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  • John Hearne

How to Write Great Dialogue

‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’

In this, the very first paragraph of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice makes an excellent point. A children’s book without dialogue is a poor prospect indeed.

Dialogue is where we really get to know characters, where the writer can use the things they say and how they say them to show (not tell!) what they’re really like. Dialogue happens when characters come together, and it’s when characters come together that the drama really takes off. Plus dialogue – if it’s well done – is where you’ll find the best humour.

The other great thing about dialogue is that it’s a wonderful means of pulling the reluctant reader in. With dialogue, you don’t feel as if you’re ploughing through a book, you feel like you’re eavesdropping. And dialogue has a visual appeal. The reader turns the page and is not confronted by unbroken blocks of text, but by the multiple paragraphs required by conversation, with plenty of open space in between. Readers like that.

But before we get to dialogue, I want to make this point: Most middle grade fiction tends to be written in a conversational tone – as if the narrator is talking directly to you – and that’s true of both first person and third person narrators. In fact, most books in most genres tend to have a conversational tone these days. It’s intimate, it’s immediate, it’s as though the narrator is speaking directly to you. The appeal is obvious. So having a good ear for speech is absolutely crucial, even if you’re not actually writing dialogue.

I think Rick Riordan – who is probably the most popular author with the two middle graders in my house – does this particularly well. The opening section of Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief’ is a master-class in conversational writing. First of all you’ve got one of the best named chapters in the history of children’s books: I accidentally vaporize my maths teacher.

Then we get this:

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close the book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

If the author had started in a traditional, descriptive way, we might have got something like this:

Percy Jackson had no ambition to be a half-blood. In fact, he would have advised anyone who thought they might be a half blood to avoid reading this book, and to continue to believe whatever lies their parents told them about their birth.

See how cold and lifeless that is compared to Percy’s present-tense, tell-it-to-me-straight delivery?

Part of the secret to using a conversational tone and writing great dialogue is to mimic speech patterns – but not slavishly. If you were to mimic human speech faithfully, you’d just, I mean. Well like, speech is what, speech is not really what, well actually dialogue speech is...

Most of us don’t speak the way we think we do. Speech is full of dead ends and abandoned sentences and dodgy grammar. The ear naturally edits all this stuff out. Unless a speaker is particularly halting and incoherent, we don’t really notice poorly structured sentences and restarts and so on, but if you were to read through the transcript of an interview, you would find it a lot more difficult to read than to listen to.

In my day job I ghostwrite and edit biographies and business books. All employ a conversational tone to help make them as readable as possible. Most of the time, the source material comes from interviews. I conduct these, then transcribe them, then sit down and begin editing, all the time trying to draw out the sense of what the subject is saying. The truth is that it would be extremely rare to find even one spoken sentence that didn’t need some kind of edit in order to make it readable.

The same goes for writing dialogue. While it must retain the same rhythm as speech, it can’t have all of those little quirks and features that don’t matter when the words are spoken.

But it must be informal. It must feel intimate. You must ensure variety in sentence length.

You have to take the shackles off language when you’re writing dialogue. You need inventive spelling to capture effect: ‘What kept you? I’ve been waiting here for soooo long.’

The thing about dialogue is that it’s highly efficient way of telling a story. We’ve spent our lives trying to explain ourselves through speech, and trying to understand others through speech, so we all have this innate ability to create a world using the spoken word. Many writers, when they start out, tend to be a little stilted because they feel they need to obey all the grammar rules they learned (or half learned) at school. They don’t. A good tip for writing good dialogue? Write fast. Don’t edit. Blaze through it, as if the conversation were happening right here in real time. You can polish it up later, but get a scene down fast and you’ll be more likely to mimic the speech patterns of a real conversation.

Remember too that normal conversations are almost always unequal. Some people talk more than others, some are almost silent. Visually, your blocks of speech will be of unequal size on the page. If they’re all the same, something is probably wrong.

Adverbs are a much maligned category of words – often unfairly so, but do beware of them when describing dialogue. They should be avoided if they don’t serve any purpose.

‘You’ll pay for that!’ said Bart angrily.

You know Bart is angry long before you arrive at the word ‘angrily’, so you don’t need it.

Even more important, think twice before using any word other than ‘said’. Said is invisible.

‘exclaimed’, ‘rejoined’, ‘answered’ and ‘responded’ are not invisible at all. They are distractions and should only be used if necessary...

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