that I was able to manage a conversation between three people of different ages. And now, several months after publication, I, of course, can see lots of ways to improve this short section.

In these three paragraphs alone, I could probably remove all the dialog tags (said, asked, sighed) with no loss to the flow of the conversation.

   “That sounds interesting,” I said. “How’s school going anyway?” I asked.
   Her tone grew serious. “It’s okay,” she sighed.
   “How’s Olivia?” I asked.

In these two paragraphs…

   Annie scowled. “She’s fine, I guess.” I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. Max barrelled past, turquoise car in one hand, yellow in the other.
   “Watch, Aunt Shelby, watch.”

…the paragraph break is in the wrong place. The break should be before “Max barrelled past…” with the dialog attributable to him (the four-year-old) in the same paragraph. Well, that’s the beauty of hindsight!

Dialog is a tricky thing and definitely takes a lot of practice. Here’s a great post on how to learn to write dialog from my writing mentor, Mary Carroll Moore: Dialog Do’s and Don’ts: Crafting Lively and Believable Back-and-Forth on the Pages of Your Book.

Until next time,

Nancy

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