Thursday, 6 October 2011

Writing winning dialog in fiction

Dialog accounts for at a conservative estimate 30+% of all novel content.  That being the case, care should be taken in architecting it.  Yet this is a huge area which writers come into difficulty.  Why?

This article attempts to probe some of the reasons for the disconnect and explore the major areas of dialog writing.

The truth is, in my opinion, that it is hard to create engaging dialog—at least ones that advance plot, deepen character, and make readers feel somewhat secure in that they’re reading a valuable piece of literature, not something crowded and cluttered by author commentary.  It takes many revisions to get the effect, particularly for fiction longer than novella length.

It really does matter what the characters say.  For example, a good author is always asking questions such as:

Are the characters wise?  Are they sad?  Funny?  Just pricks?  Opportunists?  Angels?  Are they sometimes good, sometimes bad, or largely unpredictable, domineering?  The list goes on.  After pegging the character an author should make sure that it reflects in the character’s speeches.

Consider also the choice of characters.  Is there variety in the story?  Yes, an author can load it up with all kinds of wise-cracking labourers or hoity-toity intellectuals, but is he/she adventurous enough, and daring enough to put a wide enough mix of characters in the story to get an interesting blend of interactions with drama—and still be left with a successful story?  Challenging yes!  But doable?  Hmm . . . There are authors who are wise, and some who are impulsive, both who may take the extra steps to get their characters to speak from their prospective voices throughout the story, consistently.  Ah, quite a deal of work—and requiring a certain amount of careful planning.  Maybe months?  Years?  Time spent in the dark reflecting—gnashing, mulling over constant pros and cons?

(1) Dialog tags: ‘said’ versus the dreaded ‘saidisms’

The age old debate continues.  Should the author stick with the tag ‘said’ or use the myriad modifications of said—such as murmured, whispered, bellowed?  There are advantages of both methods and I’ll explain.

Said usually creates a clean exposition style, but is more conservative in execution; unless handled by a master, the writing becomes quickly dull:

. . . Mary said
. . . John said
. . . Mary said
. . . John said

One master of this approach is J.R.R. Tolkien.  In The Hobbit there is very simple language throughout the story, and most of the tags use ‘said’.

“No good roasting ’em now . . .” said a voice.
“Don’t start the argument all over again, Bill,” he said.
“Who’s a-arguing?” said William.
“You are,” said Bert.
. . . and so on and so forth

Part of the reason for Tolkien’s success, I believe, is that he is writing primarily to a children’s audience (or at least the young reader).  But the bigger part of the picture is that he’s an expert in the field, and the content of his story, description, setting, word choices are masterfully done, and as readers, we don’t give a fig whether the hobbit ‘says’ something or ‘murmurs’ it or just plains ‘belts it out’.  We are completely absorbed into his tale, and I think this is the main point.  Good story development is not dependent on using saidisms or not using them.

This really became apparent to me when I listened to the audio tapes for The Hobbit years ago narrated by Nicol Williamson, the magnificent “Merlin” in the 1981 film Excalibur.  Now this man has an excellent theatrical voice.  Because of his Shakespearean training and his acting experience, he made the characters come alive, while simultaneously switching voices in mid step.  It was always ‘he said, she said’, but . . .

The impact!

Wow.  Again, depending on what style the author is aiming for, I think, will dictate what camp the author chooses to be in.  A word of caution—excessive use of either mode will probably lend itself to problems.

A more adventure-action oriented story, for example, is likely to use more saidisms than one in a literary fictional style.  For example, the Rogues of Bindar series is action-adventure all the way and has text littered with saidisms, which in James Blish’s view, would cause him to have a conniption—or at least roll over in his grave.

“It is unwise, said Blish, to use synonyms for ‘said’ in writing dialog (‘He shouted. . . . He repeated. . . . He instructed. . . . He grunted. . . . He half-whispered. . . . He lipped thinly. . . .’) because such tags are redundant at best—the content of the sentence ought to tell the reader right away that something is being shouted or repeated—and at worst they become preposterous.”

