Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Creative Writing - The Art of Dialog

When a person speaks, those listening hear tone, and assimilate peripheral information like body language and context to gain a total understanding of the meaning of the words. Identical words spoken within a disparate set of circumstances using different inflection and tone convey varied messages.

For example: "Pick that up."

Consider an organized housewife speaking with her husband by phone. She asks him to pick an item up from the grocery store on his way home from work. Her tone will differ from that of a teacher scolding a student for tossing a paper airplane in class. Dialog alone doesn't paint a complete image.

In creative writing, the goal is to engage the reader's imagination and pull them into the story with an active voice that sets the tone and mood. "Show don't tell" is a familiar mantra within creative writing classes, and a lesson learned over time with the experience of writing.

How to Convey Tone

Tone conveys emotion. How something is said changes the meaning. It sets the mood. Don't rely on explanatory speaker attributions imbedded in speech tags to convey meaning. For example: "Pick that up?" he asked disgustedly. The adverb disgustedly tells rather than shows that the character is disgusted. Avoid describing emotion that the dialog should carry. Let readers experience the underlying emotion naturally without telling them what to feel with the use of descriptive modifiers.

Descriptive modifiers amend the meaning of what they modify with further information. When used in speech tags, they modify the dialog by telling the reader how it is said. Most editors consider the use of excessive speaker attributions as amateurish. Don't tell the reader how something is said. Instead, build enough detail around the dialog with action that conveys the tone through body language. Consider the difference: Muscles in his jaw tightened. "Pick it up?" His face twisted in disgust.

Words like hissed, seethed, etc. draw attention from the dialog to focus on the speech tag's telling information. Using speaker attributions marks writers as inexperienced. Stay away from describing emotion the dialog should carry. Verbs other than "said" tell readers what to think, instead of allowing dialog to speak for itself. If emotion connected with the scene is clear, the modifier offers redundant information. Redundancy ruptures the flow of the passage. It's distracting.

While avoiding descriptive modifiers, don't compensate by imbedding information dumps within dialog. Unnatural dialog leads readers to wonder why the author artificially added content-another distraction.

Mood and Emotion when Crafting Dialog

Body language infuses emotion into dialog. Sometimes what is not said is more powerful that what is said. People move and make facial expressions when they talk. Known as a beat, actions surrounding dialog limit redundant tags. If you show the character pound their fist against the table, it eliminates the temptation to use a speech tag telling the reader he is angry.

Creative writing reveals not just an exchange of dialog between characters but unveils thought processes that expose motives, emotions and internal conflict. This is one area where writing a book has advantages over producing a film. Knowing a character's thoughts lets readers experience life within the story from the character's point of view and to connect on an emotional level.

In creative writing, thoughts are italicized differentiating them from spoken dialog.

Who Is Speaking?

When two characters engage in a verbal interchange, it's easy to make it clear which character is speaking. A rule of thumb to follow is to use speech tags for only one of the two characters. Speech tags are not necessary every time the character speaks, but should be used as needed for clarity.

When a new character joins the other two, it becomes a little trickier to elucidate which character is speaking. Tools such as speech tags and beats help move the story along with clarity. However, a word of caution regarding using the basic modifier said. In an effort to avoid redundancy, beginning writers search for synonyms like replied, remarked, exclaimed and other similar words. Unfortunately, these draw attention away from the dialog. Don't use them or at best, use them sparingly. In most cases the word said is the preferred modifier.


Colorful characters developed within the creative process have gender, physical characteristics, and a limited past including where they come from and the education they have received. These factors reflect in the character's speech. When writing dialog, don't get carried away with phonetic spellings to show dialect. If readers stumble through strange spellings, focus is no longer on a natural give and take between characters, but more like working a "What's this word supposed to be" puzzle.

In the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, authors Renni Browne and Dave King say it best. "Explanations, -ly adverbs, oddball verbs of speech, trick spellings-these can't really help your dialogue because they don't really change the dialogue. They take the place of good dialogue rather than help create it."

Instead, make appropriate word and grammar choices to convey dialect flavor. Read dialog aloud. With the right setting and proper word choices, dialect comes through without tricky spellings that send your spell checker into overload and readers scratching their head.


Lyn said...

Great information. Thanks for sharing. Lyn

Donna Sundblad said...

Hi Lyn,

Thanks for visiting and taking a moment to let me know you enjoyed this article.


Nardeeisms said...

Enjoyed the tips Donna! Thanks for sharing so generously! - Nards

Donna Sundblad said...

Thanks Nards,

Glad to know you find the articles helpful. You're an encouragement.