Let The Characters Do The Talkingbyronde©
Most written fiction consists of the narrative description of characters and their actions. While this technique serves to communicate the author’s thoughts to an audience, readers can often infer the same information if the author makes careful use of dialogue. Screenplays use dialogue in this manner. It is true the playwright also makes suggestions for action and body language, and directors refine these suggestions, but most of the story is told by dialogue.
The purpose of this guide is to provide some techniques for writing dialogue that flows naturally and brings the reader into the conversation between characters. It will not define proper grammar, for most of us seldom use proper grammar in everyday speech. Proper punctuation will also not be discussed, as there are several excellent resources available on that subject.
The following excerpt of a conversation between two people is an example of the power of dialogue.
“Janice, why don’t you just ask him?”
“God, I couldn’t ever do that. I’d be embarrassed to death.”
“Because! Barry’d think I’m weird or something.”
“You seemed to like your first time. I know I did.”
“Well…, yes…, but with you it’s different. You’re a woman, and…, well, you don’t think it’s nasty. Barry would.”
“He might surprise you. Jim thought it’d be gross ‘til he tried it. Now, I can’t stop him.” Gina giggled. “Don’t really want to, either.”
“Yeah, that’s what Jim says, too, but he likes a lickin’ as much as we do.”
The above exchange is comprised of eighteen sentences (not necessarily complete ones), and contains less than a hundred words. Only two of these words are not dialogue, yet the exchange conveys as much information as several paragraphs of narration.
What might a reader gather from the above?
1. The speakers are women.
2. Their names are Janice and Gina.
3. The speakers are both attached to men
4. The names of the men are Barry and Jim.
5. Barry belongs with Janice. Jim belongs with Gina.
6. Janice and Gina are probably close friends, or they wouldn’t speak so candidly.
7. Janice and Gina have recently had a bi-sexual liaison involving oral sex.
8. It is Janice’s first bi-sexual and first oral experience.
9. Janice is not very open in discussing sex with Barry.
10. Janice is embarrassed by her feelings and hesitant to admit them.
11. Janice may be embarrassed by her body.
12. Janice liked her experience.
13. Barry appears to be conservative in his view of sex.
14. Janice is worried about what Barry would think of her newfound pleasure.
15. Gina seems to be a fun-loving person with few inhibitions.
16. Gina either taught Jim about oral sex, or at least encouraged him to try it.
17. Gina appears to enjoy giving oral sex to both men and women.
18. Gina appears to enjoy receiving oral sex.
19. Gina and Jim probably have very open communications about sex.
20. Jim enjoys giving and receiving oral sex.
It is of note that it required almost twice the number of words used for the dialogue just to list the above information and it reads like what it is – a list. To convey the same information in an interesting narrative form would require many more words. Narration is also subject to becoming “information overkill”, where nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. Most readers would rather “fill in the blanks”, or at least some of them, with their personal visions.
We all meet people, listen to what they say, and develop understandings and impressions of them without benefit of a narrator explaining things to us. The beauty of dialogue is that it allows the reader to exercise the same skill. Dialogue is usually more interesting to read, as well.
Some readers may not read as much into the conversation and some may read in more. The point is the reader interprets rather than reads, just as we do in real life. Few of us analyze every word a person says. We don’t think, “Brown bark, green leaves, tall trunk, wide branches, etc.” when we read the word “tree”. Our mind simply forms a picture of a tree based on our experiences with things called trees. It isn’t necessary for the author to completely describe every detail.
The author should remember that dialogue is not just the spoken words of the characters in a story. First person narration is, in reality, dialogue spoken by the main character. The storyteller’s statements, although not enclosed in quotation marks, should, and will, represent that character’s manner of speech. In some cases, the same applies to the narrator of a third person story, although the author must take care to avoid biasing the narrator if an objective relating of the events is desired.
So, how does one use dialogue to advantage and what are some pitfalls?
1. They walk the walk, but do they talk the talk?
The primary thing to remember when writing dialogue is to write as people really speak. Real people do not always use complete sentences. Real people use contractions at every opportunity. Real people shamelessly dangle their prepositions all over the place. Real people make veiled statements the listener must question in order to understand their true meaning. If they are to seem real, characters should speak as a reader would expect from their personality, social status, and the circumstances of the conversation.
