The Fake
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The Fake

Claire is secretly finishing paintings for her famous artist father. Grayson is caught up in a life of petty crime and Claire's dad is his next target.

Let's talk about talking.

Feb 27, 2015 · 32 Comments

So, we've covered either end of the story with beginnings and endings, so let's tackle some of the bits in between! Dialogue is a good place to start, since it's one of my favorite things. It's a really great way for the reader to get to know your characters, and notice quirky things about them (accents, words they like to use a lot, etc.). It can be a great way of showing your character saying one thing to their friends, and thinking a different thing to themselves.

Here's a couple of words we use when we're talking about dialogue, so you know what I'm talking about:
Dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is when you put something after the dialogue to indicate who said it. Something like--he said, she said, I whispered, he exclaimed, etc.
Quotation marks, or speech marks. These are, of course, the " and " at either end of the words that a character speaks.

Writing a big section of dialogue in a way that isn't boring or repetitive is a bit of a trick. When it's done well, it all seems pretty natural, but when it's done badly, it can put you off reading a story. So it's very important stuff!

Here's a piece of dialogue I just made up to give you an example of a reasonably well written piece of dialogue:

"Hi," Anna said, lifting her hand into a shy wave.
Feeling a bit embarrassed, I replied, "Hi. You caught me."
"I know," Anna shrugged, "It wasn't exactly hard."
She was right. It wasn't like I actually tried to hide or anything.
"What if . . ." I trailed off, not really sure what it was I wanted to suggest. When Anna lifted an eyebrow at me and folded her arms over her chest, I knew she meant business. "What if we just went and had lunch and I paid this time?"
Anna's scowl turned into a beaming smile. "You're on!"

And here's the same piece, but less well written:

"Hi," Anna said. Then she lifted her hand to wave shyly at me.
"Hi. You caught me," I said. I blushed from the embarrassment.
"I know, it wasn't exactly hard," Anna said, shrugging.
She was right. It wasn't like I actually tried to hide or anything.
"What if . . . what if we just went and had lunch and I paid this time?"
"You're on!" Anna exclaimed, her scowl turning into a beaming smile.

That's the same piece, carrying the same information, but see how much less interesting it is to read? It has less rhythm when you read it out loud, and just feels awkward and boring, even though I used almost the same words.

So, what are some ways you can mix it up a bit when it comes to dialogue?

You can say the words, then put in the dialogue tag, and then add a little action to the end of it, showing what the character speaking is doing. Like this line: "Hi," Anna said, lifting her hand into a shy wave.

You can start with a little action, or explaining your point of view character's emotions, and then add the dialogue, like this: Feeling a bit embarrassed, I replied, "Hi. You caught me."

You can split up the sentence into two or more slices of dialogue, and add a little action in between. Especially if you add the name of the character speaking to help us know who said it, like this:
"I know." Anna shrugged. "It wasn't exactly hard."

You also need to remember to mix in the odd line of action, or internal thoughts from the main point of view character, or description. It helps to add it in naturally, like this:
She was right. It wasn't like I actually tried to hide or anything.

You could also have put something there like: Anna's puppy tumbled into the room, wagging his tail, and bouncing little a small ball made out of fluff.

or

The rain hammered on the roof, so loud that for a second we stopped talking and just stared awkwardly at each other.

or

I caught the scent of fresh-baked baguette on the wind, and my stomach rumbled. (this example leads on perfectly to the next line, too)

You can also split up some dialogue with even more stuff in between the words, like this:
"What if . . ." I trailed off, not really sure what it was I wanted to suggest. When Anna lifted an eyebrow at me and folded her arms over her chest, I knew she meant business. "What if we just went and had lunch and I paid this time?"

It helps to use body language where you can too (without overdoing it), especially if it helps to clarify the words the character is saying. For instance, "You're on!" could mean "we're going to fight it out behind the bleachers after school!" or it could mean, "Yay! that's a great idea!"
Because we see Anna's facial expressions in the last line, you know she thinks lunch is a great idea:
Anna's scowl turned into a beaming smile. "You're on!"

Dialogue tags, themselves, are best used as sparingly as possible. And if you're going to use them, simply using ones like "I said, he said, she said, I say, he says, she says," etc, are much better. Because we've all read those so many times, we don't really notice them when we read them so they don't distract us from what's being said too much. Whereas, if you were to write a bunch of dialogue like this:

"Yes," he said.
"No," she scowled, angrily.
"I said yes," he said.
"I heard you, and I said no," she said.

It all just gets a bit annoying. It's also annoying if you use a tag when you don't really need to. For instance, if you have two characters talking, just add the dialogue tag where it's necessary to make it obvious who is speaking. Like this:

"Yes," he said.
"No." She scowled and gritted her teeth.
"I said yes."
"I heard you, and I said no."

Because we already know who is on which side, we don't really need to be told again in the last two sentences.

If you're using action, or emotion/body language instead of a "he said, she said" type of tag, you can use that to identify the speaker instead of any tag at all, like I did in some of the examples above. If you have more than two characters speaking together, you'll probably need to use tags more often. You can also use that character's particular speaking style to identify them, too.

For instance, if you have a character who talks with a strong accent, you can add some of that to their speech to identify them without needing a tag. For instance, I say "crikey" a lot when I'm talking (as much as I've been trying not to!), so if I were appearing in a story, you could identify me by adding the crikey once in a while.

My last tip is to do with writing natural sounding dialogue. For this, I recommend paying close attention the next time you're watching TV and maybe even making some notes. Watch how two or more characters talk together, when they pause, what expressions they make, how they move. Notice how the camera focuses on their faces sometimes, and sometimes their surroundings. Notice how the program's writers reveal things using dialogue, and how some of the characters keep things from other characters. Screenwriters are usually very talented at dialogue, so it's a great way to see how it's done! I also love to "people watch" whenever I can. I pay attention to how people talk, the way they say what they do, how they sound different, etc. It's all useful stuff!

So, those are my main hints when it comes to dialogue. Mix it up. Put in some action, description, emotion, body language, and vary your dialogue tags. Don't over use one tag, or be too repetitive. People watch!

Dialogue really brings life to a piece of writing, so it's worth practicing and getting better at it!

If you've got any questions, or ideas for other posts you'd like to see, let me know in the comments!

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