The word “dialogue” implies that I’m going to talk about fiction in this essay, but the actuality is that in writing journalistic articles, we also quote people’s speech. So what I say below may well apply to nonfiction writing. (I was a business journalist for many years.)
How much dialogue should be included?
Word from the experts and sometimes me as well is that we should have plenty of dialogue from our characters (or interviewees). And “plenty” is a good amount. But the problem I see quite a lot is that writers will use dialogue in exclusion of narration. Speech, speech, speech. And that’s how all the information is presented. And the format can be both boring and really emotionless. Dialogue or constant quotes may miss out on nuance or humanity. I so want authors to vary their means of presentation.
“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie Brown. “Wah wah wah.”
What’s another format that should be toggled with the direct quote dialogue approach?
“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie Brown. The boy turned red with frustration and looked Patty right in the eye. He repeated himself. Then he told her that this time he was going to kick that football straight in the guts.
And for the news story?
“Wah wah wah,” said Charles Brown, independent candidate for the council seat left open last July by the death of 17-year council member Irene Patty. Brown in speaking to reporters after the debate noted that he was against continuing free lunches for public school children. “Free lunches may fill their stomachs, but leave them with empty souls.”
Another thing to watch for in writing dialogue is the ever-present danger of talking heads, also known as my turn, your turn. Dialogue without connective tissue is frankly boring.
“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie.
“Haw haw haw,” said Peppermint Patti.
Generally the talking heads includes some speaking without tags, leaving readers are on their own as to who has spoken, though sometimes little clues are given. But no adding the characters’ or subjects’ expressions, their movement in the room, or deductions about their attitudes.
However, going without tags can be a nice variation so long as who is speaking is clearly indicated by the words themselves or by an action taken before or after the spoken words.
“I can’t be pregnant. I’m taking birth control pills.” We can guess the speaker’s gender, so this must be Patti saying this and not Charlie.
“I hit him and hit him and hit him.” The accused murderer is undoubtedly the speaker here.
Charlie took another sip of the drink that had been set in front of him. “Wah wah.”
Charlie has spoken—and that’s why we include the action in the paragraph with his speech and not in the paragraph “belonging” to the other guy.
Dialogue is good and needed in fiction just as quotes are in an article. And while you’re allowed to be a little bit boring in a run-of-the mill news report (though not in a feature), fiction has to do a better job than being average. Dialogue is essential in fiction, but not all information can be delivered in dialogue. And who is speaking must always be clear.
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