Thursday, May 15, 2014

Delia Latham: Dancing Dialogue, Part II

Delia Latham

Last week we talked about the purpose dialogue fills in fiction writing, and why it needs to be lively and interesting to keep readers reading.

Following are a few do’s and don’ts that’ll keep the dance in perfect rhythm:

Do give your characters their own voices. Sit and listen to folks talk. Writers are, by necessity of their calling, eavesdroppers. So listen in. Notice the different types of voices and speech patterns. Some people speak in a slow drawl. Others chatter loud and fast. Ask three people the same question, and you’re likely to receive three different answers—or the same answer, given in a manner appropriate to each speaker.

      Question: “How do I get to Main Street from here?”
      Possible answers:

a.      “Keep goin’ south, then a right on Turner Way’ll get’cha there.”
b.      “Whoa, dude, do I look like a city map?”
c.       “Walk…or take a taxi, I guess.”

Notice how each of these answers calls to mind some idea of the type of person who provided it. Do you hear the good ol’ boy in answer “a”? See the long hair and tie-dyed shirt, or possibly a modern punk look, in answer “b”? What about “c”? A grumpy old guy who dislikes people? A smart-alecky teen? A particular character’s consistent use the same speech patterns, rhythms, or styles will give the reader insight into that character’s personality, and help identify her any time she speaks.

Do skip the small talk. Fluff. Filler conversation. Unnecessary dialogue. It’s like an extra beat in the melody that doesn’t fit and throws the dancers off. Bands that throw that kind of unnecessary riff into their music don’t last long in a dance venue. Writers don’t either. Every word of dialogue should have a reason for being there in fiction—otherwise, leave it unsaid. In the words of Elmore Leonard, "Leave out the part that readers tend to skip." 

Do change partners now and then. Alternate dialogue with action and description. Unbroken dialogue, like unbroken action or description, becomes annoying might fast. Break it up.

Do place your characters in a specific time and place while they talk. No one has an entire conversation without doing something. Twiddling his thumbs or tapping his toes. Tucking her hair behind her ear, chewing on the tip of a fingernail. Because I have some discomfort in my feet, I find myself curling my toes or stretching my foot muscles. I’m sure you have habitual gestures and “tics,” as well. Your characters should too.

Ever wondered what the term “talking heads” is all about? You got it, baby – this is it. Talking heads are characters who do nothing but spout dialogue, and apparently exist in some unidentifiable vacuum, since the author can’t be bothered to mention their location, or toss in a few surrounding details.
Are your characters in someone’s living room? Sitting on a couch? What kind of art is on the walls? Maybe your hero’s gaze keeps wandering to a subject in an old portrait, or he wonders about the meaning behind a piece of modern sculpture. Are they talking over the noise of a child’s cartoon? Can they hear the clang or tinkle of wind chimes from the front porch? What smells filter through the air…a lasagna in the oven? Does the pungent aroma of bacon still linger from breakfast?

Maybe they’re standing on the beach. What sounds are in the background? Loud, crashing waves or just the gentle susurration of the ocean’s movement? The persistent squawk of a seagull? The slap of hands on a volleyball, victory yells from one team or the other?

Dialogue - like a good two-step - should never happen alone. Surrounding elements add life to the scene, and give your characters a whole being—not just a talking head.

Do use action tags. Are you unclear on the difference between a dialogue tag and an action tag? Let’s clear up the confusion.

Dialogue tags state who said what, and how they said it: He said, she stated, Jane questioned, Tom mused…

Action tags also identify who’s speaking, but they do it through the use of action. This helps eliminate talking heads, because someone is doing something.

“Who all’s going to be here tonight?” Cathy added a spoon to the last place setting as she caught and held her mother’s gaze. “Please tell me you didn’t invite Marcus.”

Cathy is identified as the speaker, but the reader can also surmise that Cathy and her mother are preparing the table for guests, and that Marcus isn’t welcome—at least, Cathy doesn’t welcome him. Is Cathy’s mother trying to make a match between the two?

Don’t explain every last detail. You’re dealing with written dialogue, not real-life conversation. The reader shouldn’t have to suffer through all the pleasantries most people exchange before getting to the meat of a conversation. No one cares about generalities: “Hello, how are you? Hope you’re doing well. It’s been a long time.” Please. Be merciful to your readers. Get to the nitty-gritty and leave the rest to their imaginations.

Don’t pretend your characters are the only people in the world. If they’re in a restaurant, they’re likely to be interrupted by someone taking or delivering their orders. Their table might be jostled by a child running wild. “Background” music might be drowning out their conversation. Is the bartender caught up in an argument with an inebriated customer? Does the woman at the next table have a persistent and annoying cough, or maybe her loud laughter sounds like the braying of a donkey? Include surrounding details to validate your dialogue.

Don’t overuse names. In real-life conversation, we don’t call each other by name a lot. We shouldn’t do it in fiction either. Use names often enough that your reader can be certain who’s speaking—especially during lengthy conversations. Use them for emphasis…trying to catch another character’s attention, to drive home a point, to express intense reaction. Sometimes using a name can indicate sarcasm or a deliberate annoyance tactic. Use names for effect. Don’t use them in every other line.

Don’t be too proper. Most of us, even if we know the proper rules of grammar, don’t always use them. And even though we know it’s rude to interrupt, we do it. We cut each other off and speak over one another. Allow your characters to do the same—your dialogue will sound far more natural.

Be back next week for more on making your dialogue dance.

Question for discussion:  What do’s and don’ts do you adhere to when writing dialogue?


Dancing Dialogue, step by step with @DeliaLatham. #fiction #writing #writingtips

Make your dialogue dance a lively two-step. @DeliaLatham #writingtips #fiction

Delia Latham
(c) May 2014

DELIA LATHAM is a born-and-bred California gal, raised in a place called Weedpatch and currently living in the lovely mountain town of Tehachapi with her husband and a spoiled Pomeranian. She enjoys multiple roles as Christian wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend, but especially loves being a princess daughter to the King of Kings. She has a "thing" for Dr. Pepper, and loves to hear from her readers. Contact her through her website or send an e-mail to Find her also at the following online locations:


  1. Great post! There are a few things I really can't stand when I'm reading, and one of them is meaningless dialogue that just "fills space" - like someone needed more words! All of the above are great advice for GREAT dialogue and tags! He said, she said, gets pretty boring - but I love the scent of the ocean coming through that window, and the sound of them crashing on the rocks below is music to my ears...and this iced coffee is mighty tasty as I sit here with you on the sun porch enjoying the morning sunshine! :-)

    1. LOL - I'm with you all the way, Donna! Thanks for stopping in, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.