How To Write Dialogue, the wisdom of Mike Sirota

I always attend the La Jolla Writers Conference with my dad, and he encouraged me sit in on Mike Sirota‘s dialogue-writing workshop for good reason. Sirota offers a wealth of information on the subject. Here are the highlights:

Read Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella.

Dialogue is one of the places where you lose the reader. Usually, after the opening hook, it’s the next big “risk point.” And what should dialogue do?

  • reveal character
  • reveal plot
  • lend emotion
  • lend background and local color

Dialogue shows rather than tells. “Except when it tells,” says Mike with a smirk. And then he goes on to offer some balance percentages. How much of your story should be dialogue versus narrative? Mike suggests 60% narrative and 40% dialogue. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men offers a classic exmaple of this rule broken in a novel because it is about 80% dialogue. “But it was originally a play,” Mike points out.

Mike packs his workshop with useful dialogue writing tips. Here are a few:

  • Become an eavesdropper. Study how people really talk by paying attention to overheard conversation.
  • Leave out the $20 words. Nobody uses them.
  • Don’t worry about grammar and not-words, such as goin’ or gonna. Write the way you hear the speech.
  • When your character has an accent or dialect difference, don’t try to translate everything he says with phonetic spelling. Instead, choose key words to communicate the sound of the accent. Your reader will get it and fill in the rest.

Mike also discussed how to use dialogue tags, such as he said and she said:

  • Use dialogue tags sparingly.
  • If you’ve created unique characters with unique voices, you will need fewer clarification tags.
  • Switch up placement of tags. “Oh no,” he said. He said, “Oh no!” “Oh,” he said. “No!”
  • Many authors and fiction experts insist that the only proper dialogue tag verb is said, but that doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast rule. If someone really is replying, use he replied.
  • But adverbs in your dialogue tags are DEATH! Avoid stuff like he said longingly.
  • With no indicator tag, a reader can follow only 3-4 lines of dialogue before she gets lost.
  • Use tags as necessary: Is it obvious who’s speaking? Is it something only she would say? Does it only make sense if he says it?
  • Use narrative to replace dialogue tags. An action by a character adjacent to a quotation indicates that the same character who took action spoke the next line. For example: “Get over here!” Kristy wiggled a finger at him.

Mike also warns against two types of bad dialogue:

Irrellevent Dialogue: stuff nobody would say under the circumstances

Contrived Dialogue: a character tells you a story you need for the narrative to work

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