Well, Mr. Blish, I wouldn’t go so far as to bow to your credo (which I find dogmatic), but I understand the point of keeping the text clean.  Taken to an extreme though, an author can lose out on the colour and emotion by stripping out all saidisms and becoming a strict advocate of the ideology.

The story Rogues of Bindar is an intensely character-driven story and demands colour, and so saidisms suit the style—James Blish or not.  I think more pertinent is that awkward handling of tags can be a greater evil than the use of saidisms.  For example, if dialog tags get heavy and disrupt the pacing, then the author has something to worry about.  Should the tag come before the quote or after the quote?  Again, this depends on context.  If there is a great big line of linear dialog, then it’s obvious that the tag order is important and should be broken up or possibly removed.  For example:

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” yelled Quinn.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
“I don’t know, who do you think?” countered Quin.
“Quit monkeying around and help me with this,” ordered Jeb.

While the dialog is passable, too many linear tags make it a bit stultifying.  Slight adjustment:

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” yelled Quinn.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
“I don’t know, who do you think?”
“Quit monkeying around and help me with this.”

We don’t need the last two tags because we already know who’s talking.

While this sequence might be okay in itself, it is still a bit clipped and could be improved—even spiced up to include more of the character’s feeling, and hence sounding more natural.

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” Quinn yelled down from his perch.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
Quinn puckered his face into a scowl.  “I don’t know, who do you think?”
Jeb’s tone was the one now sounding not too impressed.  “Quit monkeying around, son, and help me with this dreadful machine.”

The last two pre-tags, though unnecessary, offer a pause and character emotion, and serve to break up the linear order of the first snippet.  It depends on the author’s tone: is it necessary to spell out Quinn’s and Jeb’s mood at this time?  The emotions could easily be depicted in completely different context.  This is one of the reasons that dialog tags are critical in conveying the meaning of the prose (saidisms or not—‘said’ can fail here, if adjoining sentences are not included to explicitly spell out the speaker’s emotion.)

“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
Quinn remained neutral.  “I don’t know, who do you think?”
Jeb tried to show compassion to his son but was unsuccessful; he was a father, and he was used to being in command.  “Quit monkeying around and help me with this dreadful machine . . .” he murmured.

Note the use of . . . (ellipses) in dialog for a pause and the combination of saidisms ‘murmured’ with pre tags ‘Jeb tried to show compassion . . .’

There are many many ways of constructing the dialog.

My final thought is that not only do the actual words matter, but the quote-tag combination working in conjunction with the rest of the dialog creates a strong reader impression.  Especially when the narrative supports the dialog, we are prepared for the characters’ next actions and we know, or have some clear idea how they would speak or act under different circumstances.  It is this underlying innateness that marks a key factor in creating reader absorption.

When a writer is going over his/her manuscript, I think it’s a wise idea to analyze each dialog structure and try to assess whether it can be improved or not (either the words in dialog, or the tags, their order, etc).  Ex—if the pacing seems wrong, too fast, too slow, how can it be fixed?

(2) Using profanities in dialog

This is a sensitive issue and is largely a question of style and genre.  For example, one would expect to find more swear words in thrillers and mainstream ‘shoot-em up type’ cop serials than one would in literary fiction or historical romance.  YA tends to have a great deal more of modern vernacular mixed with expletives.

If profanities are employed—and used tactfully and inserted here and there in appropriate situations, I think the device can be quite effective.  For example, one character swearing more than others.  I see a lot of modern fiction overusing expletives to unnecessary degree, a mode which may be amusing for the first few paragraphs, but after, quickly becomes irritating.

