Thursday, November 18, 2010

He Said She Said: Finer Points of How to Write Dialogue

At least my life is following the script - true to form, now that I'm done with the main business of moving (though in the upcoming days we need to pare down our belongings yet again, and put enough in storage so that what we're taking to Memphis actually fits in our car), I'm sick.

Sick enough with a potpourri of ailments that, while none of them are all that bad individually, the combination provides a potent cocktail of misery that's had me in bed the last few days.

It's just as well, because I hardly managed 10,000 words during last year's NaNoWriMo, and between the move and the illness...well...I'm just glad I'm not under deadline at the moment. Being sick while under deadline is the pits.

So rather than talk about being sick, I thought I'd write about writing dialogue.

I love dialogue. It's one of the parts of writing that's the easiest for me, that's the most fun, the most gratifying. Here are some things I've found to be true and helpful about writing dialogue:

1.) Think about how and where you're staging the conversation. Consider the photo above (yes, it is from Gilmore Girls. Yes, I do think you should watch Gilmore Girls if you want to learn about dialogue. Thanks for asking) - Luke, bless his heart, is going to teach Lorelei how to fish before her date with another man (incidentally, her date is Billy Burke, the future father of Bella Swan). You can watch the scene here.

That's the basic scenario. It's fantastic because you've got all sorts of things to work with - wading pools, strange clothes, fishing equipment. Giving your characters things to do and interact with will make your action beats and dialogue tags a lot easier. The fact of the matter is that when we talk, we don't tend to stand still and speak. Rather, we fidget. We interact with our space.

2.) Dialogue written in an active sequence (practice fishing in a wading pool) will often create more momentum than dialogue written in a passive sequence (sitting at a coffee shop). If you're trying to get your characters to move, make them talk and walk. If they need to sit and figure things out, let them sit. Just sit them somewhere interesting. (There's that episode of House in Season Four when House tells the TV crew that they talk while walking, it gives the illusion of the story moving forward... :-)

3.) What's not being said is just as important as what is being said. Consider what your characters want, and how they express it verbally. Consider what they're afraid of, and how that shades what they say. Be aware of subtext. In the fishing scene, there's a lot of silly with the fishing equipment before Luke gets down to business and asks enough questions to find out why exactly Lorelei's going fishing, though he's already got an idea. Notice how Lorelei hedges and Luke keeps probing, and when he finds out, things get quieter. When Lorelei says "You don't want to hear about my personal life," Luke stays quiet for a while, before asking "So this will be your first date or second date?"

He answers indirectly. He doesn't say "Why, yes, I do want to hear about your personal life," his evasion shows that he wants to know, but he doesn't want to be obvious about it. That he's hurt that she doesn't think he'd be interested. But he also wants to stay in the picture - he shows that by offering his pole and tackle box - which is a whole lot more interesting than Luke saying "Hey, when you're done with Charlie Swan, do you want to go out?"

4.) Dialogue tags and action beats. Dialogue tags are the "He said" bits that we stick around the dialogue so we know who's talking.

Now, it's okay to use certain amounts of "he said, she said" for tagging purposes. Readers will notice them less than if you try to get creative and use "he articulated" or "she uttered." However, you can also use action beats instead of tags.


"I don't know why, but I like the other one better," she said.

"I don't know why, but I like the other one better," she said, wrinkling her nose.

The action beat attached to the tag is pretty straightforward, but gives a bit more detail visually.

"I don't know why," she tilted her head to the side. "But I like the other one better."

Throwing the beat into the middle puts a longer pause in the the center than you'd get from just a comma. This helps if you want to give your characters time to think and have it show up on the page. Depending on how you use the beats, you can mix up your pacing quite easily.

That's it for now...thinking about taking a pre-dinner nap. Hoping tomorrow is the magic day that I'll feel well enough to leave the house...also hoping this blog is coherent. I trust you to tell me if it's not.


  1. Hi Hillary...hope you feel better soon. Oh, had to laugh when you posted that scene from Gilmore Girls. It is my FAVORITE tv show...well, next to Road to Avonlea...but I remember that episode very well...and at the end, where she kept the fish she "caught" and gave them names :) :) :) Thanks for the writing tips, too. Are you moving elsewhere in Oregon or to Tennessee?...I'm a little confused on that one..but that's okay. Whatever you do...have fun and I hope it's a smooth trip :) :) Love and hugs from Oregon, Heather :)

  2. We're moving to Tri-Cities Washington, with a pit-stop in Memphis for a few months while Danny does engineering training at his company's HQ. Thanks for the well-wishes!

  3. Hi Hil! I'm sorry you're sick. I can relate. Seems I've finally caught a whiff of what Camille had. Hopefully mine won't get to viral pneumonia. :-( Please, God!

    Good suggestions. I like the walking/action vs sitting/thinking connection. That's good. Have you read any of James Scott Bell? He has these sections of rapid-fire dialogue with his characters, back and forth, no tags or beats for five or six lines. It works great for pacing.

    Feel better and don't forget Cacao! Angella suggested we all go together, which is a wonderful idea. When? Aye, there's the rub. If we can't coordinate, you must get there before you leave town. Oh, how thankful you will be to have Celtic Sea Salt caramels on those long, dull driving moments between Ptld and Memphis. Mmmm ...

  4. Praying you'll miss the viral pneumonia bus! Danny started to get snuffly and congested last night, hope that goes away soon!

    I've read some of Jim Bell's work - love his Plot and Structure book. I don't particularly remember his dialogue, but I'm sure it's very tightly written :-)

    Ah Cacao...want to try for early next week? The Salted Caramels are singing their siren song...

  5. Great post, Hillary! And I'm with you... Dialogue is the best part of writing. :-)


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