Tag Archives: Dialogue in Fiction

Making your characters speak – Part 2

Often I’ll find clues to where the story might go by figuring out where the characters would rather not go.

– Doug Lawson

In my short story, “No Breaks,” Millie and her friend Jessica are driving up to a cottage when the main brakes fail. The following excerpt shows Millie going where she would rather not go but her only other choice is a possible collision.

This calls for controlled action, Millie decides. She steers the car over to the shoulder of the road, hits the parking brake, and when the vehicle slides into a stop, switches on the car’s double blinkers. The shakiness sweeps through her body. Her fingers smash against her open purse, knocking out most of its contents.

“Shit,” she says.

“Millie,” Jessica replies. But it is only a half-hearted reprimand. Jessica is bent almost into a ball ready to roll onto the floor. But she’s still hanging onto The Berry. Mille can see it peeking out from her right hand.

“You okay, pal?” Millie asks. “Hey, come on, we’re going to make it…”

(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press).

As you can see from the above passage, readers find out about your characters from what they say, what they do, what they think and what other characters say about them. What they do ties in with Doug Lawson’s quote above. And it is better to show what your characters are doing instead of telling the reader. That can be incorporated with the other three criteria.

Let’s look at what characters say and how their dialogue shows them to the reader. In the above conversation between Jessica and Millie, we can see that Millie is irreverent, speaks first and thinks later, has a short fuse, is probably scared and is definitely not pleased at the situation she finds them in. When Millie really looks at her friend, she realizes how scared she is and tries to reassure her.

We can also see from Jessica’s actions that she is scared. She is bent over double but she’s still hanging onto her BlackBerry (nicknamed The Berry by Millie, which also shows something about Millie – that comes earlier in the story – Millie is not a fan of current technology).

Both women are scared, but they each react differently.

Let’s look at another excerpt from further along in the same story. Millie and Jessica have finally found a gas station with a bay. While waiting their turn to get the brakes fixed, they go for a sundae at the attached fast food place.

“Want a sundae, pal?”she asks Jessica.

“All right. But no whipped cream.”

Jessica develops stubbornness to a fine art when the pasty-faced counter girl oozes whipped cream on top of her vanilla sundae.

“Remove the whipped cream,” Jessica says.

“But it comes with the order,” the girl replies.

“Then take it off.”

“I can’t. It’s already on.”

“Oh, here,” Millie says. “Give me that sundae, and the other one you make you just hold the whipped cream. Get it?”

“But you wanted chocolate.”

“So? Here, let me.” Millie grabs the spoon, removes the whipped cream, places it on a napkin and pushes the sundae towards the girl. “Okay, now you can bring the chocolate. And I want the whipped cream.” (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press).

Here we have a problem with a food order where the server messes up. Instead of telling the reader what happens, the dialogue and the characters’ actions show the reader. We learn that Jessica isn’t just the scaredy-cat we might have thought and we also see that she is particular about her food. It is also her way of gaining some control in the bad situation of the main plot. The server is shown as someone who won’t accept responsibility for her mistakes. Millie again shows she is impatient and has to take some action so she butts in. We can visualize this scenario and relate to it because we’ve all had bad restaurant service at some time and maybe we didn’t have the nerve to do more about it than complain to our dinner companion. So, here we are connecting to the reader emotionally as well in an “aha” way.

The other points to remember about creating dialogue (besides showing the reader the characters) are:

  1. Dialogue must be relevant to the story, not just the characters, and move the plot along. The first dialogue excerpt above does this.
  2. Dialogue must be relevant to the characters. We’ve looked at what the characters are like from their dialogue but you wouldn’t have characters speak out of well, character. For example, an uneducated young man would probably say “ain’t” but wouldn’t speak like a university professor or vice-versa. However, remember, characters can change as the story progresses and they have to learn how to deal with their situation. That won’t make the uneducated young man suddenly talk posh – unless he goes through a Professor Henry Higging remake as in the play and movie, My Fair Lady.
  3. You can also work a character’s looks into dialogue. In “No Breaks,” at one point Jessica says that Millie has a nice heart-shaped face.
  4. Incorporate the character’s emotions into what she says rather than telling the reader. In the second excerpt above, it is clear that Millie is riled by their brake situation and so uses the sundae episode to try to take control…of something.
  5. Remember, the reader should be able to hear your characters speak.

Show not tell


Sharon A. Crawford


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Making your characters speak: part 1

“An editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff.”

– Adlai Stevenson

I’ve posted a lot about finding and creating characters. But they need to speak. There is an art to creating dialogue and some writers seem to have the gift for getting the dialogue rolling. Others need a little nudge and practice.

However, before we get into creating dialogue, I’m going to put on my editor’s hat and talk about setting up the dialogue. When I edit books, dialogue setup is one of the three top ways authors mess up. And no wonder. If you check out published books, the authors and editors seem to be all over the map with dialogue setup. I admit that some of the traditional rules have loosened up. But some still stand. So, here goes with the rules of thumb for setting up dialogue.

  1. Generally, you start a new paragraph with the dialogue and start a new paragraph when you go back into narrative. EXCEPTIONS: You can insert some action by the character speaking as they speak or as they finish speaking.
  2. The setup for dialogue is: “Dialogue,” Michael said. OR less common: Michael said, “Dialogue.” OR “Dialogue.” Michael smiled and stepped back. (In the latter Michael is doing something as he speaks, so it’s not necessary to put “Michael said.”
  3. Notice where the punctuation and quotation marks go. NO to “Dialogue”, he said. Instead, it is “Dialogue,” he said. And it is double quotation marks for Canadian and US style, with single quotation marks for British style. For US and Canadian style, if the speaker is quoting someone else, the quote uses single quotation marks as in “Shelly said, ‘Don’t you dare,’ which startled me,” Mark said. British style is reversed.
  4. Don’t be creative with speaker attributes. NO to “Get out of my way,” he barked. Dogs, not people, bark. I’ve had my knuckles wrapped (figuratively) for being creative with my speaker attributes. Stick to the standard he/she said/replied/asked.
  5. Keep the …ly adverbs out of the speaker attributes. NO to “Get out of my way,” he said sharply. Instead show the reader the speaker’s emotions in either what he says or what he is doing when speaking. We’ll cover this more in next’s week’s post.
  6. When you have two, even three speakers yakking for some time, you don’t need to have a broken record of he/she saids. Use each character’s name the first time he or she speaks and after that just use their dialogue. If the dialogue goes on for awhile, have your characters do something (and you can use their name here) to differentiate. For example, in my story “Saving Grace” from Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, fall 2012), when Detective Sergeant Fielding is speaking to Dana Bowman, it is obvious when he speaks, because he stutters. Again, we’ll get into these intricacies of dialogue next week.
  7. If one character speaks a lot at once, for example if recounting a story, don’t shove it all into one paragraph. You can divide it up into paragraphs. But the quotation marks setup changes – here you put opening quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but no closing quotation marks until the character shuts up.
  8. Just for fun (and confusion) – when you are reading a book (e-book or print), see how the dialogue setup is handled. You’ll be surprised at the variation – some of which actually confuses the reader.

Or is that the editor in me speaking here?


Sharon A. Crawford


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