Posts Tagged ‘writing technique’

Tips For Dialogue in Writing

Stories are about characters, and aside from a few exceptions, characters talk. Whether they are narrating their tale directly to you the reader, or are having conversations with other characters, they dialogue. Dialogue plays a very important role in writing. Not only does it go a long way in plot development via characters verbally expressing significant quantities of pertinent information, dialogue also enhances a scene. It gives rich texture to character driven stories, or can provide clever filler material to action driven stories. It should always be pertinent, further the story, be entertaining and flow seamlessly with the action around it.

In Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, it’s the quaint Frontier Era manner used in the lively dialogue between the main characters that leaps off the page, not so much the action. The same is true of the John Wayne movie based on the novel. John Wayne rarely shined as an actor. He usually played the same character with virtually the same lines. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Duke, and he can act, but few of his movies provided him with a great script that brought out his best. Somebody was paying attention to this fact when they made the sequel Rooster Cogburn and cast Katherine Hepburn opposite him. Listening to the banter between the two venerable Hollywood icons is what endeared the audience to the story.

Quentin Tarantino is often credited with bringing dialogue back to cinema. For a while, 80’s blockbuster movie dialogue had devolved to mostly snappy, but frankly stupid, one-liners. Tarantino made stories about characters first, then what was happening to them second. He made their discussions interesting and poignant, creating three dimensional characters in the process. Even if you’re not a fan of Tarantino’s ultra-violent and gory style, you still can’t help but be fascinated when watching his characters have a simple conversation over coffee…just before they whip out guns.

What you don’t want dialogue to do is distract from your story. I recently read a book where the main characters, an eight and ten year old, spoke like adults. They referred to each other as “children,” and when they spoke to other adults, it was as equals. Though the rest of the writing was quite good, the fact that the author basically spoke through the characters without a discernible transition from the non-dialogue narrative was awkward.

So what does good dialogue look like? What is it’s formula? What does bad dialogue look like? What do you avoid?

Simple sentences, the meat and potatoes of dialogue, are character statements preceded or followed by “tags” (he, she, it, etc): “Hello,” she said.

Sentences preceded by descriptive text can set the tone for what is about to be said: Bob stifled a laugh. “Surely you’re joking.”

Likewise, descriptive text following a sentence can enhance what was just said: “I can’t do that!” he shouted, though it wasn’t necessary, for his eyes said it all.

Text that breaks a sentence in half can add action, give description, or provide a dramatic pause: “If I do this for you,” he sighed heavily as if knowing the request was futile, “will you promise me you’ll go?”

Sometimes a sentence is strong enough to stand alone and doesn’t need accompanying text: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Now, use these methods back and forth between two or more characters in a scene and you have dialogue.

The example of the children characters speaking “out of character” above is a good example of what not to do. There are also things within dialogue you want to avoid. Like, over using italics. Over using ALL CAPS. Over…using…ellipses, or using them…..incorrectly (the only character able to pull that off is Captain Kirk. Maybe TJ Hooker). Extending words for emphasis: Nooooo! Yesssss!—Accompanied by a fist pump. That may work well in graphic novels and comics, but not so much in literature. You never saw Jane Eyre hissing a “Yeeesss!”—Accompanied by a fist pump. Over using s-stuttering and s-stammering, or using them i-i-i-incorrectly.

Though it is acceptable to use these techniques sparingly, it is far better to heed the advice of your middle school English teacher and “Show, not tell.”

The table below gives a brief run down on these basics from which you can extrapolate.

To see these methods in action, take a gander at the samples available on my website, particularly the sample titled “Faith” at

Hopefully you are now inspired to utilize the full potential of dialogue in your writing. That should be an easy task to accomplish so long as you remember to make it entertaining, further the story, and make it flow seamlessly with the action. After it’s all done and said, what was done in your story, you want said, and said well.

Painting Pictures with Words

Storytelling, and by extension, writing, is about sharing experiences.

