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Laura Amy Schlitz

Writing Dialogue: Less is More

Writing Dialogue: Less is More
Jennifer Bradbury author How to Write Dialogue 60second Recap

Jennifer Bradbury is the author of three YA novels. Her next two books will be published by Atheneum in 2015.

Writing Workshop: Writers on Writing | 60second RecapWhen I began writing fiction, my learning curve was steep. And the steepest part of that curve? Dialogue. Every time I had a character speak, I felt like I was wearing someone else's shoes. Now, dialogue is one of my favorite elements of any story I write, but it took time and few lessons learned along the way.

Practice, practice, practice
Crafting strong dialogue requires practice. Practice by listening to the way people around you speak. Practice by paying attention to the way writers you admire write dialogue. And practice writing it yourself. Write a lot of dialogue, write it badly, and give yourself time and permission to get better.

Less is more
Many writers I admire allow dialogue to be messy, to depict fragmented thoughts and ideas to mirror actual conversation. Often the best thing I can do for a passage of dialogue is cut it down mercilessly, trimming complete, perfect sentences into language that sounds more natural.

Don't say it!
What the characters don't say can often be just as important as the words they do speak. With a book like Shift, there was a lot that went unsaid between the two main characters. Some of that got picked up in the narration, but not all. Leave space for your reader to fill things in. And this can also help you avoid falling into the trap of overusing dialogue, or using it to do the work of narration. Consider this example, and then avoid it all costs in your writing:

"I have the worst headache," Dave said.
"Yes," said Polly, "ever since you were three and those aliens abducted and experimented on you, you've always had these mysterious headaches."

Shift by Jennifer Bradbury Writers on Writing 60second Book Review

Check out our 60second Book Review of
Shift by Jennifer Bradbury

Avoid slang and overly timely references­
Little can undermine a character's believability as quickly as having them spout slang, or reference people or songs or movies that might have been current when they story was written but have since passed out of fashion. The primary exception to this rule might be when you're writing historical or speculative fiction—where slang (either researched or invented) can add necessary texture to the story.

Punctuation matterssort of
I love well-punctuated sentences as much as the next former English teacher, but not necessarily in dialogue. Knowing how to use punctuation to control pacing, to illustrate the voice or cadence of a speaker is vital. When a character is melting down, sometimes a giant, run-on sentence is just the thing you need. Or when they're so angry they can't get the words out, clipped phrases hung together with some dashes can show that. Just remember that as fun as it can be to break the rules of standard English in your writing, it really helps to know those rules so you're breaking them on purpose.

Stick with “said”…
It's tempting to make characters exclaim, question, orate, bluster or any other word that you can slot in instead of said, but be careful. As writers, we may feel awkward or repetitive using said to show attribution, but the reader won't register that awkwardness. The other words may look pretty, but they sound clunky in the end.

Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury Writers on Writing 60second Book Review

Check out our 60second Book Review of
Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury

…or cut it completely.
When your dialogue is clicking, your reader can often distinguish characters from each other just by what they say and how they say it. A great test for this is trying to cut speech tags altogether.

And if cutting them completely won't work, consider rewriting speech tags with actions.

"I don't get this stuff!" said Peter.
Or
"I don't get this stuff!" Peter slammed the book shut and threw his pen on the table.

Read it out loud
An essential part of my revisions is reading the entire manuscript aloud, but if you do nothing else, read the dialogue aloud to see if it sounds like the characters you've imagined speaking. If it doesn't, rewrite it as many times as you need to in order to get it right. Trust your ear and your instincts.

Remember, dialogue is one of many tools available to writers to move a story forward, reveal character, and control pacing. Learning to use that tool well may take time, but is worth the effort. Your story (and your readers) will thank you for it.


Jennifer Bradbury’s debut novel, Shift (Atheneum, 2008), was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults pick, a School Library Journal Best Book for Young Adults, a Booklist Best Sports Fiction for Youth and Best Crime Fiction for Youth, and was a finalist on 22 state readers' choice awards lists. Wrapped (Atheneum, 2011) was an Amelia Bloomer Project Book. Her latest book, A Moment Comes (Atheneum, 2013), received a starred review from Kirkus, which called it “rare and notable,” and named it one of the Best Teen Books of 2013. A Moment Comes was also a Junior Library Guild Selection and a finalist for the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. Her next two books—a middle grade novel and a picture book—will be published by Atheneum in 2015.

A former high school English teacher, Jen lives in Burlington with her husband and two children. Her website is www.jennifer-bradbury.com.

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  • Julie Peterson

    Great article!
    “What the characters don’t say can often be just as important as the words they do speak.” – so true!

 

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