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Dialogue–for fun and function

If you love reading conversations between people (and listening to them, enjoying the repartee, the back-and-forth of banter), then you probably also love writing dialogue. I’ve learned a few things about that, but one that really stands out in my mind is not to write conversations the way they go in real life. Such dialogue is usually filled with “er… um…well, yeah, I think, maybe…” and other hesitations. Like this:
He looked at the array of tools on the hardware store wall and said to himself, “Hmm. I think I’ll probably need, er, want, the whatchamacallit, um, there, the one with those little prying dealies on one side and a banging part on the other, oh, yeah, a claw hammer.”
Unless you want your character to sound indecisive and a bit dull-witted, try to avoid writing the way he might have said it, even to himself. Instead, give him some initiative. Have him stride up to the wall, reach out and grab down a claw hammer of the right size and weight. He knows what he needs. He’s a hero.

Another problem many writers have is their having been told not to repeat words. But when you take that to mean even words such as “said,” you can get into trouble. The fact is, you need not struggle to find alternatives for “said” because most readers simply let their minds glide over the word unaware. The struggle to find alternatives sometimes comes across as ludicrous. You can end up with a lot of silly sentences.
For example, “he cooed”, “she purred,” “he rasped”, “she warbled.” Unless he’s a pigeon, she’s a cat, he’s a file, and she’s a songbird, avoid using such words to tell how the voice sounded. Instead, use other words to show. “Ah, come here, honey, let Daddy help.” Or Martha picked up the abandoned newborn. “Aren’t you just the sweetest little thing.” If you use a thesaurus to look up “said” and pick a dozen or so of the many synonyms, then pepper your manuscript with them, your work can look amateurish.

Of course, if someone shouts, it’s fine to say “Stop!” he shouted, but remember to use an exclamation point at the end of what they shouted. Remember, too, that’s about the only time you get to use that particular bit of punctuation. If another person screams his words, your reader might like to know, but often, there’s no need to use any of those descriptives for speech because the words themselves should be plenty of indication.
For example: “You stop talking!” Cole slammed his fist on the table. “Give me a goddam chance.” His voice grew louder. “You never let me get a word in edgewise and it’s my turn to be heard, so shut the hell up!” Spittle flew from his enraged mouth. Beads of sweat dotted his bright red forehead. He attacked the table again, sending dishes dancing as Pete tried to speak. “No! Not another word until I’ve had my say.”

Ellie wiped angry tears from under her eyes and spoke through trembling lips. “They fired me.” She drew in a tremulous breath. “One false accusation from a disgruntled customer, and it’s out the door. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m already behind on my rent, and now this, on top of my mother’s illness.”
Carla frowned. “I’m so sorry, El. If it’s a matter of a short-term loan…” She let the suggestion hang.
No one used the word “said,” yet we know who said what and in what tone of voice. (I should have rewritten that bit where I have too many exclamation points, found a way to use only one, but I leave it as an exercise for the student to fix that paragraph if desired. Editing someone else’s work is always fun. It gives me great feelings of superiority—until I realize how wrong I was and that the original writer was quite correct.

Then there are the danger-combos which, in my opinion, every writer needs to watch out for, especially when writing dialogue. One example of what not to do is have the character speaking while doing something else. Like this: “You look cute in that bunny outfit,” he laughed. Really, try saying those words while also laughing. Instead, make it two sentences. He laughed. “You look cute in that bunny outfit.” Whenever I catch myself making that particular mistake, I mentally thank one of my first editors who set me straight on the issue. Then there’s this one:
“No,” she said as she carried in the groceries, bag after bag, emptying the car’s trunk and setting the provisions on the counter and giving the dog a treat. She put the baby in the high chair, gave him a sippy-cup of milk, and sat the toddler on a booster seat to serve him lunch. “I don’t want to.”
Really? She said those few words while busy with her other activities? By the time she gets to “I don’t want to,” the person she’s speaking to will have forgotten what question prompted the response. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but when you’re proofreading your work, try to watch for such cases and correct mistakes like that.

Dialogue should be clear, crisp, and informative. It can often be funny or poignant, but always it must drive the scene forward and provide bits of action and snippets of description of the surroundings as well as some thought from the POV character so the reader can build a mental image of who, what, where, and why. It can allude to things either in the past that impinge on the story or hint and things to come.Happy writing! And remember to enjoy your dialogue. It’s the most fun part of creating living, memorable characters. And the best part is, six hours later when you think of what you should have said (or had your character say), you can go back and change it. It’s like controlling history.

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