The Senses Are the Keys to Painting Pictures with Words

Either something that actually happened or a product of imagination. You accomplish this by using description and vivid imagery. You are in effect painting pictures with words so that your listener or reader can see what you see.

Except the picture you paint with words is far more detailed than an actual picture. Pictures are two dimensional and limited in the message they convey. They do not have sound, smell, taste or the ability to impart what the subject matter feels like. Movies do better at getting the job done, but even they still fall short. World War II veterans who watched a screening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan said it was the most accurate depiction of the Normandy invasion they had ever seen, except for one major detail: Smell. You couldn’t smell the gun powder, smoke, blood, and burning flesh. Writing has no such limits. With words you can make the blind see. You can make it possible for someone who was blind from birth see a fuzzy white rabbit.

How is this possible? What kind of paintbrush would you use to accomplish that? What sort of canvas? What manner of paint? The tools at your disposal are simple and effective. They include using rich adjectives that revolve around the six senses (yes, six, I’ll explain this soon), comparison, and your imagination. With these tools you can make anybody see anything.

It’s easiest to use comparison by simply offering up an alternative image that is fairly universal to which you know most everybody will relate. For example, a heavy duty four wheel drive truck could be called a “tank,” which naturally evokes a classic image in everybody’s mind.

Humans are sensual creatures. We perceive the world around us through our senses, and that is the best way to share a complete experience. Paint with the senses. Make wide strokes with your sound brush. Dab the canvas with your taste sponge. Spray the walls of your story with a can of touch. And more often than not, if you’re trying to describe a sensation caused by one of the senses, you’ll use the others to accomplish it.

For example, “The sound of the alarm going off felt like an icy blade if adrenaline stabbing my heart.”

Or, “The taste of rich chocolate in my mouth felt like silk on my tongue.”

Or, “The smell of ammonia felt like an ice-pick being shoved up my nose.”

Or yet still, “The sight of the field of flowers was like an explosion of color.”

A good literary example describing the sensation of taste comes from my own book, Echoes of Avalon:

Though he had drunk the Ambrosia elixir many times before, it always felt like his first. By itself, Nektar was heavy and sweet and imparted a deep-seated euphoria. With Mizkift added, the sweetness was tempered by the metallic bitterness of the powder, which transformed the Nektar euphoria into an acute awareness of the universe.
Lokutis was vaguely aware of handing the cup to Akahamet as his eyes rolled into the back of his head, which lolled towards the sky. The taste assaulted the back of his tongue, first smothering it with an overwhelming berry-honey taste, and then followed it by a metallic tartness that drilled ruthlessly into his taste buds. As the euphoria settled in his chest and loins, the tartness shot through nerves like lightning to his brain. A simultaneous burst of light exploded at the center of his mind and across his vision, leaving an afterimage even as the initial explosion turned to sputtering shooting stars. As the initial sensation receded, Lokutis opened his eyes and looked around.

And finally, there is the sixth sense. That almost intangible sensation we receive from our emotions and feelings that triggers a sensation in our heart that is just as real as any of the five senses. When we see a parent hold his or her newborn child for the first time, that tugs on our heart strings. That sensation makes for a great tool in our painter’s kit.

With techniques like this you can describe that fuzzy white rabbit to a blind person by saying something like:

It had the absence of color, a beautiful emptiness that made you feel as if your hand might pass though it. That is until you felt the warm, soft fur that hummed with the rapid beating of the tiny heart deep inside. The only thing twitching faster than that heart was it’s little moist nose framed by coarse whiskers. Holding that bundle of softness you’re tempted to pull on the extra-long dog-like ears, but their delicateness persuade you to merely stroke them. When the bunny’s heart calms down and it settles into your caring embrace, you can’t help but think that this must be what grandma was feeling when she held you as a child.

Now that you’re equipped with all the tools you need to paint magnificent pictures, be sure to use them when telling your next story. Tell your story with images painted with wide colorful strokes that are so rich in texture your reader will hear them loud and clear. And if that doesn’t work, hit them so hard with details they can taste it.

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