As a general rule, I don’t use expletives in my writing because I think there are better ways of dealing with the situation and getting the message across without have to resort to crass techniques and still deliver a great story.  Because I’m largely a fantasy writer, using  profanities in character dialog is a no-no—a definite red flag for anachronism.  I think it’s a poor man’s way out of engaging the reader when there are obvious alternatives.  For example, a fantasy writer can easily make up original epithets, like “Drakes Teeth!” or “Daga’s teats!”.  Certainly, not as punchy as good old-fashioned English profanities, but perhaps it keeps the story more real, and the old anachronistic ‘jar’ out of the equation.  If there aren’t alternatives, or the author’s intent is to use forceful language, then so be it.  I’m the last person to be pedagogic.  But if a story wholly depends on expletives alone then I rather wonder about the depth of the story.  Admittedly, there are exceptions . . .

Christian Cameron, a successful historical fiction writer of the Tyrant series, creates a surprising amount of realism in his delivery of his ancient tales.  He focuses on the heroes’ personal lives and the struggle, the harsh reality of ancient warfare, the crude politics of the era, and a detailed, second-by-second brutal account of sword and shield battles.  Dialog is very snappy here and to the point, with little use of tag embellishment—a device that keeps the story moving and the word count down.  But perhaps a little terse for my tastes.  Cameron liberally uses modern day expletives in his expansive epic Greek adventures.  At first glance, this usage jarred me a lot, because I couldn’t see a character using the F- word every page or so, but I got used to it.  Obviously the style isn’t a problem for his numerous fans.  Yet, I could not help but think that modern day epithets would not be uttered by characters 3000 years ago.  Not to be stuffy, I enjoy Cameron’s stories and admire the hero Kineas, but it’s just on this one point I don’t see eye to eye with his approach.

Bernard Cornwell never uses modern swear words in his Arthurian-historical books and in my opinion he is an exceptional historical writer of the genre.  The Warlord Chronicles is a phenomenal example of his prowess and the dialog and narrative had me gripped from the very beginning.  Highly recommended.

Philip K. Dick’s, A Scanner Darkly, uses California 60’s-70’s doper talk scattered with profanity in such a way that it is almost hilarious, despite the sadness of his theme: the woes of substance abuse and the futility of endorsing a paranoia-ridden degeneracy on drug dependence.  This is at best a very difficult art and only a master as Dick could attempt it and rack up as much success as he has received.

A writer who uses swear words judiciously is John D. MacDonald, and he is a master of the craft.  Travis McGee, his brilliant hero bears testament to my opinion.  Here we have an extremely intelligent man who is operating in a brutal world of scammers and murderers and opportunists, who turns himself into a personal avenger, a salvager, a vigilante and hero all in one.  He builds his own code.  He never himself swears that much, if only to create an ambience, whether be it a ruse or some cunning ploy to create camaraderie with his enemy or disarm him or her enough that he can stage an advantage.  The incidental characters—the villains, the lowlifes—are some of the roughest, toughest, meanest set of criminals you can imagine and he lets loose with their dialog . . . but not for long, because it’s not about the fury and fear and evil in their minds . . . we are back in Travis McGee’s head, or in the head of his equally-astute economist-philosopher buddy Meyer.  Hearing the social take on big bad America through their eyes complements the vivid reality of MacDonald’s plots and makes his stories rise a peg above the sea of crime fiction out there.

Contrasted with Stephen King who has uses a degree more bad language in his books (actually almost humorously), but which at times becomes ear-heavy.  Other times it is quite entertaining, and he’s likely the ‘king’ of the style—one example comes to mind, his sardonic protagonist ‘Gard’ in The Tommyknockers.

The closest I’ve come to using ‘expletives’ in a story, is in the near-future SF short, A Simple Lens.  Even with its lack of coarse language, its tone is largely caustic if not mordant and I stick by its success without the use of hardcore language.  Even this exercise was largely put as a challenge to me to write something in a completely different style and was well worth it.

