Monday 9 September 2013

Tips for Writing Dialogue by Caroline Lawrence

AKA The Case of the Good-looking Corpse
In real life, dialogue is usually pretty dull. But we novelists need to learn to write dialogue that sounds real but is interesting. Why?

• Dialogue identifies a character.
• Dialogue reveals motives and desires.
• Dialogue helps exposition.
• Dialogue breaks up blocks of text.
• Dialogue can provide comic relief.

Ideally, your most important characters should have such a unique voice that the reader can tell who is speaking solely by length of sentence, choice of vocabulary and various verbal ticks.

I’m a visual person so my ear for dialogue is not as good as some writers’. For this reason, I’ve made a special effort to pick up tips and advice. Over the years, I have compiled a checklist of things to keep in mind I write dialogue. I often refer to these once I’ve written my first draft and apply them in subsequent passes. Here are twenty in no particular order:

1. Period slang. When writing historical fiction, have characters use a few period words or slang phrases that immediately tell your reader where and when you are.
‘You dam scalawag. That stung where you shot me.’

2. Have characters interrupt each other. In real life we don’t always wait for the other person to stop talking.

3. Answer a question with a question. The response can either imply the answer or be used as avoidance. (Or occasionally indicate that the speaker is Jewish.)
‘You want your ma should look like a saloon girl?’

4. Accents. These can be suggested with words and word order.
‘Sure and it’s a bold notion. But have you ever worn a corset at all?’
5. Have your character’s dialogue reveal his attitude towards the person he is talking to. For example, a woman would speak differently to her lover than to her arch-enemy.
‘Don’t be angry, Jacey,’ she spoke in a pouty little-girl voice. ‘I only wanted to spend time with you.’

6. Two paths. In a dialogue, character A often ignores character B and vice versa as they talk pursue their own agendas. Sometimes these dialogue paths converge and diverge several times in the course of a scene.

7. Jargon. A character’s vocabulary will often provide clues about their profession or obsessions.
‘Me and my pard Frenchy had a nice little claim in Flowery Canyon. Then a passel of Frisco Fat Cats came and ruined us.

8. Left-field. A response might seem irrelevant, surprising or unconventional. But this might be a clue about the responder’s preoccupation or mental state.
9. Chop-chop! Some characters might chop words off the beginning of sentences and other characters might tail off without finishing a thought.
‘You had dinner?’

10. Good grammar/bad grammar. An extremely useful way to show a character’s education and even social status.
‘They called him that because they don’t know no better. Cheeya be his real name.’

11. Delayed gratification. Character A asks a question and B talks about other things before answering A’s question.

12. Self-adjustment. A character starts, then stops and tries a new approach. We do this all the time in real life.

13. Profanity. From ‘Gee whiz!’ to the worst four-letter words, each character will have their own pet swear words. And if you’re writing historical fiction these can be period slang.
‘Dang my buttons,’ said Mr. Sam Clemens. ‘I do believe I am lousy.’

14. Me, me, me. Some characters are so self-obsessed that everything they say concerns them.

15. Displacement. Character A might express anger, affection, passion towards Character B because they are afraid to directly address Character C.

16. Subtext. A character’s choice of words often reveals what s/he is feeling below surface.

17. Freudian slips. We all do it: find ourselves saying something we didn’t mean to say. This is a great way of revealing hidden motives and desires.

18. Actions. Non-verbal reactions can be a form of dialogue, if a character drops an object, faints or bursts out laughing in response to a statement or question.
‘Jace will never marry you,’ I said.
She blew out smoke, hard & down. 

19.  Silence. The lack of response in dialogue can sometimes be as powerful as any word spoken or shouted.
Violetta narrowed her eyes at me. ‘What is Jace to you anyway?’
I did not reply.

20. Hodor. Sometimes even a single word can carry a world of meaning. In my current work in progress, The Case of the Bogus Detective, I have one character speak another’s name three times but with three different facial expressions.

P.K. Pinkerton's 3rd detective case is set in Carson City, Nevada Territory in early 1863

The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows is out now in the UK and  the USA


michelle lovric said...

what a brilliant checklist. Thank you, Caroline!

Theresa Breslin said...

Concise info, Caroline - good source for Writing Circle Folks?

Ruan Peat said...

Great Ideas, thank you, I can often find a voice or dialect but can't think into another POV. they sounds like me!

Juliette said...

I haven't had a chance to read PK 3 yet, but I'm delighted to hear a 4th is on the way :)

blogoftreez said...

A good guide to writing. Thank you

Caroline Lawrence said...

"Hodor!" she said happily.