Opinions abound when it comes to dialogue in novels. What makes for good dialogue? Can you have too much. Isn’t dialogue just another form of telling? Because my novel, Outside These Walls is around 50% dialogue, I thought I would offer another on the subject.
Before writing this post, I took the time to do a little research. What did I find? Numerous opinions, so I’m just one more. Unlike some authors, however, I’m not a strong believer in cardinal rules when it comes to writing fiction, and that goes for dialogue as well. But I do think there are a few, so let’s start there.
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Cardinal rules of dialogue
Use correct punctuation: Although there are some stylistic options when it comes to dialogue, there aren’t very many. Most fiction follows the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). To avoid confusing the reader, I say abide by it. It’s that simple.
Watch the speech tags: I think there is a place for speech tags other than said and asked, but those times and options are few. Why? Most of the time it represents lazy writing. “Stop it!” he yelled. OR, With nearly a screech in his voice, “Stop it!”
Avoid “ly” adverbs: She asked sheepishly. He said angerly. Once in a while, they’re OK, but I say describe what the character is doing. His face tightened and turned purple. Next, I expected to see fire from his mouth.
Logically sequence actions and words: “Butt out of my,” his voiced tightened and elevated, “life, Mother.” NOT “Butt out of my life, Mother,” he said with a tightened and elevated voice. Why? Because the first method places the action at the precise time of the words. The second method is after the fact and doesn’t have the same impact.
Use action beats as well as speech tags: Harry sipped on his beer before smacking his lips together. “Ah, nothing like a cold one on a hot day.” No speech tag but we know who is speaking.
Create unique voices: One of my reviewers of Outside These Walls said, “…everyone had their own ‘voice’.” One of my characters is a hick from the backwoods. Another is a typical teen from the 90s with the jargon she uses, while another is constantly using “big” words. In his first opportunity to narrate, I set the stage with the following opening from Jason, a seventeen-year-old recluse.
As Lis’ house disappeared in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but cogitate over the somewhat serendipitous events of a simple drive home. In fewer than ten minutes, I was immersed in the company of the school’s sirens and became privy to the unwanted probing of Lisa’s womanly assets. And albeit brief and upon my cheek, a confectionery surprise to boot. All of which offered both astonishment and bewilderment, including Lisa’s rejection of an unwanted advance.
It needs to advance the storyline: I use the word storyline and not plot because storyline includes character development. Sometimes the best way to show a character’s character is to have them show it by what they say or don’t.
How much dialogue in novels should you have?
For sure, there is no set amount. Only you as the author can decide, and I wouldn’t let anyone convince you otherwise. I think it depends on more things than I’m willing to get into with this post. However, with that said, I’d like to dive into why roughly half of Outside These Walls is dialogue.
In my research, I read that too much dialogue is boring. OK, perhaps for that person, but I can tell you that for most of my beta readers, it was not a problem. In fact, many enjoyed it. I’m not sure of the exact number of beta readers I employed, but I’m guessing around twenty-five. Of those, I only recall one who suggested that there is too much dialogue. However, several made comments about it or asked why. So let’s get with it.
In chapter eleven, the premise is raised. What would it be like to be totally naked, inside and out–transparent? The implication being … no secrets. So the premise of the story required a lot of interaction between the characters, both in getting to the point for the question to be asked and its pursuit after the fact.
Outside These Walls is primarily set in the year 1995 in a real city, Escondido, California. No world building was needed, not in the typical sense. Description of the surroundings beyond what I provided would have needlessly added to the word count and distracted from the focus of the story.
I felt the world building that required attention was the one being experienced by the characters. Granted, it’s a different kind. But their pain and misery, as well as the magic and mystery, is the world influencing their lives. The creation of that world begins in chapter one when we get a glimpse of the isolation Kate and Pete have created for themselves. Their walls are more subtle than Jason’s, but they have been imprisoned by them just the same for the past twenty-five years. Pain, guilt, loss, and devastation is their world.
The POV demands it
My first book, Seeking Transparency, originally started off in first person by Pete. It ended up being told in omniscient POV. There were numerous things wrong with that, the least of which was the difficulty to get into the heads of the characters. I found that to be essential, so I wrote the second version, Eden’s Exiled, in first person by both Kate and Pete.
That was far better, and I learned that it was much more effective for illustrating their periodic deceit when honesty and truth is what they sought. In the first chapter of Outside These Walls, we see the conflict and paradox in Kate’s behavior. She says she wants it (their Eden) back, but all the while she’s not being forthright with her husband.
When I learned what I could do with multiple POVs, I concluded that the only way I could write Outside These Walls was first person by all six characters. The characters need each other as they go through a journey of discovery, and that means they all need to communicate.
If done correctly, it’s showing
Outside These Walls has no central protagonist. An argument could be made for several of the six main characters. So it is all about the characters, what is happening to their status-quo worlds, and who or what is turning their worlds on its head.
And even though the story is told by all six characters, it’s the interaction with each other that readers get to experience, and that interaction mostly comes from their exchanged words. Here is an example. To set the stage, this conversation is between three seventeen-year-old teens, Jason, Jen, and Lis. The two girls had recently learned that Jason and his parents are nudists.