(3) Using words or ways of expressing that a character would never say

It’s unlikely that a pre-teen is going to be using words like ‘preternatural’ or ‘firmament’ unless he or she is so precocious as to be the teacher’s teacher.  Similarly, it is unlikely that an adult is going to be speaking in the hip teenage lingo of today’s youth to his/her son or daughter, or conversely in a child-like voice, unless they have some form of autism.

There are exceptions . . . and here is where original fiction comes into play.

Rogues of Bindar fans will recognize a sophisticated language.  In many of the character speeches there is a style bordering on grandiloquence—at least for the convicts, pirates and hoodlums in profusion.  But thence is the humour . . . Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea—but at least marginally refreshing.  At least two kingpins of fantasy subscribe to this tenet: Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales and Jack Vance in his Cugel chronicles.  My feeling is that there exists a copious quantity of mid-list and bestseller fiction following convention and tradition—so why not try something new?

Also of note is Monty Python—the classic case where we have a group of PHD intellects quibbling over the most trivial thing in the universe, and yet in larger than grandiose terms.  The point being—the actual words spoken are funnier than the situation . . .

To some people at least . . . this is really a test of the credo:

“Rather than accept praise for template cookie-cutter convention let’s risk some bizarre side glances and some ‘I don’t get it?’s for attempting off-the-wall original dialog.”

(4) How to avoid those dreaded inner dialogs!

One thing that always has bothered me in prose is the italic form of denoting inner character thoughts.

Should I break the lock?  No!  It will alert the wrath of the dreaded Helgor guardian.  But, dang it!  The snake was always on the patrol around the perimeter of the dungeon.  Yet . . . how I am to save my beautiful friends?  Can I get to them when they are bit by the guardian’s poison?

This can read like a mental dump.

A preferable solution may be to handle the exposition in narrative:

Breaking the lock would entail the wrath of Helgor the guardian that constantly roved about the dungeon’s perimeter.  Still, to save her friends she must be quick!

The italicized form becomes especially pretentious in overused present tense expositions common in short stories and modern literary forms which try (feebly) to catch trends.

It’s okay, I suppose, used sparingly, but a lot of times the form becomes annoying, if not overdone, and reads like some cheesy, juvenile literary thriller.

If done well, it can be effective.  For example, Steven King, uses a lot of italicized text, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse.  He always seems to nail the character on the head in the end and has a knack for it.  He can pretty much do what he wants and make it work—he has that acuity.  I get annoyed with stories that use excessive inner dialog, especially in dream passages.  I rarely care about a character’s dreams (even if it does somehow advance the plot).  It’s more the character’s actions and waking thought that interests me—particularly in key moments of drama.

 (5) Dialog versus narrative

When should a character speak and when should the narrator narrate?

My first response would be:

(1) A savvy author’s first impulse is to use narrative when there has been a long line of dialog.

Joe said, “. . .”
Mary said, “. . .”
Sue said . . .
Joe said . . .
Sue said . . .
Mary said . . .
etc . . .

Maybe on the third round of Mary’s speeches, it would do fine to write just:

Mary was perturbed at the tone of Joe’s comment and opened her mouth to speak her dismay, but did not oblige.

This slows the story down but the handling might be a good break to the tedium of the ‘said’ structure, adding some breathing space and an interruption of the repetitious character speeches.  Narrative as this replaces the standard speech such as:

“Hmph!” or “Oh, that’s irritating!” or “You irritate me too much!”

H.P. Lovecraft was a master of narrative and rarely if ever used any dialog in his stories.  He used mostly first person narrative, and his word choices and ability to get under the skin of the main characters were eerily uncanny.  He is of an older generation of writers who were very effective at intimate, narrative style.

Jack Vance, another incredibly gifted storyteller, is a wellspring of immaculate and powerful writing-style conventions.  I have learned much from his 80+ SF/fantasy books.  In the short story Guyal of Sfere, for example, part of The Dying Earth series, he uses a simple technique to avoid the italics approach.

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  Then he reflected: this is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition.  I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.

