Writing the Short Story 6: Dialogue
by Editor Magazine
The subject of dialogue in fiction is one that must
necessarily be dismissed with a few general rules. Yet this
does not mean that it is of trivial importance; on the contrary, it is
vital. The story in which the speeches are stilted, superfluous, or
lacking in character-suggestion, is a very poor story indeed.
As has been hinted, the primary demands are that dialogue be
natural, tell the story itself and possess individuality that will
suggest the speaker. Too many writers overlook these points and offer a
mere labyrinth of twaddle. Bates puts it admirably when he says that
"the use of quotation marks does not convert a passage into dialogue."
First, then, the speech of a character must be natural. It must reflect
the dialogue of real people with whom we are familiar. It must be
possible, logical and convincing. Often students are advised to write
dialogue precisely as they hear it in real life. Except in rare cases,
however, this is ridiculous. A street conversation contains
few sentences that may be analyzed; it depends upon what the speakers
see and understand, upon the movement of the eye or the hand
or the shrug of the shoulder, upon the inflection of the voice, upon a
thousand and one details that rob the words themselves of
their full value when they are reduced to writing. Explanatory
comments are advisable, of course, but they can not fully
offset the weaknesses of this method. To the writer's mind, this advice
should be modified sharply. First, write out the speeches as they are
overheard; next, expand the fragments into complete sentences,
that the full sense may be emphasized; finally, strike a happy medium
by pruning the repetitions, the superfluous words, the phrases
and clauses. The first draft will be incomplete and unintelligible; the
second, stilted and heavy; the third should be the proper natural,
necessary, individual dialogue of the story.
Most of us, of course, talk in prosy commonplaces. These are not for
the story, as the function of its dialogue is to make the narrative
attractive by sparkling wit or humor, spontaneous cleverness
or sharply portrayed individuality. The story speeches should not be
prosaic, simply because the plot offers situations of tension of
interest; it deals with the super-
commonplaces, with emotions, intuitions, impulses, intoxications of the
Second, the dialogue should be essential to the story.
Conversation brightens some fiction and ruins other. Study the
effect to be produced, bearing constantly in mind that dialogue gives
freshness and brightness; that it is the froth of writing; and
that straight narration is best reserved for more dramatic
effects. The epigram is an outgrowth of dialogue; the humorous story is
polished to a shimmering brightness by it; the bright society tale
depends largely upon it for its smartness. The list, indeed, could be
A second consideration is the matter of superfluous writing.
The beginner is apt to use dialogue for its own sake. Unless it adds to
the story, it should be omitted. A speech that tells nothing, that
suggests nothing, that is dropped in simply as a "brightener," is a
severe drag. Each sentence of speech must accomplish a definite end. A
good practice for study is an effort to determine the contribution of
each and every speech. By all means, make the dialogue natural
; but do not allow it to digress, to overstep its limits, to do aught
than actually tell the story itself.
Third, dialogue must portray character. In the beginner's
story, it is customary to make all the people talk alike. There is no
note of individuality; the reader must search for the form of "said" to
determine the speaker. This gives puppets instead of real
characters. A man's speech defines him; it may be a mask, but the
experienced author only emphasizes the fact by its artificiality. It
generally reveals clearly the heart and soul of the speaker.
In the fundamental study, the use of dialect offers an excellent
starting point, although this tends to indicate classes or
types rather than individuals. It is of great service, however, to the
author who is striving to differentiate his characters.
This matter of the portrayal of characters by dialogue has already been
discussed in an earlier chapter. In passing, however, it is worth
noting that the speeches of a man vary according to the situation, the
mood and the building or demolishing of character. The
dialogue should be made the keynote.
The use of "said" for every speech marks the amateur. In the first
place, if the dialogue is individual, it should suggest the speaker,
making unnecessary the use of any form. Again, the
subject, or reference to the preceding speech, may obviate any definite
pointing out of the one who utters it. In the second place, there are
hundreds of variations of "said." Every writer should compile such a
list for himself, dividing the verbs to suit the moods, the characters,
the situations and the modifying explanations.
Here is a point that can not be overlooked. The addition of a comment
as to gesture, manner in which a speech is given, adaptability of
remark to speaker, etc., is often a spice for the dialogue that makes a
comparatively heavy speech thoroughly palatable. The study is one which
must be developed by the student. Only a
few generalizations can be offered:
1. Do not use any form of
"said" unless clearness demands it.
The best way to learn to write dialogue is to put down the speeches in
full, and then edit them. The revision may be grouped into rule
suggestions as follows:
2. Vary your verbs of speech, both to avoid monotony and to
indicate the method or mode.
3. Avoid an overuse of adverbs.
4. Make the adverbs express the exact shade of meaning. Avoid
overworked words like "cleverly," "manfully," and the like.
5. Use the form of "said" in the first natural pause of a
speech, or at the end of the first sentence, unless some special effect
is desired. Incidentally, the result to
be accomplished by the speech should be studied before the dialogue is
6. Do not use adverbs unless there
is some definite verb which they modify.
7. Strive always to avoid the cumbersome phrase or clause
when the verb will suffice. "Laughed the
girl" is much better than "said the girl with a laugh."
8. Avoid long phrases or
clauses. At best, the explanation is a
parenthetical comment that constantly threatens the
interest of the speech itself.
1. See that the dialogue
accomplishes its demands, i. e., is
natural, necessary, individual.
2. Eliminate the superfluous.
3. Substitute forms of "said" for portions of speeches;
substitute modifying words, phrases and clauses.
4. Study the paragraphing of dialogue. This mechanical breaking of the
story into paragraphs gives it movement and vim. It also solves the
problem of differentiating the speakers and avoiding monotony. In this
connection, the topic of interruptions should be given special
5. Study your characters at first hand, and through this
observation their speeches.
6. Read the best dialogues in printed fiction.
7. Write incessantly to acquire the necessary attributes of
style governing dialogue. This is one
kind of writing that demands practice more than study.
The best examples of work of this kind are to be found in current
fiction. Study dialect, the dialogue of historical novels, the speeches
of modern day characters in peculiar situations, etc. "The Mill on the
Floss," in a number of its chapters, illustrates the
introduction of many characters by means of conversation. "The
Dolly Dialogues" serve as good examples of their kind. For
psychological insight and dramatic skill, read Kipling and Jack London.
Shakespeare carries lessons of many kinds. "Parlor Farces," by Howells,
is worth a reading. Many magazines offer monthly examples of stories
told largely in the form of dialogue.
The general exercises that will benefit have been suggested in part.
The following practice attempts, however, will whet the mind:
1. Write a story wholly in
dialogue, using only the
necessary explanatory modifiers.
2. Strive to suggest the drift of a conversation by
eliminating the actual speeches and retaining forms of "said,"
general directions and modifying words, phrases and clauses.
2. Rewrite some well-known story:
(a) Eliminating all
dialogue and making it straight
(b) Telling it wholly in dialogue.
(c) Reversing the positions of the hero and
villain—or any two principal characters—and
attempting to reveal individualities by changing the style of
4. Write a brief monologue with the sole idea of portraying the
character of the speaker.
5. Work out in your mind new individualities for noted
fiction-folk and strive to suggest them without changing any
writing except the dialogue.
6. Record an overheard conversation.
(a) Write out
conversational ideas in full.
(b) Eliminate superfluous passages.
(c) Make natural by the process described in this