This is the second of two posts on writing good dialogue in fiction. The first part is here.
Conversations involve more than one person, so if one character is doing all the talking then the conversation ccould turn into a monologue. Reading lengthy passages of speech is tiring, and readers may get bored and skip forward to avoid reading everything the character is saying. Most of us would not speak for a long time without another person chipping in or without pausing to take a drink or to cough or sneeze. Or we would just stop to draw breath or gather our thoughts.
Remember that anything said by a character should move the story forward. If a character really does have a lot to say in one go, adding in action beats, interruptions from the other character(s) and mention of surroundings will break up long chunks of speech. And, of course, the viewpoint character will have thoughts and feelings, which can be used to help break up dialogue. Perhaps they might wish that the other character would stop talking!
Consider the example below. Imagine that the person speaking to Steph has a lot to say. Including Steph’s’ thoughts and some action beats breaks up the dialogue and tells us that Steph is fed up and also lets us know her opinion of Bea.
Steph folded her arms and nodded. She wanted to scream. How much longer was this going to go on? Bea never stopped to draw breath. She really did like the sound of her own voice.
Sometimes, it might be necessary for a character to do most of the talking, but breaking up the speech with actions provides more interest for the reader.
Imagine in the following example that this character has been monopolising a planning meeting and has been speaking for a long time. Reading a lengthy passage about planning issues could be tedious, but breaking it up by adding in a pause for him to gather his thoughts and take a drink makes it more interesting. His reaction to the Chair of the meeting tells us that there is some friction. Including some of the information in the narrative stops the reader being bored by reading every little detail of Martyn’s submission to the planning meeting.
‘Planning permission should not be granted.’ Martyn took a sip of water and looked at his notes. ‘I have twenty more reasons why.’ He stared at the Chair for a few moments and smirked.
Martyn had compiled a dossier on the proposed housing development. In fact, stopping this development going ahead had become his main purpose in life. He had been gathering information and interviewing nearby residents for the past year. Several of the reasons for objecting were tenuous. Martyn knew that and realised that his case was weak.
Maid and butler is a term applied to dialogue where the characters tell each other information they already know. It is used purely to give the reader knowledge of the backstory. It’s unrealistic as people would not have detailed conversations about things that are already known to them.
It is usually resolved by recasting some of the exposition into narrative.
Consider the following rudimentary example, which carries on the theme of the body parts in the bin from part one of this post:
‘Jane, you made me jump,’ said Carmen.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jane. ‘The bins are usually emptied on a Wednesday morning, and they haven’t been done this week.’
‘I’m not sure why. The black one for general waste and the green one for garden and food waste were due to be emptied this week, and the blue one for paper is next Wednesday.’
‘I don’t know what to do. I’m so upset and more nervous than I usually am.’
‘Are you going to be OK? I haven’t seen Ted, your bullying husband, who is six feet tall, with a shaved head and a foul temper for a while. I know you dislike him along with everyone else in the street.’
See the difference once the exposition has been recast into the narrative.
‘Jane, you made me jump,’ said Carmen.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jane. ‘The bins haven’t been emptied this week.’ A tear rolled down her cheek. She was trembling and wringing her hands together.
‘I know and I’m not sure why. They do miss the occasional collection since the pandemic started.’
Bin day was Wednesday. The black bin for general waste and the green bin for garden and food waste were due to be emptied this week.
‘I don’t know what to do. I’m so upset.’
Carmen frowned. Jane was very distressed. She was always nervous, but she was more jumpy than usual today.
‘Are you going to be OK? I haven’t seen Ted for a while. Will he be able to look after you?’
Nobody in the street liked Jane’s husband. He was well over six feet tall, with a shaved head and a foul temper. He tried to intimidate them all. Carmen knew Jane hated him with a passion.
Now, the reader gets to know more about the backstory but without the unrealistic dialogue.
Characters in books should have different personalities, just as people do in real life. Their personalities should be reflected in the dialogue. A loud and obnoxious man may have a timid wife who is usually reserved, nervous and fearful when talking. The reader should be able to recognise her timid nature from her dialogue.
Every time a character speaks, it should be for a valid reason. In the body parts in the bin example, the neighbour has spoken to Carmen because she is anxious to know when the bins are going to be collected as she has something to hide.
By writing effective dialogue it is possible to get to know lots of information about non-viewpoint characters. With the example of the neighbour, we know she is normally nervous and fearful from the way she speaks. We also know that she is now very distressed about a missed bin collection, which is irrational. This information has been gleaned from conversation and the viewpoint character’s (Carmen) observations.
But, of course, everyone is capable of showing a different side of their personality. If our neighbour asked about the missed bin collection, would you assume it was for a sinister reason? If they were abrupt or aggressive when they are usually shy, would that make you suspicious? A change in usual behaviour could be masking something sinister. If someone acts out of character, the reason for the change in behaviour must be relevant to the story otherwise it is pointless information.
Perhaps a character deliberately misleads someone or is a perpetual liar. As long as it is linked to the plot, then it will work. Imagine the character in the example below has defrauded poor Andy, who hasn’t yet realised.
‘I said I was going to pay you next week, and I will. Promise.’ I smiled and thought of my one-way flight to the Cayman Islands booked for Friday.
‘Thank you,’ said Andy. ‘I think we’re going to have a good working relationship.’
Language in dialogue should be chosen to reflect a character’s personality, education, opinions and background. For example, if a character is a pompous academic, they may be prone to being verbose. The reader should be able to recognise who is speaking from the dialogue alone, without the speech being attributed to anyone.
The choice of language should also be in keeping with the era and environment. A reader wouldn’t expect to read dialogue with slang and text-speak in a period romance from the 1920s.
‘Oh, Mr Pemberton, it is delightful to make your acquaintance again. It has been such a long time since we last met.’
‘Indeed, Miss Rose. It was at Lord Grantham’s summer ball, I believe, and you looked delightful in yellow silk, and you danced all night.’
‘Are you having a laugh? It was minging and I was troliled.’
It’s an extreme example, but shows that the language of the era of the story must be portrayed accurately. If the story was about someone who time travelled back to the 1920s from 2022, then using out-of-place dialogue would be exactly what was needed.
Characters are also likely to speak in different ways depending on who they are speaking with. For example, someone who is in an unhappy relationship won’t speak the same way to their partner as they do to their best friend.
Dialogue should be altered to reflect changing emotions. If someone is getting upset, they may speak in short sentences or struggle to find their words. Short sentences or even single words would probably be used in high-intensity situations such as raids, shootings, robberies or chases. And the same goes for sex scenes or moments of passion. Delivering a monologue in these situations is not realistic.
Read part one on writing good dialogue here.
- Good dialogue should avoid monologues where possible. If a character really does have a lot to say, break up the dialogue with action beats and mention of their surroundings.
- Avoid maid-and-butler dialogue by revealing some background information in the narrative.
- Keep dialogue consistent with a character’s personality and background. Choose language that is realistic and appropriate to the moment and the era.