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Say What? Five ways to make your dialogue zing

Say What? Five ways to make your dialogue zing

“How are you today?”

I’m very well, thank you.”

This simple exchange tells you plenty about the speakers. They are polite and well spoken and they probably don’t know each other too well.

Imagine if the interaction had gone more like this:
"Hey bro. How's it all hanging?"

"Oh. It's er, ... hanging nicely. Thanks for asking."

How did you ‘see' the first speaker in your mind? Most readers would imagine someone young, street smart and brash. Probably male.

And the responder? They could well be one of those polite acquaintances we met earlier. Only now they are seriously out of their comfort zone.

That's a lot of information conveyed by a few spoken words.

Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools writers possess. It adds interest and vigor to the action, it breathes life into your characters and it conveys mood.

The following tips will help you use dialogue to full advantage:

TIP 1: Give your dialogue some personality

If you want to develop characters with personality (and who doesn't?) then the dialogue you give them should convey personality in bucket loads.

Try matching the following dialogue to a teenager, an elderly person and a young child.

1. "Out of my way, love. I've got bigger fish to fry."
2. "Bug off, pizza face."
3. "Worms are yukky."

Easy isn't it? Different age groups and personalities have distinctive patterns  and styles of speech.

To make your dialogue some distinctive, try some of these common techniques .

· Drop a few letters when young children are speaking.

Come on becomes Cm'on.

Probably becomes Prob'ly.

· Insert a favourite word into a character's dialogue (but don't overdo it).

"I saw ghosts, yes, and elves, yes, and dragons."

· Give a character colourful expressions.

"Well paint me purple!"

"Bless ma boots!"

· Have a character confuse common expressions or words.

"I'm telling my mum off you."

"Don't be so darn dogbastic!"

TIP 2: Avoid fancy attributions

‘Said' is the dialogue writer's best friend. Since the reader's eye tends to concentrate on the dialogue and scan the attribution, a bunch of ‘saids' on the page need not make you nervous.

Don't fall into the trap of using a dozen different words to replace ‘said' when your character is speaking in a normal tone. You risk diverting the reader's attention away from the action. It's fine to throw in the occasional common attribution - ‘asked' is as invisible as ‘said' - but don't slow down your story with irritating attributions such as ‘enquired' or ‘responded' or ‘exclaimed.'

TIP 3: Choose attributions with punch

Make no mistake - while it is clumsy to substitute fancy words for ‘said,' you can make your writing more vivid by using strong verbs when appropriate. Some examples might include:

blithered, choked, demanded, exploded, grumbled,  faltered, hissed, mumbled, ordered, purred, roared, spluttered, urged, wailed, yelled.

REMEMBER: less is more

 TIP 4: Be aware of tone

New writers tend to concentrate on what is said more than how it's delivered. Much can be conveyed through the speaker's tone of voice.

Consider the difference between these two examples:

"What are you doing here?" she asked.


"What are you doing here?" she asked as if she had just discovered something clinging to her shoe.

In the second example, the reader is left in no doubt as to the speaker's mood.

Mood can also be revealed through the careful use of adverbs (those -ly words that attach themselves to verbs). Many writers avoid adverbs like the plague; however, used sparingly, they can add atmosphere.

Watch the temperate drop with:

"I see you've arrived," she said frostily.

And feel the emotion in:

"I thought you'd never come," she said thickly.

Warning: DON"T use overworked adverbs such as ‘angrily,' ‘quickly', ‘sadly.'

TIP 5: Use action tags in place of attributions

Action tags refer to the character's behaviour while they are speaking e.g.

She drew in her breath. "You saw me at the murder scene?'

If you use an action tag alongside the dialogue then the reader automatically knows who is talking and you don't need to spell out who's talking. I'm not suggesting that you should do without attributions altogether but you'll find that your writing develops a more professional feel if you cut them down to a minimum.

Cleverly used, dialogue will breathe life into your story.  

© Jill McDougall 2007
Jill has written over ninety books for children. You can find more writing tips at http://www.jillmcdougall.com.au

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