Dialogue is an easy way to define personality types without actually writing a description. For example, the following three sentences should lead the reader to identify three distinct personalities.
“I should never make public such a demonstration of my own ineptitude.”
“I wouldn’t ever tell anybody I made such a stupid mistake.”
“Ain’t nobody ever gonna hear I done that shit.”
All three statements say the same thing. The first could lead the reader to visualize either a fanatical Professor of English or a somewhat stuffy person who is attempting to impress the listener with his or her education. The second speaker would seem “normal” to most of us. The third, well…, a pot-bellied guy with shaggy hair, a three-day beard, and camouflage bib overalls with a snuff can circle on the right hip pocket comes to mind. It’s entirely possible marriage isn’t the only family bond between his parents.
Now, consider the difference between these two statements.
“I have never before had intercourse with any man excepting my husband. I thought I could never bring myself to commit adultery.”
- and -
“I never slept with anybody but my husband before. I didn’t think I could ever cheat on him.”
The second statement is more typical of what we would expect to hear from most women. The first, while an example of proper English, seems stiff. It could also be confusing because, when a speaker is attempting to make a point, he or she will sometimes revert to more proper English for emphasis, as in:
“I will have you know, I have never slept with anyone but my husband before. Cheating is not something I do regularly.”
The lack of contractions can indicate anger, outrage, or other strong emotions, but when every line is “proper”, how will the reader know the mood has changed?
Do not be fearful of “invented” contractions. People routinely say, “there’ll be hell to pay”, “what the hell’re you waiting for?”, and “John’d never do that.” Just follow the rules for “normal” contractions and use an apostrophe to indicate the omitted letters.
Oh, be sure to dangle some prepositions now and then. That’s what they’re there for.
2. Chitchat is our friend.
The common stereotype of women is that they talk a lot and don’t really say much. Sometimes this is true, but men are guilty of the same thing. People are apt to talk about anything from how they think they look, to the appearance of other people, to any and all juicy gossip. Usually this will be done in the company of close friends, but such could be an exchange between strangers in some circumstances. An author can make use of idle talk between people to describe them or other characters. Some examples -
“Hate like hell to say this, Harry, but you better lay off the beer and pizza if you ever want to get laid. I’ll bet you have to use a mirror to take a leak, don’t you?”
“Honey, if I had those, Jack’d never even let me get dressed. Just one question, though. Can you sit up all by yourself, or do you need help?”
“Mabel’s cryin’ about how big ‘er butt is and how she seen me looking at that new secretary down at the bank. So I tell ‘er I like that big satchel-ass more’n my bass boat, and if she’d just stop worryin’ about how she looks and bend over, I’d show ‘er.”
“Officer, I am sorry I don’t look like my driver’s license picture. I just took three kids to school in this downpour and then locked myself out of the car at the grocery store. I am soaked to the skin, my makeup looks like a mud puddle, and I have to pee, so just give me the ticket and let me go home.”
“Hey, man. I saw you talkin’ to that short blonde with the little shorts and bikini top. She yours or have I got a chance?”
We all have conversations that can serve as models for this sort of dialogue. Next time, listen carefully and take mental notes. People will think you’re strange if you start writing down what they say.
3. Condoms for the social diseases of language.
It’s a short jump between incomplete sentences and contractions to the vernacular, but the author should be aware of the hazards involved in writing slang and regional dialects.
Even people intimate with the language often misunderstand slang. Over the span of only a few years, the meaning of words can be modified or even completely reversed. Slang users also have a propensity to invent words. It is likely that readers for which English is a second language would have trouble understanding much of the American slang spoken today. The simple statement, “I’m so blue.”, is confusing when interpreted literally, as would be, “crotch rocket”, “He’s one mean mother.”, “Rub some funk on it, baby.”, or “Lay it on me”. What is that “it”, anyway?
Some readers of recently legal age might have difficulty with, “The pigs are outside, so flush the roaches, man.”, or the term “raincoat” used instead of condom. Some, shall we say, more experienced readers would have no idea of the meaning of “blog”, “rave”, “goth”, or any of the common chatroom abbreviations.
