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Tuesday, January 21

Thirteen Secrets for Sizzling Dialogue

By Guest Author Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Please join me in welcoming Rayne Hall to the blog today to share a few secrets on writing great dialogue.

Rayne has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Recent books include Storm Dancer (dark epic fantasy novel), 13 British Horror Stories, Six Scary Tales Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (creepy horror stories), Thirty Scary Tales, Six Historical Tales Vol. 1 and 2 (short stories), Six Quirky Tales (humorous fantasy stories), The Colour of Dishonour: Stories from the Storm Dancer World, Writing Fight Scenes, The World-Loss Diet, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic, Writing Dark Stories, and Writing Scary Scenes (practical guides for authors).

She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. Currently, she edits the Ten Tales series of multi-author short story anthologies: Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires, Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts, Scared: Ten Tales of Horror, Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies, Seers: Ten Tales of Clairvoyance, Dragons: Ten Tales of Fiery Beasts and more.

Rayne has lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal and has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian grandeur on the south coast of England.

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Take it away Rayne...

Here are thirteen techniques professional writers use to make their dialogue sharp, realistic and entertaining.

1. Use questions. Questions hook the reader's interest more than statements. Let the characters talk in questions as much as possible.
  • “What do you want?”
  • “Why are you doing this?”
  • “Where are we going?”
  • “Why didn’t you tell me?”
2. Let characters answer questions with questions. This hints at evasion, power struggles or secrets. Each time a question is answered with another question, the tension rises.

Example 1 – Wife and Husband 

  • “Do you still love me?”
  • “Why are you asking?”
  • “Do you still truly love me?”
  • “Are you suddenly doubting my love?”
  • “Why don’t you tell me that you still love me?”
  • “Do we have to talk about this now?”
  • “Why aren’t you answering my question?”
  • “What do you want me to say?”

Example 2: Police Officer and Suspect
  • “Where were you between ten and eleven last night?”
  • “Why do you want to know?”
  • “Where were you between ten and eleven last night?”
  • “Where should I have been?”
  • “Why don’t you tell me where you were?”
  • “Are you accusing me of something?”
  • “Do you have something to hide?”
  • “What makes you think I have something to hide?”

3. Let the characters do something while they talk. Give them a job, a task, an assignment, whether it's washing the dishes, mending the garden shed or cracking a safe.

4. Write as tightly as possible, cutting superfluous words. Great dialogue is less wordy than real-life conversations. One-liners have great impact.

5. Use short sentences. Real life dialogue often rambles on in long sentences, but fictional dialogue comes across as more real if the sentences are short.

6. Use tags (he said, she asked, he replied) only when they're needed for clarity of who's talking. If the characters are busy doing things, then you can simply write their spoken sentences before or after the action, and it’s clear who’s talking.
  • Elsa turned the tap off. “What now?”
  • Ben tightened his grip on the gun. “Give me the money.”
7. Use short words for tags. He said, she asked, he yelled, she screamed. Avoid long words that draw attention to themselves: he expostulated, she interrogated.

8. Avoid adding adverbs to the tags. Instead of ‘he said loudly’ write ‘he shouted’, instead of ‘she said irritably’ write ‘she snapped’, instead of ‘he said furiously’ write ‘he yelled’, instead of ‘she said quietly’ write ‘she muttered’. Better still, let the dialogue itself imply how something is said: “I’ve had enough, you bastard!” is clear; you don’t need to add ‘he said angrily’.

9. Add body language. Posture, facial expression, movements, especially for the non-POV character. This contributes clarity and meaning without the need for tags.
  • “I don’t like this.” John scratched his ear. “Do we have to go through with it?”
  • Bill leaned forward. “Tell me more.”
  • Jane twisted her necklace in her fingers. “What if someone sees us?”
  • Fred glanced at his watch. “Time to go.”
10. Drop hints. Hint at dishonesty or secrets by showing body language that contradicts what the character says. Use this technique sparingly.
  • “No need to hurry.” Mary drummed her fingers on the table.
  • Mary glanced at her watch. “Take all the time you need.”
  • “I can wait,” Mary assured him. Her feet jiggled and bounced.
11. Limit swear words. Frequent swear words can make a character appear unintelligent, so use them sparingly, if at all. You may want to reserve them for a minor character who is not overly bright, or for a character who has the weaker arguments in a confrontation and is losing his cool.

12. Consider the person's level of education. A high-school dropout uses a different vocabulary than a PhD graduate. How ‘educated’ is this character’s speech?

13. Use the character's voice. Characters don't talk the way their authors do. Think of each character’s key personality traits. How would a person with these characteristics talk? What kind of speech patterns reflect this personality?
  • A self-centered person probably uses the words ‘I’, ‘my’ and ‘me’ a lot.
  • A timid person may preface requests and statements with an apology: “I'm sorry to bother you. I wonder if it's possible to...” “I'm probably wrong, but...”
  • An insecure person may use ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’.
  • A bossy person may phrase many sentences as a command. “Take a taxi.” “Call me tomorrow.”
  • A status-seeking person may name-drop and mention status symbols at every opportunity “Last week, the duchess told me...” “When I parked my Porsche...”
  • A pompous person may speak in multi-syllabic words.

Which of these techniques are you already using in your fiction? Which are new?

I look forward to your comments. If you have questions, ask and I will reply.

About The Writing Craft Series

The ebooks in Rayne Hall's Writing Craft series equip authors with tools for their writing craft.

Writing Fight Scenes shows how to construct an exciting, realistic fight scene even if you've never held a weapon. Learn to write vivid duels, riots, ambushes, battles and self-defense scenes.

Writing Scary Scenes helps create scenes that make your readers' hearts hammer with suspense, their breaths quicken with excitement, and their skins tingle with goosebumps of delicious fright.

Writing About Villains gives you the tools for creating fiends your readers love to hate and will never forget.

The Word-Loss Diet guides writers to slim and tone their writing style, stripping away layers of word-fat to reveal the muscle of their unique author voice.