Dialogue Decree

by Erin Brown

September 2013

"If you are using dialogue - say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech."

~John Steinbeck 

Dialogue can be what makes or breaks your characters, much less your novel. I always tell writers that what counts is not what your characters say; it's how they say it. Mr. Steinbeck encompassed this idea perfectly. And I think he knew just a thing or two about writing dialogue. So how do you write strong dialogue, you ask? What a great question! Here are five pointers so that your readers don't want to stick red hot pokers in their eyes when your characters are conversing.

1) Let's begin with ol' Steiny: say your dialogue aloud so you know it sounds natural. If it seems stilted, it is. Check out these two sentences and decide which is stronger.

"You got a God. Don't make no difference if you don' know what he looks like."

"You believe in God. It does not make a difference if you are not sure what he looks like."

The first line is from The Grapes of Wrath. The second line is a character saying the same thing with craptastic dialogue. The difference is clear. Say them both aloud. The second one sounds formal and odd-and also how a robot would speak. Not to mention boring with a capital B. The differences seem very simple, but dialogue changes immensely when you read and write lines that sound as if a real person would say them. Make your characters come alive on the page through dialogue.

2) That brings me to a biggie: give your characters voices! Just as everyone in your life has a unique personality and voice, so should your characters. Don't tell your readers about your characters' personalities ("She was gentle and kind. But when she got mad, she would start cussing up a storm."), show their voices in their dialogue. How does your character sound? Decide on each character's personality and reflect this in their dialogue. Who is mean, stubborn, a lady, snobby, sassy, Southern, loquacious, reticent, a lowlife, shy, silly, etc.? Once you decide, give your character a voice that reflects this personality. You won't need to tell the reader anything about your character's personality because you will show it through dialogue (and actions). This type of dialogue is more interesting to read, not to mention it gives your characters complexity.

3) Please, please, please use contractions. This seems like an obvious suggestion, but you can't imagine how many authors I work with that don't use them. When I ask if the "no contraction thang" was intentional to reflect a very stilted voice, most clients say they had no idea they hadn't used contractions. If they'd said the dialogue aloud, the problem would've been clear.

4) As Stephen King said, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Adverbs tell. Dialogue and action show. An example:

"You better to listen to me," Papa said meanly.


Papa scowled and pinched my arm until I squealed in pain. "I swear to God," he said, "if you don't start listenin' to me, boy, I will make you bleed."

Do you, as a reader, believe Papa is mean in the first sentence of dialogue based on the adverb that tells you he's mean, or the second line of dialogue, in which the author shows that Papa is mean?

5) Learn how to format dialogue correctly. This seems basic, but it's actually rare for me to see properly formatted dialogue lately. Get a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, take five minutes, and commit the proper formatting to memory.

Correct: "It makes me crazy when people don't know how to properly write dialogue," he said with a sigh.

On that note, remember that characters can't "sigh," "smile," or "laugh" dialogue. Punctuation goes inside the final quotation mark.

Incorrect: "It makes me crazy when people don't know how to properly write dialogue," he sighed.

Incorrect: "It makes me crazy when people don't know how to properly write dialogue", he sighed.

Incorrect: "It makes me crazy when people don't know how to properly write dialogue." He said.

Oh, and for the love of Pete, please indent each new line of dialogue. I've endured near-blindness and crippling headaches from reading dialogue that is all flush left. Throw a sista a bone!

If you start with these simple tips, you're on the road to stronger dialogue. "And that is all that I have got to say about writing dialogue for your characters." I mean, "That's all I gotsta say about writin' words for your story peeps. Peace out."

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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