When your characters speak

The Writing Bit
How do you make your dialogue convincing ?  It has to be realistic enough to be believable , but  your characters shouldn’t speak exactly like real people, and you only have to eavesdrop on a few conversations to see why.  Real people  say ‘um’ and ‘er’; we waffle; we go off the point; we don’t finish our sentences; we use the wrong word; we can’t remember why we started telling you this in the first place. Characters can’t get away with that (well, once, maybe, to make a point about the character).
But by and large, what your characters say should be more interesting, meaningful and to the point than what real people say, and they should say it in more interesting ways.  If you catch your character wittering on about something that really isn’t relevant to his/her character, the scene, or the overall story, it’s time to shut them up!
Dialogue is a wonderful way of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, but we do need to ‘tell’ sometimes, such as when showing would clearly bore the pants off our readers. So for example, it’s ok to summarise:
‘How was work,’ he asked.
She sat heavily on the sofa and sighed. ‘You don’t want to know,’ she said, and then proceeded to give him a blow-by-blow account of her day.
In terms of the characters and their relationship, maybe we do need to know that they had this discussion, but we don’t need to hear the blow-by-blow account of her day, so summarising in this way is fine.
Speech attribution
He said/she said. That’s it; it’s all you need.  Anything else is an authorial intrusion, because the reader is likely to notice it, and when a reader notices the writing, it means that he or she has stopped reading, albeit briefly.  Ok, we can probably get away with ‘he whispered’ (or muttered/yelled/shouted); and I don’t think the reader is likely to trip up over ‘she asked’ (or replied/added/continued) but please, oh please, avoid speech tags that are unnecessary or inappropriate at best, and at worst pompous, overblown or archaic. I have seen all of the following used as speech tags in contemporary fiction:  opined; interjected; retorted; exclaimed; remonstrated; expostulated; and (I kid you not) ejaculated.
The simplest tag of all, ‘said’, is virtually invisible on the page. If you feel you’re using it too much, can you show who’s speaking by their actions, or just by what they’re saying? For example:
‘Hey, at last!’ He stood up, smiling, his arms outstretched.
 She hurried towards him, dropped her bags at his feet. ‘I’m so, so sorry!’ She leaned in and kissed him. ‘First I couldn’t get a taxi, then the traffic was horrendous and the stupid man kept going on about what was wrong with the transport system in this country, and …oh sorry, I’m rambling. But I mean really, do I look like the sort of person who would be interested in – ‘
‘No, darling, you don’t. Anyway, you’re here now.’ He leaned over and pulled out the chair opposite. ‘Sit down. Drink?’
‘Oh lovely. G and T please.’
He looked around for a waiter. ‘Gin and tonic for my companion, please.’
She giggled. ‘Ooh, get you. “my companion” indeed.’
He leaned back in his chair, a smile spreading slowly over his face. ‘So how would you describe yourself?’
‘Let me see…girlfriend is too young; ladyfriend  is too old. Mistress? No, then people would think you were married. Shame; I quite like the idea of being a mistress.’ She leaned towards him and lowered her voice. ‘How about lover?’
Ok, it’s not the most riveting piece of dialogue I’ve ever written, but I think you’ll agree it’s fairly easy to tell who’s speaking, and not a speech attribution in sight. I’m not a fan of qualifying ‘said’ with adverbs, either (she said, angrily) But that’s probably a whole different blog post. 

So to sum up: he said, she said – fine. That is all.
The Food Bit
If you don’t went to spend too long faffing around in the kitchen, this  garlicky mushroom pasta is  dead easy and quite delish.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and pop in enough pasta (egg-free if you’re vegan) for two. Meanwhile, slice about 300g of mushrooms. I use a mixture of portobello, chestnut and ordinary closed cap mushrooms.  Put in a pan with some olive oil and cook over a medium heat. Crush two big fat cloves of garlic and chuck that in with the mushrooms. Add a good grind of black pepper, a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard and a slosh of white wine. Cook for a couple of minutes – they should be more or less cooked by now – then add about 100ml of string vegetable stock and a squeeze of lemon juice.  When the liquid has more or less evaporated, taste, and add salt and more pepper if necessary, and chuck in a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley.  Mix with the cooked pasta, adding more olive oil if liked, and serve. 
This goes well with most types of pasta.  For even more flavour, add a few dried porcini  (wild mushrooms). Soak in a little boiling water first, then add to the fresh mushrooms. You can use the remaining water as a base for your veggie stock, but make sure you strain it first because the mushrooms are sometimes a bit gritty. Suitable for vegans if you use vegan wine (or use more stock instead of wine).

To find out more about me and my work, visit: www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

12 thoughts on “When your characters speak

  1. JO says:

    I love your measurements – even I can chuck things in, add a slosh of wine. This might be possible, even without a daughter's help …

  2. Emma Pass says:

    Great post, Susan. I agree with you about dialogue tags. I prefer to use 'he/she/I said' and leave it at that, although I will use tags like 'muttered' or 'whispered' occasionally.

  3. isabelcostello says:

    Interesting post on dialogue Susan, and a subject that was much on my mind when I recently did the 'final' (though I'm sure it isn't) edit of my ms. It's amazing how many of those speech tags I was able to chop, for the reasons you give. When I'm reading, I'm often surprised how many flowery speech verbs do make it past the editor. Sometimes when there are more than two people in a conversation, it really isn't that obvious who is speaking and I find myself trying to retrace to a speaker I can identify, which pulls me right out of the story just as you said.

  4. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Oh, those 'final' edits…good luck!
    Yes, it's surprising what does make it into print, though, isn't it? Tricky when there are several speakers – must look out for some good examples of how other writers handle it.

  5. Abi Burlingham says:

    So glad you posted about this Susan. Dialogue is so hard to get right and make it sound natural. I love writing dialogue, I think it brings pieces alive and helps us to empathise and understand our characters. I agree with you and tend to stick with 'said' with the occasional whispered and shouted. The pasta dish sounds lovely – I do a similar one and it's one of my faves.

  6. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks Abi. I love writing dialogue too, and I agree that it absolutely brings characters alive. I always find a piece lifts when the characters start talking, as long as it sounds natural – I'm quite sensitive to dialogue that draws attention to the writing rather than the characters and the situation.

  7. Michelle Daly says:

    That was very interesting. You can be my teacher Susan and I shall tune in here every week for more lessons. 🙂
    I would be interested to read your views on characters with accents. When I wrote the Irish scenes in I Love Charlotte Bronté I used Irish dialect but have since dropped the accents because some people say accents can be quite irritating to read and are unnecessary. I tend to agree.
    I wish you'd have been my teacher at school, maybe they wouldn't have kicked me out and I would have learnt so much..

  8. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Michelle, what a lovely comment – thank you so much. The accent thing is quite a big debate and maybe something I should cover in a furture blog. Irvine Welsh seemed to get away with it in Trainspotting, but as you say, many people do find it irritating. I tend to try and convey by dialect alone, but I think I do sometimes show an accent by spelling phonetically here and there. I haven't read I Love Charlotte Bronte yet, but it's on my kindle, ready and waiting! I'm looking forward to it! x

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