Writing Effective Dialogue

Writing Effective Dialogue

Some Additional Suggestions

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes

What is it in fiction that yields the most compelling dialogue? The creation of characters who achieve for us, as readers, an unparalleled distinctiveness, a certain something in them that “recommends” them to us—their intelligence, their oddity, their guile, their tragic nature…

Or is it rather the enacting of memorable junctures in a story, where much is at stake and things hang in the balance, the characters’ “greatness” perhaps secondary to the speech that we’re hearing?

How quickly we see that there’s no one answer as to what “makes” for the finest dialogue. What we can say, however, is that great dialogue will leave upon the reader an indelible imprint, a long-lasting memory that gains for the “spoken moment” a place of honor in the reader’s literary archive—and perhaps more broadly, for readers in general, iconic status: “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

In any event, it arises, the best dialogue, from what we used to call a noble conception” on the part of the writer—a term, we will grant, that sounds old-fashioned now. Technique alone will not, by itself, produce greatness of effect. But: where dialogue is great, the technique will have been sound.

So, now, a few suggestions:

One: Edit out, edit down!

This initial admonition is essentially a “mega-rule,” one that applies to every aspect of writing fiction. It’s the clarion call for economy of effect, for precision in your writing, for what in mathematics is known as parsimony—the leanest, sleekest way of getting to a “proof.” Yes, spend all the words you need to achieve your “effects,” but don’t waste words. The playwright Harold Pinter described his working method as a very simple one: he’d draft a play… and then cut, and cut, and cut even more!

Be alert to the shortcuts that people take while speaking. A key to editing dialogue is to see the ways in which people leap on ahead of what you thought they were going to say, often not responding in any direct way to what’s been said to them. It’s remarkable how often non sequiturs typify conversation—the sudden, “illogical” switching of topics:

“Dad! Can you drive me to practice? Mom’s not feeling well, and
practice starts soon.”
“Where’s your sister?”

Ouch! Such metacommunication in so small a capsule! That’s often how it is in the way people speak. Even in “not answering,” so much gets conveyed!

Note in the following samples how “editing down” will make the dialogue tighter without losing anything important or substantial:

“No,” said Evelyn, “I have to disagree. It didn’t happen that way. You’ve got the wrong view of it.”
“Well, that’s your perspective! If you looked at it my way, you’d see I was right.”
“Oh, there you are again! ‘You’d see I was right.’ Come on, now! Let’s be fair about this.”
“Look, I’m only saying. My point’s worth considering.”

The editing, of course, will depend on the context, on what it is the writer wishes to achieve. So there’s no one “right” way to edit this passage. But here’s the gist of it—what it could be pared down to:

“No,” Evelyn said. “It didn’t happen that way.”
“That’s your perspective! If you looked at it my way—”
“’You’d see I was right.’ Come on, now!”
“Look, I’m only saying.”

While dialogue is often, and very rightly so, purposefully repetitive, in the editing above it’s the needless elaborationsin effect, the redundanciesthat are being stripped away. Always look for ways of cutting out “connective tissue.” The more, in writing dialogue, you both put it on the reader AND enable the reader to draw on inferential powers, the more involved in the action the reader will become.

Two: The magic of “attribution”—the versatile placement of “she said” and “he said”

It’s really quite stunning what a range of effects stands ready to hand in the supple and versatile placement of attributions.

Our readers, by and large, will remain unaware that how and where we’ve situated attributions has been manipulative on our part—strategically calibrated to have a certain impact, and yet in no way unfair to the reader. It’s just good craft at work! And of course, as always, context will determine which alternative might work best.

For illustration’s sake, let’s take a single sentence—a single line of dialogue—and place the attribution in four different spots, avoiding, for the moment, reversing “Bob said” to read “said Bob.” We’ll italicize the attribution just to highlight it:

“No,” Bob said, “I really don’t want to go about it that way.”
“No, I really don’t want to go about it that way,” Bob said.
“No, I really,” Bob said, “don’t want to go about it that way.”
Bob said, “No, I really don’t want to go about it that way.”

… and these four alternatives don’t begin to exhaust the range of possibilities, especially if we wished to stir in versatile punctuation. Take as examples the first and second lines:

“No!” Bob said. “I really don’t want to go about it that way.”
“ … No, I really don’t want to go about it that way,” Bob said.

The second of these lines, thus prefaced with ellipses, conveys not merely Bob’s reluctance in the matter, but also his hesitancy in being forthcoming about it. The first line, in contrast, especially with the addition of the exclamation point (and the period after “Bob said” instead of a comma), captures Bob’s feelings of vehement decisiveness in “declining” in the matter in a clear tone of protest. And note, if you will, how inverting “Bob said” to read “said Bob” would heighten Bob’s “firmness” in the matter even further:

“No!” said Bob. “I really don’t want to go about it that way.”

Poetically, “Bob said” scans as a spondee, two emphasized syllables side-by-side (as in tom-tom or ping-pong) whereas, in contrast, “said Bob” scans more nearly as an iamb, a “soft” syllable immediately followed by a “hard” one (include, curtail). It’s worth paying attention to the “microbes” of nuance that can quietly work to great benefit in your writing (see my earlier craft note, “Trying to Get it Right: The Aftermath of the Skirmish”).