For some reason, slang terms used in reference to a woman’s breasts seem to have universal understanding. The author can invent nearly any word and that word will be understood. A few examples that come to mind are - “puppies”, “tatas”, “howitzers”, and “bazzongas”. Have lots of fun with this one. How about, “Holy shit, will you get a load of the cabbanochinis on that babe.” or “Damn, I wish I could smother myself with those manongarollies of hers.”
When writing slang, the author must consider the audience for which the work is intended and should stick to slang with which he or she is familiar. It’s too easy to misuse a term, and that will leave the reader wondering why it doesn’t fit. Just for kicks, try asking for a “buggy” in a Detroit grocery store sometime, and see what happens. In the North, they’re called shopping carts, but in the South, we use “buggies”. We also “carry” people places instead of taking them, even though they’re perfectly capable of walking on their own.
Regional dialects bring on an entirely new set of problems for the author. Should one attempt to define pronunciation, or just let the readers figure it out as best they can? At what point does the dialogue become unreadable?
The apostrophe is one tool for solving this dilemma. “Them”, becomes “‘em”, as in, “I got ‘em good.” “Him” becomes “’im”. One Chicago pronunciation of “didn’t” becomes “di’n’t”, and thus the problem of apostrophes begins to rear it’s swollen, purple head. Use of an apostrophe for every omitted letter group can make the dialogue unreadable.
An alternate means of communicating pronunciation is phonetic spelling. The word “di’n’t” above actually sounds more like “dint”, and could be spelled this way. Thus are born, “gotcha”, “wanna”, “wouldja”, and a whole vocabulary unique the Southern United States. These words would include, “weekn”, “yawanna” and “iffen”, as in “Weekn go skinnydippin’ down t’the crick, iffen yawanna see me nekkid.”
For those authors who escaped inoculation with grade school Phonics, just spell it like it sounds. Some odd-looking words will result, but by taking reasonable care, most readers will probably grasp the meaning. Oh, and yes, any spell checker will have screaming fits with all those words, but just keep clicking on “ignore”. Don’t click on “add to dictionary”, or the spell checker will start missing the legitimate screw-ups.
As with slang, it is prudent to write dialects with which one is familiar. It is much better to write the language common to most than to butcher perfectly good vernacular, and most readers won’t notice. Screw up a good old Southern boy’s favorite verb-osition and he’ll be sure to let you know.
4. Who’s it?, also known as tagging.
For those who may not be familiar with the term, “tagging” refers to the technique of using narrative to denote a speaker and/or the speaker’s state at the time. Typical “tags” would include, “he said”, “she whined”, and others. The common sentence structure for tag use is:
“How can you say it’s too small?”, he sobbed.
Too many tags can become annoying because they chop up the flow of speech between the characters. In two-person conversations, tags are usually not needed to identify the speaker. If each character’s “lines” are defined by a new paragraph, and the reader can figure out who started, there will be little confusion. Which version of the conversation below between Darlene and James reads more easily?
“I get off on tall men with beards because I’m short.”, said Darlene.
“I have a beard.”, said James, “and I like short women.”
- or –
“I get off on tall men with beards because I’m short.”
“I have a beard, and I like short women.”
We don’t really need to tag the lines, because we already know the sex and identity of each speaker. It would not make sense for James to say he gets off on tall men with beards, and for Darlene to then say she has a beard and likes short women. Well, on second thought, if the story is way out there in weird-world, some tags could probably be helpful.
It is also possible to identify a speaker by having the speaker address the listener by name. The above statement by James could be written:
“Darlene, I have a beard, and I like short women.”
There would be no confusion about the identity of the speaker since there are only two people in the conversation, and the speaker has addressed Darlene.
Another method uses more narrative, but avoids the proliferation of “he said”, “she said”, etc.
John looked at Darlene and grinned. “I have a beard, and I like short women.”
Tags are often placed after the speaker’s statement. This method works, but when used to indicate the speaker’s mood, putting the tag in front of the statement can help the reader to better understand what’s really being said. Consider these two versions of a conversation.