He makes the character’s dialog stay almost as if in narrative.  No quotes or italics and yet the passage reads very naturally.  Compare this with:

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  This is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition.  I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.

It’s okay but almost reads childishly, as if written by a beginner taking a ride on the carriage of thriller writers.

Vance uses a clever handling of the age-old problem, how do characters say their innermost thoughts while alone, and without drawing attention to himself, through italics or some other awkward handling.  Is the character going to talk to themselves, like some mad-person?

No.  There are always alternatives to handle the ‘character alone’ problem, maybe less elegant:

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  “This is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition,” he thought [to himself].  “I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.”

The example is passable, particularly the first line, though the second one sounds a bit cumbersome.  If an author repeats this too many times, it sounds as if the character is talking to himself.

(2) Incidental characters’ dialog can be avoided or prĂ©cised in narrative.  This is especially useful when the number of characters add up in a novel.  Unless the character’s speech propels the story along or adds value, it’s best to avoid it.   Incidental characters’ speeches are the first ones to be nixed.  But how to decide?  When writers’ prose starts to get top-heavy with dialog, I think it’s best to put a cap on it and start stripping text away, or at least condense a character’s quote into narrative or simply move it to a different area, and only if it needs to be included.

The narrator can only really get under the skin of the character, I think.  Other players including the character himself can try to speak the innermost thoughts, but it doesn’t come across as genuinely as in narrative.  I don’t cotton to the more excessive dialog–oriented stories, especially when they’re too jaunty.  For example, even some of David Eddings epic fantasy of the ’80s, The Belgariad and The Malloreon, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I was young, read too much like a screen play.  I couldn’t help but think that as entertainingly popular as the books were—they suffered from a ‘dialog-happy’ problem, where we have a huge pantheon of characters constantly speaking to each other, eating up a lot of pages.

Yes, we get the emotion and flavour quite directly from the speaker but not the subtle nuances of the character’s feelings; we cannot know his/her deepest thoughts.  What is an author trying to do?—Go into a schizophrenic mode and monologue the character in a dire situation every time he/she wants to spill their deepest concerns and fears?

No, best to use narrative.

Whole books can be written on the subject of ratio of dialog to narrative . . . it demands its own blog article.

(6) Proper pacing

Avoid sacrificing the pace of the story for any form of dialog.  Pacing is paramount—so goes my maxim.  If pacing is disturbed, then the whole reader-engagement is jeopardized.  Even if critical dialog advances the plot, I would never recommend compromising the pace of the story for dialog.  If the reader can’t be engaged, then no amount of dialog is going to repair the problem.  The quickest way to disengage a reader is a slow story—but of course the story may not be inherently slow, it’s just that it’s not the reader’s preferred genre, and so, harder for the reader to get into.

It takes a lot of editing and author discrimination to get the tone of dialog and the ratio of dialog to narrative right.  Which brings up the next question:  How to construct dialog?

The classic dialog template is:

“<Short comment>”, said <CharacterX>.  “<Optional more stuff >”
“<Short comment response>”, by <CharacterY>.  “<Optional more stuff>”
“<Short comment response>”, by <CharacterX or Y or Z>.  “<Optional more stuff >”
. . .

We have here the briefest, simplest rendition for character dialog, and most books in third person follow this model.  The character’s reaction and the character’s identity are neatly proposed, and we have the instant response by the other character(s).  Nice?  Yes—but this template can be modified to suit the author’s need.  For example,

Character X yelled, “<something>”
Character Y grinned.  “<offers some response>”
“<Some short observation offered>” by Character Z.

The short comment at the beginning of the paragraph is important and is usually the best way to handle dialog because it responds immediately to the content of the last paragraph—and the reader knows immediately who said it.  Having a preliminary tag potentially disrupts the pacing, but sometimes the reader should know who is saying the words before the quote comes, for special reasons, hence the pre-tag.  I think mixing pre-tags with post-tags is the best way to construct dialog in general.  It’s all about the rhythm and the author with the best ear undoubtedly creates the most natural-sounding dialog.

