I did a panel on writing dialogue at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference yesterday, and ran out of the handouts I brought. So for those of you who asked for a copy afterward, and anyone else who is interested:
Meg’s Top 10 Suggestions for Writing Dialogue:
- Keep it brief. (How brief? See the Edith Wharton quote below.)
- Engage the reader and move the story forward.
- Write real life speech, but with the boring parts removed.
- Reveal relationships rather than describing them: through conflict, emotion, attitude, subtext.
- Deliver what the speaker understands about her emotions and what she does not.
- Do not use dialogue solely to impart information.
- Questions do not always need to be answered. What isn’t said is often more interesting than what is.
- When in doubt, use said. Better yet, write voices so distinctly they don’t need attribution.
- Use exclamation points reluctantly!
- Read it aloud. Good dialog is rhythmic and easy to read.
Some Terrific Writers on the Subject:
Eudora Welty: Dialogue has to show not only something about the speaker that is its own revelation, but also maybe something about the speaker that he doesn’t know but the other character does know.
Edith Wharton: Dialogue in fiction should be reserved for the culminating moments and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.
Anne Lamott: You should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.
Elmore Leonard: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”… he admonished gravely.
Mark Twain (from his wonderful “Rules for Literary Fiction”): That the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
And a few photos from the conference, below, just for fun. Click on the thumbnails to see larger copies.
If you find this helpful, please consider sharing it with friends. And best of luck with your writing!