Using attributions to lubricate narrative “glide.  There are times when an attribution, while not strictly needed, will enable a passage to move more smoothly—especially when it serves to separate a speech-act from the ensuing physical action. Take the following moment:

“Oh, I get it!” Joe turned and looked across the room, at last understanding what it was she was pointing to.

A kind of lurching “halt” concludes Joe’s comment, a bump in the narrative the reader must get past before continuing through the moment. Note how much more flowing the whole effect becomes when the attribution is added and Joe’s physical response is cleanly “broken out” as a separate narrative moment—an illustration of what I’ll later call the “one-step-at-a-time” rule:

“Oh, I get it!” Joe said. He turned and looked across the room, at last understanding what it was she was pointing to.

Your management of attributions gives you wide latitude for “modulating” effects in the dialogue you write. I invite you to explore your opportunities on your own.

Three: Vary the pattern in mixing dialogue and narrative

It’s interesting how reflexively writers “breaking in,” when blending dialogue with narrative in the same paragraph, will feel a compulsion to put all the dialogue first, and then let the narrative “trail” after the dialogue:

“I’ve thought this over,” Tom said. “It seems to me, when I really look at it, that the best way out of this mess is to just keep moving forward.” He walked over to the fridge and extracted a cold beer. Popping the cap, he took a long swig.
“Maybe,” Holly said. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“So. You have a better idea?” Tom looked at her hard.
“It could be,” she said. She turned and faced him fully.

Nothing’s particularly wrong with this arrangement—it works well enough—but it doesn’t take full advantage of the ordering of elements (a phrase we’ll return to in a later craft note). In each case here, all of the dialogue occurs—again, reflexively—at the head of the paragraph, which forfeits some of the “choreographing” that’s possible for achieving good timing and tighter emotional effect. Try it this way instead:

“I’ve thought this over,” Tom said. He walked over to the fridge and extracted a cold beer. Popping the cap, he took a long swig. “It seems to me, when I really look at it, that the best way out of this mess is to just keep moving forward.”
“Maybe,” Holly said. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Tom looked at her hard. “So. You have a better idea?”
She turned and faced him fully. “It could be,” she said.

You see how the tautness ratchets up in this arrangement—the sense of challenge, of defiance, of deliberative tension! Again: be flexible in integrating dialogue with narrative in a given paragraph, “deferring” the dialogue to where it suits your dramatic aims.

Four: How to manage extended story-telling

Characters in fiction do tell stories—sometimes quite long ones. How, then, in such cases, does the writer keep the sense of dramatic interaction alive, and avoid having the character who is telling the story seem to be doing nothing more than talking non-stop at others?

Several examples and suggestions come to mind. In works that “frame” the whole as an unbroken story, this is not really a problem. Once Marlow embarks on his novel-length tale in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, his listening companions, friends aboard the yacht, fade into the background. The same is largely true in the case of Nelly Dean being the one to tell the story (in an oddly cheerful tone!) in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

But these are exceptions. More often the story “told” is not the whole story, merely a part of it—and it’s in such instances that the writer must find ways of keeping the interaction “alive.” A first recourse is to have the listener or listeners disrupt the story—disrupt it with comments, questions, exclamations… “input,” in other words, that turns narrating the story into more active dialogue. We saw an example of this in the previous craft note:

“ … So I said to him, ‘Listen, buddy, if you’re going to give me that kind of crap—‘”
“Whoah! Oh my! You actually said that? To him?”
“Well, so what if he’s CEO? By this point I knew it was a total non-starter, you know, me working here, so—”
“Still…  Like, wow! I wouldn’t have thought!”

… The first speaker here having launched into a story that she will continue to tell, interruptions notwithstanding…

Or the disruptions can come a good deal more sparsely, but still be effective in giving the listener an active part. Updike is especially good at keeping stretches of story-telling feeling interactive for us by punctuating them with such intermittent comments. In “The Laughter of the Gods,” he uses two brief interjections, widely separated, “I know” and Oh, no!”—virtual homonyms—to achieve this effect.

An additional strategy for effective-story telling is the one we find in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” As she’s making her “confession” to Mr. Kapasi about her adultery (it’s quite a long story), Mrs. Das blends—sound familiar?—direct story-telling with indirect discourse, at first telling him about her edging toward adultery in verbatim speech, and then becoming more “remote” in indirect discourse as she narrates her betrayal. And at the end, Mr. Kapasi, as evidence of his attentiveness, caps her story-telling off with this wonderful line: “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Das, but why have you told me this information?”


As always, much remains to be said about our topic! The final craft note in this series on writing dialogue will return to irony, and explore the various ways in which the uses of irony in everyday speech both foster “community”—the togetherness of people—and help to regulate it. It’s an especially complex issue because it touches on the matter of taking social risk and the attendant danger of misunderstanding; on the ongoing interplay between suggestion and outright statement; and finally, on the “shortcuts” that irony grants us in our interaction with others.

Beyond this next craft note, we embark on a new series: “Guiding Your Reader’s Eye: The Choreography of Perception.”

Read Richard Wertime’s short fiction, “Soccer,” in WTP, and find his other reflections on craft here

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