7 tips to level up your fiction dialogue: a trip to Planet Bloviate

This blog post on fiction dialogue covers:

  • Basic and intermediate problems with fiction dialogue
  • How to avoid clunky dialogue
  • Showing vs. telling in fiction dialogue
  • Action beats and narrative beats

But before we explore the world of fiction dialogue…

Meet Jamie

Jamie (she/he/they) journeys around the universe of words.

Words, the basic building block of this universe, have congealed into planets, stars, and galaxies, all full of stories.

Each world tells a different tale. This blog follows Jamie’s adventures as she explores different worlds.

Today she’s intrigued by fiction dialogue on Planet Bloviate.

FICTION DIALOGUE ON PLANET BLOVIATE

On Planet Bloviate, the inhabitants relate to each other in unusual ways. They love to use uncommon dialogue tags to tell the reader what is happening. Take this typical scene, for example:

The commander stood beside the spaceship door. “Where is your entry permit,” she bloviated arrogantly.

“It must be in my back pocket,” the low-ranking officer whimpered fearfully.

“You have five seconds to show me,” the commander boomed threateningly.

Jamie doesn’t like this style. All these unusual verbs are conspicuous and pull the reader out of the text! She compares how people talk in other stories on other planets, and she comes up with a set of guiding principles. Here they are:

7 TIPS TO LEVEL UP YOUR FICTION DIALOGUE

1)     USE SIMPLE DIALOGUE TAGS

Stick to simple dialogue tags (said, asked, replied) most of the time as they are invisible. We want to reader to immerse themselves in the worlds we create and anything that takes us out of the experience is potentially disruptive. Instead, convey tone through spoken words and actions, and use unusual dialogue tags very occasionally to mix things up.

2)     USE ADVERBS, BUT DON’T OVERUSE THEM

Like unusual dialogue tags, beginner writers often overuse adverbs in fiction writing.  Let spoken words and actions get the message across, and watch out for overdetermination. If someone is whimpering while being challenged by a senior official, we can guess that they are doing so in fear and not for other reasons. We can show or tell the reader, but we don’t need to do both.

Many beginner writers likely overuse adverbs because they want to convey everything in their imagination to the reader. But less is often more as the reader’s imagination will fill in the gaps.

Of course, throwing an occasional adverb or unusual dialogue tag into the mix is fine. The trick lies in getting the balance right.

In the Planet Bloviate example above, all three adverbs convey something that is already coded in the verbs.

3)     AVOID FILLER WORDS AND PHRASES IN FICTION DIALOGUE

Fiction dialogue should not mirror real-world dialogue in all its aspects. You can drop filler words and phrases that don’t add anything to the sentence, but that do reflect how we do talk. Examples include “I mean,” “like,” as in:

“I, like, told him to go away, do you know what I mean?”

Versus: “I told him to go away.”

The exception would be when such a phrase is important for moving the story forward or changing the tone.

The same goes for other ways in which we speak in the real world. We often think out loud and mention half-baked plans and ideas that could be cut from a novel.

4)     DECIDE ON HOW NON-STANDARD YOUR FICTION DIALOGUE WILL BE

There are some great stories written in all kinds of language varieties of English, some considered dialects, patois, or languages themselves (take Scots for example). However, if you’re going to make a language variety that is unfamiliar to your audience part of the story, then you have a lot of work to do to ensure they’ll understand enough. When authors pull this off, it’s amazing and really adds to the texture of the story.

But if your language use is close to standard norms then including the occasional phrase is likely to pull the reader out of the story. For example, if your language is fairly standard throughout and then you have a character use non-standard spellings such as “doncha know,” this could be distracting for the reader.

Incidentally, what I LOVE about fiction editing is that it’s much more flexible and less prescriptive than other kinds of published writing.

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules here – what works is what makes sense in the context of a story, but it’s something to watch out for, particularly when beginner writers want to use dialogue to sound authentic.

5)     INCLUDE ACTION BEATS

Action beats are descriptions of actions that convey information to the reader. Oftentimes, they tell use where people are in space, how they are feeling etc. Take this example:

The commander stood beside the spaceship door. “Where is your entry permit.” She glared at the officer.

“It must be in my pocket.” The low-ranking officer’s hand reached for her back pocket, shaking as she did so.

They take things up a notch as they can pull the reader into the setting and be used to convey tone and feeling indirectly – because certain behaviours often accompany certain emotions e.g.

  • Feeling nervous – pacing up and down a room
  • Thinking about something – scratching your head or your chin
  • Feeling angry – clenching your fists

Actions beats are also helpful for improving the rhythm and flow, as dialogue can get very repetitive and clunky when there is a constant “he said, she said” back and forth.

6)     MIX UP YOUR ACTION BEATS

Now for some intermediate-level tips!

OK, so action beats are great, but sometimes authors stick to the same ones. If Paul is always scratching their head when thinking about something, or Jamie is always stalking down the street when angry, the reader can get a bit bored.

If an action beat is constantly used as a stand-in for a particular emotion, then it’s worth mixing things up a bit!

Self-editing prompt: Look at a piece of writing and list all your action beats. Do you use them repetitively? If so, brainstorm a list of new possibles and make edits to improve the variety of beats.

7)     INCLUDE NARRATIVE BEATS

An action beat is just that – an action or behaviour that takes us into the scene and the events unfolding – both into the space and into the emotions. They convey the tone but don’t mark out a big shift in tone or the events unfolding. Narrative beats, meanwhile, advance the story in some way. Let’s add to the improved version of the dialogue.

The commander stood beside the spaceship door. “Where is your entry permit,” she said.

“It must be in my pocket.” The low-ranking officer’s hand reached for her back pocket, shaking as she did so.

The commander’s gaze intensified. “You have five seconds to show me.”

“Here you are,” the officer said.

The commander tore them up and pushed the officer away from the entrance.

(dialogue continues)

Here, we use actions to advance the story.

Now, this is just scratching the surface – there are multiple kinds of narrative beats, for example. But hopefully, these seven points will have demonstrated just how exciting – and potentially complex – editing fiction dialogue can be.

A FINAL WORD OF CAUTION:

When should you apply all these tips exactly? The answer: when practicing dialogue or when revising your early drafts.

This is because editing and creative writing use different parts of your brain and personality.

Creative writing draws on our inner child – the source of our creativity. During this stage of the writing process, you should push any expectations of “good” or “proper” writing aside and follow your intuition.

Editing, meanwhile, involves applying techniques and rules to improve certain aspects of a text. This involves more rational and learnt techniques, although there is creativity involved too – it’s just not given free rein in the same way as when drafting.

This is why writing and editing are best separated out. Over time, you will use some of the editing tips automatically in your writing anyway, so drafting and self-editing is best viewed as a circle of sculpting a story and then pruning it or filing it down (depending on whether it’s more of a hedge or a stone sculpture!)

Jamie’s sense is that Planet Bloviate is in the early stages of its formation. She’s intrigued to see how the story develops over the next few years. But for now, she’s off on her travels to see what the next planet in this solar system has to offer.

Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash

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