Writing Exercises: "The Basics of Dialog"

This week we will continue our little break from the constant posts about tips on finding time to write in your work weeks and actually discuss writing craft. Like last week, we will focus on dialog and particularly, the basics. Now let's ask the most obvious, two-part question, that pops into our minds: what are the basics and what makes you qualified to explain them?

To which I answer: the basics are pretty much just structure a writer should be aware of (and refreshed on), and I have no idea. I'm a writer and am as pretentious as they come.

Now that that has all been established, let's go over some general rules:

1) Dialog is never gratuitous

Now, you've heard some variation of the expression: "writers need to learn the rules first before breaking them." This kind of falls under that exact rule. If dialog is going to break the narrative, you definitely need to have a very good reason for doing it.

For example, maybe your character is eavesdropping on a random conversation in the market street of a dystopian futuristic civilization. The people your character is eavesdropping on does not necessarily have to tell your character what they need to be doing next, they could simply offer some exposition of the world or a topic related to whatever may be stressing your character in that moment. For the love of god though, whatever the topic, make it have purpose in the story. Don't make us listen to two random people talk about tube socks while we're, say, tracking down an assassin with a sniper rifle.

2) Each time someone talks, you must begin a new line of text

I am guilty of forgetting to do this sometimes but it is very important to remember to do this. When Sally and Sue are arguing on the page, make sure the argument is clear and either character's dialog begin after you press the enter key.

3) Capture the rhythm and cadence of each speaker's voice, language, and words.

Although many shutter at this aspect of writing dialog, you'd be surprised at how easy it is to master this particular skill. Now, this will take a LOT of study but read your favorite books by your favorite authors and notice how clearly you tend to interpret the character's voices in their dialog. Here's an example of what to look for in terms of different voices of dialog:

Pippa hesitated before she asked: "Can't you just give me something to do? I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to be doing right now." Malcolm smiled understandingly at her and nodded.

"That's entirely understandable," he said, "but where would be the excitement in that? Wouldn't you much prefer to discover something for yourself?"

4) Avoid heavy use of dialect

Famous saying: less is more. Paragraphs of dialog alone are exhausting and distract your reader from the story itself. If you try to sell an accent too much, you come off as mocking and condescending. Some writers thoroughly enjoy rigorously long dialog, and thats ok, but again: make sure longer dialog is a tactical choice.

5) Instead of dialect, use these techniques

-whether it is the first page of a book or a chapter, if I'm opening with a character speaking I make sure his speech patterns are clear. An example of this: if a character in your story suffers from a stutter, make sure he stutters in that first line of dialog. You want your audience to be able to recognize your characters without even knowing their names.

-Soon after the previous step, get into the habit of capturing the character's voice (cadence, speech patterns, inflections, music, etc) so that you can simply add two dialog tags every time they speak.

6) Use simple dialog tags

"said" is your best friend in the whole world. Its the most polite, non-intrusive word that works for you. We can add other tags like, "he lied," "she stuttered," but you're not going to use those ALL the time, just on occasion when it calls for it. Stick to said unless the occasion requires anything else and you'll be fine.

7) Make them move and talk and twitch--all at the same time

This one goes back to the required thinking of perceiving your characters as actual people. When we talk we fidget and glance about and mess with the necklace dangling around our neck or scratch at the frustratingly itchy bug bite while we discuss things with one another. Your characters need to as well. Here's an example I use often:

"Well," Drake said, shrugging a shoulder. "I guess we'll just have to turn back, unless you want to try your luck with climbing an electrical fence." Dom stared at the rusted metal barrier before him, gnashing at the inside of his cheek as he contemplated how quickly he could tackle the fence before electrocution set in.

"I can do it," Dom said before dragging his bottom lip against his upper teeth. He looked over at Drake as soon as he noticed the silence between them had lasted uncomfortably long. Their eyes met and Drake shook his head at him.

"Uh, no. No you can not."

With the above example, we see in the shrugging of Drake's shoulder's he's defeated to the idea of their interacting with an electrical fence while Dom conveys a thoughtful habit of dragging his teeth against the inside of his cheek. The body language of either character here is completely different and their dialog matches. That would be precisely what you want to look into doing when writing scenes that involve dialog between more than one character. When exploring or refining y our dialog, these are the basic points every writer should definitely be trying to hit when they write their character's dialog.

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