The conversation is concerning whether the girls are going to disrobe. Lis is narrating, and her internal thoughts are in plain text with no quotes. With her internal thoughts, we see she is not exactly keen on the idea of stripping down. Jason stutters when he gets nervous. For reasons I won’t go into, he’s not keen on seeing either girl naked. Belle is Jen’s pet name, she’s the hick from the backwoods, and she’s trying to get to the bottom of the clothes issue. There are few speech tags because this is chapter eleven, and the reader has had ample time to learn one character from another.
As he opened his door, Jen said, “Hold your horses, Jason. I think we have a tough nut we need to crack.”
She was referring to the clothes nut, and a nut that had slipped my mind. Jason seemed pleased she brought it up. Apparently, removing his T-shirt without our consent was against house rules, and for that, he apologized.
“Your momma seemed madder than a hornet, but we smoothed it over.”
I was relieved to discover avoiding his waggling thingy would be unnecessary. I wasn’t sure I was ready to be the target of a staring reptile. And just when I thought the naked issue was settled, Jen chimed in and just couldn’t let her sleeping gators lie.
“Wouldn’t be much a friend keeping y’all locked up, feeling like a prisoner in your own house.”
Belle-girl, where you going with this?
“So we consent. It was Lis’ idea.”
Me and my big mouth.
“In fact, I’ve been thinking. When at the Andersons, we should do like the Andersons.”
“N-No need to do like the Andersons, Jen. T-T-Totally unnecessary.”
Jason’s right. Totally unnecessary.
“Jason Anderson! That makes three times now. You’re the only guy on the entire golderned planet who is repulsed by the idea of seeing my tits. I want to know why.”
With both hands, Jason put a serious grip on the steering wheel. “That’s … that’s private sh*t, Jen. Leave it alone.”
“I thoughts we were friends.”
“Yeah, and friends don’t lie. That leaves the truth. Come on, Lis.”
Here’s another exchange between Jason and Jen. This is early on, chapter three, I think. Jen is narrating, and she’s just found out she failed an algebra quiz.
As soon as I turned the corner, there stood Jason. His back leaned against the wall with his arms folded over his chest. “He, he shouldn’t single you out, Jennifer. That isn’t right. D-Do you plan to take him up on his o-offer?”
“When pigs fly. I don’t understand his blabberings during class. After class won’t make a mosquito’s butt bit of difference. I can’t afford to fail his class. I’m as pickled as a cucumber now.”
“You could always use the answers in the back of the book.” The boy smiled. “I-I do that, s-sometimes.”
Yeah, right. All them answers do is tell me how pickled I am.
Jason seemed to pick up on my hesitation. “Some, sometimes knowing the answer helps figure out how they got there.”
Maybe for a math genius.
I thanked him for his not-so-helpful suggestion before turning to leave. After a couple of paces, I spun around on my Doc Martens. “Oh, Jason … Jason, sugah. Would you consider helping this poor ol’ yokel out? You know this stuff, and I’m certain you can explain better than he can.”
“I’m not so, so sure. I’m no teacher. Besides, aren’t you breaking some kind of protocol? And what about the ride home yesterday?”
“Oh … fiddledeedee. We need to be getting along. After school. Your car.”
In this short exchange, Jason’s nervousness and hesitancy is shown in his speech pattern, but we really get a big dose of who Jen is. When pigs fly and I’m as pickled as a cucumber now is 100% Jen. Then she starts in on Jason with her womanly charms as she tries to cajole him into tutoring, and when questioned about violating protocol, she blows him off with fiddledeedee.
I found this quote by Frederic Raphael
” … But a writer who cannot make characters talk, and have their conversations require us to listen to them, is locked into airless formality.
“Dialogue tells us what people say and it hints at what they do not. It encourages readers to bring a book to life by enticing their participation in it. They then supply their own reading of how loudly or softly, truly or falsely, words are exchanged. When a writer allows his characters to talk among themselves, he grants them their freedom. If only because the subconscious can then chime in, his premeditated scheme never wholly dictates what someone will say.”
The kid’s relationship had to be experienced
What I mean by this is that to take the teens from near strangers and social opposites to ineffably bonded demanded an explanation. The suspension of disbelief only goes so far. Reaching a point of impossibility requires a plausible illustration. Some means or mechanism was required to get Jason beyond his castle walls and for the girls to ditch their crowns and social status. That story couldn’t be “told.” It had to be shown.
After Kate manages to set the table, the kids set sail to the edge of the earth without realizing it, and it all happens as a result of intense dialogue. I didn’t see any other way.
So in conclusion about dialogue in novels
Yes, I do believe there are some cardinal rules when it comes to dialogue in novels, but probably not as many as some. I’m aware I committed numerous felonies in the minds of some authors, and that’s fine. I can defend why I wrote in the manner I did. And at the end of the day, if you know why you make the choices you do, I think you’re good to go.
If you’d like a recommendation for a book on dialogue, you might want to take a look at Dialogue (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 3) by Marcy Kennedy
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