09 October, 2012

A Writer's Guide to Overwriting: Speech Two

The second of my posts about writing dialogue...

If you are able to successfully navigate the pitfalls of tagging/attributing speech (see my confessions on the subject here), the next step is to make the dialogue itself work. This can be harder than it looks.

What annoys you about speech when reading? Too much? Too little? Ham-fisted attempts to write dialect/accents?

Some new writers try to avoid using speech because they're worried it will go wrong. But speech can often tell the reader in two lines what it takes a paragraph of prose to write. It breaks up long chunks of text, gives insight into character and helps the reader connect with the story. It's important.

Realism is where it gets tricky. Some writers write things that nobody would ever say. If you fancy having a go at doing that, you might like to try this sort of thing:

"Your sister's coming over for dinner tonight, Harry - the one with the philandering husband, two children and job in PR which she hates but is too afraid to quit in case she become a frumpy housewife. So I've made a casserole but I've had a really busy day so I haven't had time to peel the potatoes yet as my mother just called and her dog, Chi-Chi, who we took on holiday with us last year and you hate with your whole heart, is sick. Maybe you could go and get changed and then help me by laying the table in our Georgian terrace with a big garden out the back."

OK, an extreme example maybe, but the point is that speech is not the place to get in chunks of information you're afraid you'll leave out elsewhere. Nor does anybody talk for more than a couple of sentences without getting side-tracked or interrupted.

The opposite of this, is what I do - make it too real. Again, if you want to join in, consider writing something like this:

"You alright?"
"Yeah, you?"
"Yeah, I'm OK. Nice weather."
"Won't last though, will it. Never does."
"Nope. Ah, well. What can you do?"
"Yeah. So I've been meaning to ask you..."

Booooooooring! Yes, people might talk like this, but readers don't want to know. I'm not quite this bad at writing speech, but to make my speech work takes a lot of editing. I might not find I've written anything this boring, but I've often included lines of dialogue that just aren't necessary. This is particularly true when it comes to answering questions that have been posed at the end of the conversation.

"So I'll see you at eight tonight then, right?"

Probably that entire bit of dialogue isn't necessary, but supposing that it was vital to ask the question, it still probably isn't vital to answer it, if the answer is just an affirmative like that. The scene could end with the question.

There are plenty of resources out there to help you practice writing dialogue - should you need it. So, as a definitely-not-expert, I will only offer two thoughts:

Thought one - if you read your dialogue out loud can you actually imagine somebody saying it?

Thought two - If you take any conversation or scene in your writing and removed the first or last lines, would the conversation still make sense? If so, cut them!

This last point is one that has finally begun to sink in with me. It works not only with speech, but with prose as well. My "first and last" editing rule is a variation on the old "don't show exits and entrances" rule. But that's something for another post...

Is your speech realistic enough, or too realistic? Or do you have/ have you heard a great tip for us on how to write scintillating speech? As a writer who is always trying to improve, any tips are welcome!


  1. For me dialogue is the easiest thing to write. Not that it's always good, but I don't usually have to think to hard about it.

    I like your exit/entrance rule. I'll have to do a check on that. The biggest thing for me is reading it out loud. It helps you find those little mistakes and the places where you should maybe add a pause.

    1. I used to think I found it really hard, but several editors now have complimented me on it. So I think I find it a lot easier now, but still need to be a strict editor with myself!

      Reading out loud is a must for me. It also helps work out whether you need to add a tag to make it clear who's speaking.

  2. That's a great tip. I was once told that the reader - and the author - ought to be able to tell who's speaking without it being signposted. I'm not sure that's possible, or even preferable all the time, with short and snappy dialogue.

    1. I agree - with short dialogue it's impossible. I was thinking about something similar today though with my WIP. Being narrated by five different people, each chapter is given a name instead of a number (Rosemary, Ben etc. etc.) to show who's talking. I was wondering at what point in the novel would it be possible to stop naming chapters at all and the reader should know who's narrating within one sentence. Good test of characterisation!

    2. I suspect it depends on the genre, in part. And the structure, of course. And the POV. And now I'v given myself a headache!


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