(7) Characters should speak in their own voice

This is easier said than done.  Some characters are kinder than others, others meaner, so it is natural that their personality should be reflected in their words.  Unless the character is deliberately being the opposite of who he/she says and is playing a role, this is a pretty fail-safe rule.  It seems obvious, but so often is it overlooked by even experienced writers.  I think this is more from authors being too close to their stories.  This is what editors and beta readers and critique groups help out with most.  Dialog appears in character speeches that sometimes doesn’t fit their character or suit the situation—and this again is mostly a result of being inserted hastily to advance the story and thus propel the next line of dialog along.  But I think it’s a bad idea to weaken the character by gluing pieces of dialog together.  There are always better ways . . .

As an example, character X suddenly expresses the need for some complicated or less than intuitive use of the hammer-spike or some special device cached conveniently to undermine the metal that is binding their cage.  Person X though has no background in mechanics or engineering so could never suggest such an abstruse thing.  Better that someone else had suggested the idea, or leave the capricious escape notion out of the idea bank.  Incidents as these smack of ‘deus ex machina’ handling, which ultimately turns off savvy readers.

(8) Medieval dialog: should it be used in fantasy?

There are different schools of thought on this.

“My Lord, you are certainly a martinet to take that pious stance.”
“But surely, your Grace, you should not expect Mistress Razula to act in so punctual and proper a manner!”
“By no means!  Shouldn’t we repair to the parlour, Your Excellency?  The Regent and the Baron de Bront await your illustrious orders!’

A distinctly British or European tone, with lots of royal handling and high-bred airs.

Dialog of this nature certainly adds to ambience.  My feeling is though that if an author is going to start with this style, then there had better be some consistency with the rest of the story, with it not lapsing into modern usages of English and particularly with anachronisms.  This is a very difficult standard to achieve, and though demanding a careful ear for language and scrutiny, it is a very tasking one once committed to.  I think a writer is going to have a challenge ahead of him/her and have to read a lot of classics and expert authors to study the tone and voice and style before feeling comfortable writing fluently in this style.  I don’t mean just reading Jonathon Swift and Treasure Island a few times.  We see this type of flawed drama in the plethora of cheesy TV programs and low-budget King Arthur remakes out there.  All dressed up in their finery, protagonists spout modern dialog.  I know it’s supposed to be witty in some contemporary way—but my sense is that it is implausible, and often comes across as being tacky.  An example of drama-fiction tastefully done and demanding high praise for its realism (dialogue-wise, story-telling-wise and production) is the excellent British Robin of Sherwood series released in the ’80s.  I can’t help but suspect that the popular Merlin series currently running is an attempt to revive some of this tradition, though difficult to match the finesse of Robin of Sherwood.

These are a few of my thoughts on writing effective dialog.  Please feel free to offer any comments.


  1. Great thoughts on writing effective dialogue. My favorite is #7, speaking in your character's voice. As a read great stories are those where the character's interaction with the world and other characters are natural and believable, not forced. It can set the tone for the story and how I feel about it.

    Thanks for being a part of Red's Halloween event.
    Red sent me.

  2. Thanks Na, right on. It's totally the crux of good dialog: the point about being natural and believable. So easy to pinpoint in words, yet so hard to actually manifest. Glad to be part of Red's bash...

  3. Another excellent post, Chris. Do you teach writing?

  4. Red Tash: No,nothing that academic. But thanks for your vote of confidence! Just some guy who taught himself how to hack out a story, (who hated high school English with a passion), but who loved Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.

    Glad you like the articles . . . It’s great to get your feedback!

  5. There's a young author from the KB who could probably use some tutelage. If I haven't ticked him off, considerably, I will send him your way. <3

  6. Red sent me.

  7. Trick or Treat! Thanks for playing Red’s Trick or Treat Bash! I’m looking forward to reading your book on my new Kindle!, Red sent me!