People talk. So do characters. I love well-crafted dialogue. I also enjoy writing dialogue. Sometimes, my first draft of a scene will be a string of spoken sentences back and forth. What people say, and how they say it, means a lot.
As is the case with many aspects of writing, there are probably as many thoughts about dialogue as there are writers (and even about whether it is “dialogue” or “dialog”). The varying opinions about the use, overuse, or under-use of the dialogue tag “said” is just one example among many. For instance, which of the following is better to write?
- “Of course,” Jay said.
- “Of course,” said Jay.
- Jay said, “Of course.”
- “Of course.”
- Jay shrugged. “Of course.”
Does it depend on style, mood, setting, atmosphere… does it matter at all? (It does matter, and I personally think style, mood, setting and atmosphere all come into play.)
Questions arise all the time about conveying character through dialogue, how to treat an accent, how to trail off or show broken trains of thought. Opinions vary about all of these things, some sound, some not so much. Most of this each writer must sort out for him or her self, but there are some good things to keep in mind. Paramount, in my view, is that dialogue should be engaging. It should sound like normal conversation without actually being normal conversation (transcripts of actual speaking are seldom engaging). Everything should count and dialogue should do as much as possible for your story.
Here are a few quotes attributed to some well-known folks (I don’t know how accurate the attributions are) that are food for thought:
- I’m most suspicious of scripts that have a lot of stage direction at the top of the page… sunrise over the desert and masses of… a whole essay before you get to the dialogue.
- A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.
- All of your key interchanges with your characters, I mean, they gonna be good, bad or indifferent just because of the dialogue. And how they talk to each other it is gonna reveal who they are. Who’s smarter, who’s taking advantage of who? Who’s lying? Who’s telling the truth? Who’s in charge? And who’s really in charge.
- I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it.
Stephen King, On Writing
Almost every book about writing has an important chapter about dialogue, and there are even entire books on the subject.
There are great tips floating around, and suggestions, rules of thumb, dos and don’ts, all of which you can either embrace or rebel against. Your choice. But dialogue is important. It can make or break a story. Use if for what it is worth.
“Drink up,” said Ford, “you’ve got three pints to get through.”
“Three pints?” said Arthur. “At lunchtime?”
The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
“Very deep,” said Arthur, “you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.”
From Hitchhiker’s Guide the the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.