More about dialogue

After reposting my discussion about dialogue, I thought of a few more things to take into consideration when creating conversations between and among our characters.

  • Their age – older people will use different terms and expressions from younger people. The references they choose will be age appropriate as well. People in their 20’s and 30’s aren’t going to quote The Andy Griffith Show, for instance. They probably don’t even know who that is. Older folks may speak a little more formally, they may not curse or use slang as often. In Three Empty Frames, one of my characters is an elderly gentleman. He says things like “Heavens to Betsy” and “Why, I never!” which is perfectly acceptable for someone in his 80’s. However, if his daughter, in her late 20’s, spoke that way, it would sound ridiculous.
  • Regional expressions – I touched on this briefly in yesterday’s post. There are local expressions and terminologies that won’t travel to all parts of the country. I’ll give you a regional Philly example. “Jawn” is a term only used in this part of the country that refers to a person, place, event or thing. And while it pretty much defies definition, maybe it’ll make more sense if I use it in a sentence. “I really want the new iPhone but that jawn is too expensive.” “Went to see Roger Waters in concert last month. That jawn was awesome.” No one in Indiana or Florida or Utah is going to say “jawn”.
  • Cliches – I despise cliches. However, people do use them in their everyday speech. This is really up to the writer, but overusing cliches even in writing dialogue gets really boring. Keep them to a minimum.
  • Use of names – what I mean is having the speaker constantly say the name of the person to whom he is speaking. Like this:

“Joni, are you ok?”
“Yes, Graham, I’m fine.”
“Thank god, Joni. I was worried.”
“Graham, you are too sweet.”

We know who is talking to whom after the first two lines, the names don’t need to be constantly repeated. We don’t speak like that to each other in the real world, don’t do it in your fictional world, either.

  • Speech descriptors – while I don’t completely buy into Elmore Leonard’s rule of only using ‘said’ and ‘asked’ to describe speech, I do think it’s usually the best choice. I had read this rule after writing the first draft of my first Bucks County Novel. When I went back and read aloud all the ways I had described what people were saying, I cringed. Shouted, blustered, snapped, laughed, spat, hissed, giggled, sighed, moaned, grumbled, mumbled, murmured, whispered, muttered, shrieked… well, you get the idea. I changed 80% of that back to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. And to be accurate, people don’t ‘laugh’ or ‘sigh’ their words, they ‘say’ them with a sigh. Like this:

Wrong: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she sighed.
Right: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she asked, sighing. (or with a sigh.)

Our fictional conversations have to be natural. It will impact the believability and relate-ability of our characters. Readers need to be invested in those characters to want to keep reading their stories. And we want those stories to be read!

Happy writing and productive editing!

19 thoughts on “More about dialogue

  1. I also think that once you’ve got a back and forth conversation going, every line no longer needs “he said” or “she said”. You know who’s talking… because of the back and forth or because of the action going on during the conversation. When I see too many lines with “said”, I feel like I’m reading Dick and Jane. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly right! The words the characters use will help tell you who is talking once the conversation is started. Otherwise it does sound juvenile to use ‘said’ for every line. 😃

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rita! Yeah jawn is very regional. The only time I put in regional expressions is if I’m sure they are commonly known. Don’t want everyone running to the Urban Dictionary!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. But a person can say a particular phrase in one manner at age 20, yet say the same phrase only slightly differently when they’re 30. Phrases mature at the same time a person does. Plus there are words/phrases that exist for decades, and don’t change at all. For example when I went to primary school (grade 1-6) a popular phrase was “all girls/boys have cooties”. And yet, fifty plus years later you still hear the word “cooties”. Just because you don’t hear a particular word doesn’t always mean it’s fallen out of favor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course there are exceptions. Some expressions have been around for hundreds of years, if you check the etymology of phrases. You just have to think about it before you put it into your fictional conversation. A dialogue needs to sound natural and appropriate to the speakers.


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