Dialogue: the five main uses

‘Narnia! It’s all in the wardrobe, just like I told you!’

As hard as it is to believe, the first girl & duck creative writing course is now over. I will blog about it and celebrate its little triumphs over on Baxter Street soon. But this here is my serious site. Ahem. This site is for teachin’ and sharin’and inspirin’. It’s not for gossip and idle chitchat. So. Put down that teapot. And let’s talk about…dialogue.

Our dialogue needs to lively and straight to the point. Let’s kick off with a few Dialogue Taboos.

Avoid talking heads, ie characters standing around yapping like ventriloquist’s dummies. Our characters should be speaking within some kind of engaging context. What’s going on around them as they speak? Keep your eye on that. Allude to it in the text. Czech-Marionettes-group-czech-marionettes.0890

Think about these guys  next time you’re writing dialogue. Never write wooden dialogue. (I was going to give you a ventriloquist’s dummy. But they’re too bloody scary. An awful prompt. You might never write carefree dialogue again).

Avoid dialogue that is circular:

‘What’s your name?’ said Albert.

‘My name is Jen,’ said Jen. ‘What’s your name?’

‘My name is Albert,’ said Albert.

‘Hello, Albert,’ said Jen.

‘Hello, Jen,’ said Albert.

‘Do you mind if I torch this page?’ said Jen.

‘Be my guest,’ said Albert reaching for the petrol.

Also, dialogue should ring true. Try to let your characters speak for themselves. We should never force our characters to say something just because we think it’s appropriate or it furthers some agenda that we’ve been nursing. What is spoken must be authentic, for the story and for the character. That’s all. Authentic. If we force an agenda into our dialogue we are guaranteed to fall flat. I’ve seen this before, in work that I’ve been assessing. It’s like a slap in the face when you come across it as a reader. It’s like backflipping out of an enchanting fictional world into a dry old nonfiction treatise. It’s awful. Jarring. Don’t do it. Please.

We must be aware that spoken dialogue differs from written dialogue. ‘But it sounds like that in real life,’ is no defence in the Creative Writing Court of Dialogue Misdemeanours. In real life we rarely speak in complete sentences. We also hesitate, double-back, repeat ourselves, cut each other off. We can take half an hour just to say goodbye. Snoozeville! This rarely works in fiction. Especially fiction for children. Keep things moving and keep that dialogue snappy. It doesn’t have to be high art but don’t let it be boring. Kids enjoy reading dialogue so make sure yours is holding up. Ensure that it’s entertaining. This bears repeating. Kids love reading dialogue. As children’s authors it’s our job to hone it.

Okay. Let me follow through on the promise I made in the title. I don’t want to be accused of using click bait! Basically, dialogue should do one of FIVE things. (There are probably more, but five is a nice place to start. If you think of more Dialogue Chores please pop them in the comments):

  1. Move the plot forward: ‘Billy-Jo,’ cried Mary-Lou. ‘There’s a body floatin’ in the river!’
  2. Reveal character: ‘Get that stinkin’ cur away from me,’ said Mr Grim, raising his shovel. ‘I hate dogs.’
  3. Express ideas: ‘There is a problem,’ said Ava earnestly, ‘with humans and greed. Do you know of it, Angus Jack?’
  4.  Create conflict: ‘I brought you a glass of milk,’ said Judith.

‘Get out of my room!’ yelled Dylan, slamming the door in her face.

 5. Reveal backstory or other important information:

‘Yes, yes.’ Martha was still trying to heave the cat off the table. His claws were tangled in a doily. ‘But you’re always going on about the facts. Examine the facts, Martha. The facts never lie, Martha. Blah, blah. Can’t you ever just, you know, go with the flow?’ Jen Storer, The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack.

This is a good example of dialogue earning its keep. It reveals Martha’s character (she’s forthright and impatient). It’s dynamic (no talking heads here, Martha is struggling with the cat as she speaks). It reveals backstory — we learn about Angus’s obsession with facts and his tendency to be a bit uptight. Plus we see how Martha disapproves. Thus a snippet of their history is revealed and at the same time a source of conflict is foreshadowed. This snippet of backstory also reveals more about Angus’s character, so he is further developed in the reader’s mind. All in all, this dialogue is workin’ it!

Note also there are no speech tags in this section. We know it’s Martha speaking because this has been established earlier on. Also her actions are being described as she speaks, so she’s tightly linked to the dialogue. I would probably only do this in middle grade fiction. Not junior fiction. But of course, there are always exception.

‘I’ll go over this again,’ said Jen.

Dialogue tags. Do not overlook this tip. ‘Said’ is an invisible word and for this reason it is wonderful. ‘Asked’ is kind of similar, although personally I’m not so fond of it. These verbs (or tags) don’t mess with the pace or make your reader stumble. Use all other dialogue tags with discretion. Aspiring authors always use too many elaborate dialogue tags. Everyone is exclaiming or mumbling or exhorting or asserting. Dialogue tags are like adjectives (see week one). Too many make our work look amateurish. Screamed, shrieked, murmured, bellowed, whispered. These are handy verbs but they should only be used when necessary and sparingly. Also, do not use too many exclamation marks! They are exhausting to read! Remember, every time you use an exclamation mark you are shouting at the reader! In the beginning, reserve exclamation marks for dialogue only and even then be careful! Do not use them in the body of your text! Especially while you’re still establishing your voice! For exclamation mark overkill, read some Enid Blyton…

‘Are you still with me?’ said Jen.

In children’s literature we must always attribute dialogue (ie tag the speaker) if there are more than three characters speaking. In junior fiction we must attribute it even if there are only two characters speaking. Young readers quickly lose their place in dialogue (and so do tired editors and agents). Help them along. Gently guide young (and tired) readers. Do not leave them struggBSB-BookFairy_zpsc90a93bb.jpgling or scratching their heads. Again, this is where ‘said’ comes in so handy. We don’t see it or stumble on it, but it directs us anyway. It’s the kind, invisible hand of the Story Fairy. Let said work for you. It’s ever so humble and works hard for free. Freeeeee!

Good luck with your dialogue. Remember, the best dialogue usually appears during the rewrites. Don’t be disheartened if at first you find yourself floundering. Dialogue is tricky. We  perfect it over time and with endless frustrations. One of my girl & duck students said,‘Oh my god. I suck at this!’ Not at all. Let it roam wide and free. Let it be stilted and circular and nonsensical. Then hone it. Let it be rubbish at first. There’s plenty of time to fix it. Be gracious. Grant yourself time to perfect your art. Lots of time.

Enough said, yes? 😉

©Text copyright Jen Storer 2016

©Featured image, Wait! copyright Jen Storer. Original art. Mixed media, collage, acrylic paint, pastel pencil

11 Replies to “Dialogue: the five main uses”

  1. This is a brilliant, succinct look at dialogue, it’s uses and the common pitfalls. “Thank you Jen,” said Renee, before rushing off to edit her dialogue.

    1. Hi Megan, Great to see you over here in the g&d space! So glad you found this helpful too. Please go ahead and share and link and do all that cool stuff. Thank you! xo

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