“I’m going home to pet my kitty.”, said Rhonda.
“My kitty is about dead. She ran into a train last night.”, chuckled Rita.
- or -
“I’m going home to pet my kitty.”, sighed Rhonda.
Rita chuckled. “My kitty is about dead. She ran into a train last night.”
In the first version, the reader may have to re-read the statement after learning Rita’s mood. This breaks up the flow of the story. In the second, the reader understands Rita’s mood before reading her statement and gets to enjoy “hearing” her chuckle as she speaks.
If more than two people are engaged in conversation, the problem becomes more difficult. The same tag techniques work for groups, but unless the author figures out how to have an “it” in the scene, there will always be at least two “he’s” or two “she’s”. The standard, “he/she said”, doesn’t tell a reader much. It’s best to use a combination of methods to avoid making the dialogue monotonous.
5. Speechus Interruptus, or, how to define pauses and cut-offs
When we speak, we never run all our words together in a perfectly timed cadence. We pause in embarrassment or other emotion, for emphasis, to breathe, or just to consider what we’re about to say. Other people interrupt our statements in their rush to finish our thought or to comment on what they think we’re going to say. Defining these pauses and cut-offs helps make dialogue seem more natural.
Use of the ellipsis (three periods in sequence) is a little sticky. Some authors don’t use them at all while others seem to get along quite admirably with these cute little triplets of the punctuation population. (OK, we’re going to talk about punctuation just this once.)
The ellipsis may be used to denote a pause or a “trailing off” in speech, and performs this function amazingly well. Although the words are all the same, there is a vast difference between these two lines of dialogue.
“Hillary, if I’d known you felt that way, well, I wouldn’t have slept with you last night.”
“Hillary…, if I’d known you felt that way…. Well…, I wouldn’t have slept with you last night.”
The first is a fairly straight-forward statement of fact. The second is hesitant, as if the speaker is having difficulty making the statement. Perhaps the speaker is upset, perhaps sad, perhaps attempting not to laugh, but in any event, the words are not coming easily.
As the example indicates, pauses are denoted by an ellipsis followed by a comma, and “trail-offs” by an ellipsis and a period. Yes, that makes four little periods, all in a row.
Cut-offs can be represented by the hyphen.
“But I gave you roses and candy, and I –“
“You forgot about the hemorrhoids, you sick bastard”
6. A few words are worth a thousand pictures
The subject of word choice in erotic writing has been discussed in numerous instructive works, but deserves another mention here. The words people use in conversation, erotic or otherwise, are reflective of their personalities, base moral code, and their familiarity with others in the conversation. The intimacy of their speech may change with time, but the conversation usually starts out pretty tame.
Characters who just met would not be likely to make statements such as, “I’m gonna fuck you so hard you’ll think you’re ridin’ a jackhammer.”, or, “I’d just love to suck that big horse cock of yours until you cum buckets all over my big fat tits.” In a pure fantasy, such statements may find acceptance, but not in a story presented as a possible reality. It’s more believable, and builds the story better, if the dialogue becomes more explicit as the characters grow closer. A couple exceptions would be if one of the characters is being paid to participate, or if the scene has D/s overtones.
When with someone we know well, we speak more openly, although sometimes not directly. We use terms that have special meaning only for us, as well as pet names for each other and certain body parts and functions. It is not unusual for these terms and pet names to sound pretty dumb to others. That’s why we keep them secret. Characters come to life when they let us in on such little secrets and the background behind them.
“Hey there, Honey. What say we go make us a peach pie? I got the ice cream.”
“Sorry there, Swizzle Stick. All I got is cherry for about three more days, remember? Think I might like a little ice cream, though. Can I lick your spoon?”
- or maybe –
“Wow! That was definitely far out. When you sat on me and did that thing…, well, I’m gonna call you “Slurpy” from now on.”
- or even -
“I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but Jim says the guys at the office call you ‘The Icewater Angel’ because you won’t go out with any of them. Now that I know why, you’re gonna be my ‘Hot Little Licky Devil’, ‘cause, damn girl, you get me hotter’n Jim ever thought about.”