How to Write: Checklist for Dialogue
The most important thing is to ensure that the reader understands what you are saying. So use beats – an action set out in a few words – to set the scene and move it forward. For instance:
This is fairly usual…
‘I love you,’ he said.
‘No, you mustn’t,’ she said.
Try varying the verb…
‘I love you,’ he groaned.
‘No, you mustn’t, she panted.
Or using an adverb. Adverbs are not fashionable, but have their points.
‘I love you,’ he said huskily.
‘No, you mustn’t,’ she said shakily.
BEST OF ALL; put in a phrase – or BEAT – indicating movement.
He touched her hand. ‘I love you.’
‘No, you mustn’t.’ She backed away.
If you use beats, you don’t need to add ‘said’. In a scene involving more than two people, you use beats before each piece of dialogue to tell the reader who is speaking. There is nothing wrong with using the word ‘said’, but if you vary it with beats, you can get the scene to move forward.
1. Interrupted speech, adds liveliness, enhances an argument. You write it like this.
‘To tell you the truth –’
Interrupted thought, or thoughts which trail away, are written like this.
‘But then, am I really sure enough of myself to…?’
2. Stream of consciousness speech can denote inner worry. You start by talking about something on the top of your mind, but let odd phrases showing deep-seated worries pop up now and again.
3. Do people always punctuate or keep to the point? Of course not. Think about Ronnie Corbett in his chair, digressing this way and that – and finally coming back to the original topic.
4. Use jargon to introduce a character with a specific profession, but make sure the reader understands it. It may need to be translated by someone else.
5. To show someone in shock, you can have a character being incoherent. This is usually done without full-stops and with very basic language. The word ‘like’ crops up here like a rash of measles.
6. A child’s vocabulary shows age and educational status. Ditto someone of limited intelligence.
7. Slang; don’t. It’s too hard to read and dates too quickly. Most library books are around for 8-9 years. Language – particularly slang – is moving all the time.
8. Dialect; use with discretion. Ensure the meaning comes across, perhaps by having a second person give a translation.
9. Ethnic minority speech. Most of those who speak English as a second language use the present tense only.
10. Education. A bit of bad grammar goes a long way. Try a double negative.
11. Historical. ‘Thees’ and ‘Thous’ are out. Use good plain English.
12. Swearing; don’t, unless it’s expected by your particular readership. You can get round this by saying that your protagonist notes it, but filters it out. Violence in a character can be interpreted better by showing an action than by giving the actual words. It’s surprising how strong you can make a sentence without using swear words.
13. Malapropisms. Used sparingly they can be funny.
14.Set your characters free to express themselves. Let them ramble on and on, and tell you whatever they want to say – and then, cut!
15. What does your character look like? An 18 stone man talks differently from a blonde bimbo.
16. Parent versus child. Which is which? Are adults always grown-up? The youngest member of the team in New Tricks, is the ‘mother’ of the group.
17. Information and back story. Drip-feed rather than do it in chunks.
18. Confrontation sets the pulses racing. You can achieve tension by having a lot of short sentences, giving you white space on the page.
19. Silence speaks louder than words, especially when it indicates dissent
20. Think Checkov. Each person in a conversation has an agenda . What is it, and are they going to obtain what they want?
21. Telephone conversation; can it be done without attributions?