Dialogue:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“You get a real person down there and his talking will take care of itself.” Flannery O’Connor

“Dialogue has to show not only something about the speaker that is its own revelation, but also maybe something about the speaker that he doesn’t know but the other character does know.” Eudora Welty

“Make dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed.” John Gardner

“Dialogue is a lean language in which every word counts.” Sol Stein

“They must be real people. And this means that every word in every line of speech must be accurate and full of some kind of meaning which stretches not only forward in the book but stems from before in the book.” John Steinbeck

“I do want to make it very convincing. And the best way to do that is to put most of it in dialogue.” John Steinbeck

“It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.” Stephen King

“Most of the time, tough, combative, adversarial dialogue is much more exciting than physical action.” Sol Stein

“Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.” Stephen King

“Dialogue is always immediate scene which is one reason readers relish it.” Sol Stein

“Dialogue, contrary to popular view, is not a recording of actual speech; it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes.” Sol Stein

“A reader’s emotions can be sparked with few words. That’s the power of dialogue.” Sol Stein

“Literary works as distinguished from transient work is marked by a careful choice of words, but when it comes to dialogue all writers must attend to diction.” Sol Stein

“To write successful dialogue the author must have access to the mind of all his characters, but the reader must not perceive any more than he would in real life.” William Sloane

“Readers take in dialogue one thought at a time. A frequent mistake of beginners is to combine thoughts, which may be suitable for other forms of writing but not for dialogue. Another mistake is speechifying. Three sentences at a time is tops, yet many beginners write speeches that go on and on.” Sol Stein

“To create tension, dialogue needs to be stretched out. That is, characters should not be immediately responsive.” Sol Stein

“Do remember, though, that unless you’re a playwright, the result [dialogue] isn’t what you want; it’s only an element of what you want. Actors embody and re-create the words of drama. In fiction, a tremendous amount of story and character may be given through the dialogue, but the story-world and its people have to be created by the storyteller. If there’s nothing in it but disembodied voices, too much is missing.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“What’s needed in this case is conscious and serious practice in hearing, and using, and being used by, other people’s voices.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“If you’re a fiction writer, though, I can tell you how to let people talk through you. Listen. Just be quiet, and listen. Let the character talk. Don’t censor, don’t control. Listen, and write.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she said,” and the like: “he said consolingly”; “she replied grumblingly.” Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.” E.B. White [my italics—UW]

“It is a semblance of speech that has the effect of actual speech.” Sol Stein

“When you are writing a story, every word of dialogue serves a purpose. If your characters chatter on and on, you will never sell your story.” Othello Bach

“Dialogue has only two purposes: (1) to enhance the character, and (2) to further the plot.” Othello Bach

“In real life we take time for pleasantries, but these are wasted words in a story. . . . get to the point quickly.” Othello Bach

“Keep your characters moving as they talk. Hardly anyone speaks without moving. We use our hands. We shuffle our feet. We walk around, pick up items, keep working or watching television. If you keep your characters moving and describe their actions and movements, their dialogue seems more natural and keeps your reader interested in what is being said.” Othello Bach

“There are dozens of commonly used contractions. Don’t be afraid to let your characters use them, too.” Othello Bach

“Like contractions, sentence fragments are perfectly acceptable in fiction dialogue.” Othello Bach

“Dialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism—the lifting, as it were, of passages from a stenographer’s take-down of a ‘real life’ conversation—would be disruptive. Of what? Of the illusion of the novel. In ‘real life’ everything is diluted; in the novel everything is condensed.” Elizabeth Bowen [my italics—UW]

“What must novel dialogue . . . really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot. During dialogue, the characters confront one another. The confrontation is in itself an occasion. Each one of these occasions, throughout the novel, is unique.” Elizabeth Bowen

“What is being said is the effect of something that has happened; at the same time, what is being said is in itself something happening, which will, in turn, leave its effect.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Dialogue is the ideal means of showing what is between the characters. It crystallizes relationships. It should, ideally, be so effective as to make analysis or explanation of the relationships between the characters unnecessary.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Short of a small range of physical acts—a fight, murder, lovemaking—dialogue is the most vigorous and visible inter-action of which characters in a novel are capable. Speech is what characters do to each other.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Jane Austen, much in advance of her day, was a mistress of the use of the dialogue. She used it as dialogue should be used—to advance the story; not only to show the characters, but to advance.” Elizabeth Bowen

“All good dialogue perhaps deals with something unprecedented.” Elizabeth Bowen

“What the character intends to say should be more evident, more striking (because of its greater inner importance to the plot) than what they arrive at saying.” Barnaby Conrad

“Don’t have your characters talk in long, perfect, complete, grammatical sentences.” Barnaby Conrad

“In dialogue, make sure that your attributives do not awkwardly interrupt a spoken sentence. Place them where the breath would come naturally in speech—that is, where the speaker would pause for emphasis, or take a breath. The best test for locating an attributive is to speak the sentence aloud.” E.B. White

“The best, most natural dialogue is usually written as if the writer is listening to dictation. You might get stuck on any particular point and have to question yourself; but normally, dialogue writes itself.” Ayn Rand

“Even in dialogue, your own style rules your selection. Do not give yourself a blank check of this kind: ‘I’ll merely reproduce what I think a character like so-and-so would say.’ You have to reproduce it in the way your literary premises dictate.” Ayn Rand

