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Dialogue - Whispering children

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Tight dialogue
Suspenseful dialogue
Differing agendas
Transactional analysis
Speaker attributions
Word order in attributions

Tight dialogue

One of the best things you can do with dialogue is see how little you can get away with; few scenes benefit from more dialogue, but many could do with less. There are often more imaginative ways of getting across intent and emotion than having it spoken aloud.

Each line of dialogue should do at least one of the following things:

Reveal plot: “Come quick! Jack is trapped in the mineshaft.”

Reveal character: “I can’t help rescue Jack. I’m claustrophobic.”

Reveal situation: “That mineshaft floods in wet weather. If this storm breaks, Jack will drown.”

A good line will do all three, revealing plot, character and situation at the same time. This rule applies to any form of story-telling whether it’s a television serial, novel, stage-play or sitcom.

Suspenseful dialogue

Bad dialogue consists of bland ‘he said — she said’ exchanges where questions and answers are batted back and forth like the ball in a slow tennis match. Many real life conversations are exactly like this, but we’re writing fiction to entertain, so we should do better.

One way of making dialogue interesting is to introduce conflict and suspense. Take the following:

“Were you working here in 1993?”
“Why d’you want to know? Is this about Henderson?”

This is an intriguing exchange. The first speaker asks a harmless-sounding question and the second answers with questions of their own. Why the evasion? Do they have something to hide? And who the heck is Henderson? A less interesting exchange might have gone like this:

“Were you working here in 1993?”
“Did you know a man called Henderson?”
“I did.”
“In what capacity?”
“He was my supervisor.”
“He died here in 1993 I believe.”
“He did.”
“How did it happen?”
“Gunshot. They say it was suicide.”

This conversation is long winded and loaded with exposition — background details — that could be revealed in a more imaginative way. It’s also dull. In the first exchange the second speaker is prickly, on the defensive from the start, and the conversation brims with conflict.

Differing agendas

The Henderson conversation above is dull because both speakers are cooperating and exchanging information in a calm, measured way. One way of adding interest is to give each speaker a different goal, then tailor their dialogue to help them achieve it. In the dull Henderson conversation the goal of the first speaker is to collect information, and the goal of the second is to deliver it. In this case we could add interest by changing the goal of the second speaker so that their objective is to conceal information.

“Were you working here in 1993?”
“Did you know a man called Henderson?”
“I was told he supervised you.”
“Not directly. Not for long anyhow.”
“He died here in 1993 I believe.”
“There was some accident I recall. Don’t know when exactly…” 

Remember that each character (even a minor one) should be the hero of their own story; each with a private agenda —something they want to get out of a situation. They might not always get what they want, but they can try. Giving characters differing agendas makes their exchanges more interesting: they become edgier; more unpredictable.

Transactional Analysis

There’s a psychological technique called Transactional Analysis that uses a Parent—Adult—Child model to classify exchanges between people. In simple terms Parent, Adult and Child each have different personality traits:

The Parent is authoritarian and bossy.

The Adult is reasonable.

The Child is impulsive and highly-strung.

The temperaments of Parent and Child are the most opposed and the conversations they have will be the most highly charged. Conversations between Adult and Child, and Adult and Parent will also be interesting, as will Parent to Parent, and Child to Child, but less so. The most boring conversations are between two Adults.

A character isn’t necessarily stuck with one trait. Someone who’s an Adult in one conversation might be a Child in another or a Parent in a third; and there’s nothing to stop these switches occurring within the same conversation.

The dull Henderson conversation sounds like an Adult to Adult exchange; while the shorter more interesting one that preceded it is Adult to Child. If we wanted to turn up the heat in this case we might have the reasonable Adult be revealed as a Parent:

(Adult) “Were you working here in 1993?”
(Child) “Why d’you want to know? Is this about Henderson?”
(Adult changing to Parent) “Yeah. And I’ll tell you why I want to know. You blew his brains out. And for twenty years you thought you’d got away with it!” 

This isn’t to say that every conversation has to be a shouting match with accusations and denials flying back and forth. Two people can talk in a perfectly agreeable way without actually agreeing on anything. Take the following:

“Shall we go down the park and feed the ducks?” Ada said.
“Ducks?” Dotty said. “I should say not. Dirty smelly animals.”
“You always said you liked ducks.”
Dotty shuddered. “I’ll not go to the park. Not after what I saw behind the bandstand.”
“I thought he’d apologised for that?”
“I’ll not have that man spoken of.” Dotty stood and reached for her coat. “Come on. Let’s go to the bingo.”

There’s no argument or overt conflict in the above, but Dotty’s evasive answers and abrupt change of subject generate tension. The exchange also delivers information, raises interesting questions and pushes the story along by resolving a question (how to spend the afternoon). It also reveals character: Dotty being quite dominant (playing the Parent in this exchange) and being Ada more submissive (an Adult who might change into a Child if she really hates bingo).

Speaker attributions

In the Duck conversation above the only direct speaker attribution is ‘said’. Some authorities maintain this is the only attribution you should ever use, but it can be tedious to see it too often. Alternative attributions for the first line could be:

“Shall we go down the park and feed the ducks?” Ada asked.

Or even:

“Shall we go down the park and feed the ducks?” Ada sighed.

A legitimate objection to the second suggestion is that Ada would give herself a hernia trying to sigh through all that dialogue, but there are many other ways to liven up dialogue with suitable modifiers, for example, a protagonist could:

we could go on…

Modifiers such as these are despised by some people for being intrusive short-hand. Using too many can make your work look amateurish but there will be cases where using a modifier such as ‘mumbled’ is the simplest and least intrusive way of getting across what you’re trying to say.

An alternative is to avoid using direct attributions altogether. In the Duck conversation it’s clear that Ada must be asking the question in the third line, even without an attribution. You can also attribute dialogue indirectly through action. For example, the fourth line starts with ‘Dolly shuddered’ and that’s enough to tell us the next line is hers. 

Beware of attributions that are surplus to requirements. We could have written:

Dotty shuddered. “I’ll not go to the park,” she said. “Not after what I saw behind the bandstand.”

But what would have been the point of the ‘she said’ in the middle? It adds nothing. Look for unnecessary attributions and delete them.

Word order in attributions

Many authors (including the great and good, such as Charles Dickens) put ‘said’ first or second according to need. For example:

“You'll make your fortune, Mr. Sowerberry,” said the beadle

“Well, well, Mr. Bumble,” he said at length

However, it’s better to be consistent. As a rule put ‘said’ second in all cases. After all you’d never write ‘said he’.


Single quotes or double quotes? There’s no accepted convention. In the UK single-quotes for dialogue are popular; doubles more so in the USA. In this book quotations and dialogue examples are double-quoted to distinguish them from highlighted words and phrases (single-quoted) but it could just as easily be the other way round.

Ellipses. Use the ellipse (three periods) to indicate dialogue that tails off. “What’s that in the sky? I looks like a…”

Em-dash. Use an em-dash (or the shorter en-dash) to show where dialogue is interrupted. “Put that gun down or I’ll — ”

Exclamations, question marks etc. Any punctuation belonging to the dialogue should be included within the quote marks: “Have at you!” not “Have at you”!

Interrobangs. The interrobang is a combination exclamation mark and question mark (‽). It was invented in the 1960s but never really took off; only a few fonts support it. If you want to use an exclamation mark and question mark together, put the exclamation first (!?) to express positive surprise, and question mark first for (?!) for forceful disbelief.

Main image: Velychko c/o Shutterstock

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