“When using dialect, use it lightly. A dialect word here and there is enough. All you want to do is suggest. Never let it call attention to itself.” Flannery O’Connor

“On that last sentence you shouldn’t say kept ‘right on’ praying. Right on is colloquial and lowers the tone.” Flannery O’Connor

“On the whole, dialogue is the most difficult thing, without any doubt. It’s very difficult, unfortunately. You have to detach yourself from the notion of a lifelike quality. You see, actually lifelike, tape-recorded dialogue like this has very little to do with good novel dialogue. It’s a matter of getting that awful tyranny of mimesis out of your mind, which is difficult.” John Fowles

“The writer’s imagination must also translate the speech of his characters, the people of his novel. Like real people, they talk. But they are not real people and their talk cannot be transcriptions of real talk. There is not room enough in a novel for the way people really talk. Proof of this is to be found by leaving a tape recorder on during the course of a party at home. The basic difference between the random taped conversation and what the writer must do is condensation by selectivity. Hemingway has overproved this.” William Sloane

“Dialogue in theater is revised in rehearsal until it comes easily to the player in the part. This is commendable. Try reading your own dialogue aloud sometime to see if it is sayable.” William Sloane

“Dialogue in theater is the principal means of advancing the action. It ought to be a major means of advancing the action in the novel and too often isn’t. Dialogue in theater is not so important a means of characterization as in fiction because of the physical presence of the actor. In fiction it is a primary tool for delineating character.” William Sloane

“Well, I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. And another thing—I kind of like to figure out what the guy’s thinking by what he says.” a John Steinbeck character

“There is, however, a tentative rule that pertains to all fiction dialogue. It must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purposes of fiction. This may sound harsh, but I consider it an essential discipline.” William Sloane

“Each and every character must have his or her own vocabulary. The personal nature of vocabularies is as distinctive as fingerprints, but in a bad novel all the characters seem to use the same one. Furthermore, all too frequently, it is the authors own way of talking. This results in monotony as well as in the reader’s confusion. To offset that, the author uses a whole string of identifiers: ‘Geraldine simpered,’ ‘Hans thundered,’ ‘Pierre insinuated leeringly,’ ‘Teddy gulped,’ ‘Irene hissed,’ and so on. So, what have we here? A violation of the means of perception rule. All those verbs of identification and characterization are the author talking. ‘Said’ is better than any of them. No writer should be afraid of overworking this simple verb. Indirect identification is best of all: ‘The smile left his face abruptly. “I don’t like the sound of that”‘ [he said].” William Sloane [my italics—UW]

“Every character, like every person, has more than one vocabulary. Children seem to have at least two. A convict talks one way to his mother, another way to his girl or to the warden or to a fellow inmate. A woman tells the same thing differently to a man and to another woman. The author needs to know about each of his characters where he got his vocabulary, and to select the words his character uses from the company he is keeping. This is a good and subtle effect for both characterization and the advancement of action.” William Sloane

“The words the characters speak are spoken to other characters. The principle of selectivity means that the element of sparring, almost the idea of attack and defense, is needed to make dialogue advance the action. Know what the scene is supposed to accomplish and have your characters talk toward it, not in circles.” William Sloane

“Let your characters refer to their own past as characters in the novel.” William Sloane

“Every successful novel is likely to have its essential theme expressed in dialogue. This expression must come from one character who is in character, and be directed toward another character. Never toward the reader.” William Sloane

“More than words enter into the problem of dialogue. What is not said as well as what is said. Here the operative principle is again selectivity. Choice includes and excludes. Nothing should be said that is not germane to the entire novel.” William Sloane

“The whole idea is not to duplicate dialect but to suggest it.” William Sloane

“It is better to characterize in interior monologue without dialect or fractured grammar.” William Sloane

“All dialogue continuously characterizes the speaker and retains the means of perception. Sometimes establishes the setting. Builds conflict, foreshadows, expounds.” William Sloane

“Don’t strain to find synonyms for ‘he said.’ Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate just to avoid repeating ‘he said,’ and please—please!—don’t writer ‘he smiled’ or ‘he grinned.’ I’ve never heard anybody smile. The reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so it’s not worth a lot of fuss. If you crave variety, choose synonyms that catch the shifting nature of the conversation. ‘He pointed out,’ ‘he explained,’ ‘he replied,’ ‘he added’—these all carry a particular meaning. But don’t use ‘he added’ if the man is merely averring and not putting a postscript on what he just said.” William Zinsser [my italics—UW]

“As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty.” Stephen King

“The important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in your ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.” Stephen King

“Voice and tone are matters of control, and control is a matter of discipline. And discipline in language—in the diction of a story—requires restraint, the holding back of your first instinct. Your first instinct may be to present realistic dialogue or action for the sake of mimicking real life accurately. But art does far more than mimic life. It mimics and also transcends it, casts it in some new light so that we may comprehend its meaning. For the fiction writer, this means creating artificial dialogue—artificial in the best sense of artifice, a created thing of beauty.” Philip Gerard

“It’s not enough simply to record the way people actually talk. The dialogue must be concentrated, shaped, dramatically moving, in a way that real-life conversation seldom is.” Philip Gerard

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