“I could put you in the movies,” he leered whilst leaning across towards the attractive young woman who sat opposite.
“Really?” She sounded unconvinced.
He placed an over-sized palm on her knee and smugly flashed a gold tooth in what he must have imagined to be a debonair fashion. She flinched, as if about to be devoured whole by a snake. It may not have been the reaction he was looking for, but it didn’t seem to deter him.
“I could make you a ssstar!” he announced emphatically.
She squirmed again. It sounded uncomfortably like a hiss.
Imagine that you are sitting on a busy commuter train on your way home after another hectic day in the classroom, and you suddenly hear the above snatch of conversation. What do you do?
Roundly chastise yourself with, “I’m a teacher, and teachers don’t eavesdrop!”, then virtuously change seats and continue with your marking?
Or, if feeling somewhat heroic, do you take off the bifocals and charge in with, “Excuse me, madam, is this rather large, intimidating-looking man bothering you!?”
Or perhaps you take a mid-course, stay where you are, put on a convincing display of conscientious coursework correction and surreptitiously cast sly, sideways glances whenever you can?
If your reaction is the latter, then the above piece of dialogue has succeeded because it has clearly caught your undivided attention. And this is a good rule of thumb for writing effective direct speech – it should be interesting enough to captivate a casual passer-by!
As your students will be writing about 800 words for their GCSE creative writing assignment, they will only need a limited amount of speech. The majority of the story will be narrative with some description. However, good dialogue does undoubtedly allow characters to step right out of the page and burst into life. It also enables the writing to become more multi-sensory and vivid, whilst simultaneously casting the reader in the undeniably tantalizing role of voyeur. So, with all this in mind, the following tips might be of use to your students.
1. Effective dialogue should enhance the interest level of the story, e.g. by creating conflict, tension, suspense or humour.
2. Effective dialogue should convey new information to the reader and, therefore, it has to be vital and fresh.
3. Effective dialogue should reveal the personalities of your characters and, thus, the more interesting and varied your characters are, the more interesting your dialogue will be.
4. Effective dialogue should be short, sharp and to the point, so avoid wordiness.
5. When using dialogue, it is important to ensure that the reader always knows who is speaking. Beginning a new paragraph for each new speaker is helpful but you will also need to tag certain lines, e.g. he said, she replied.
6. But only tag when absolutely necessary so as to avoid needless repetition.
7. Tags should not be intrusive. Some authors say that you should avoid alternatives such as he retorted, she queried, he growled, and so on. In the hands of a good writer, he said and she said, if used sparingly, can become invisible.
8. However, others authors believe that these tags should be diverse. Instead of Lucy said, you could substitute Lucy remarked ironically.
9. Perhaps the answer is to explore what your favourite novelists actually do and then experiment in your own writing. Occasionally, you might use such variations as exclaimed, declared, whispered, stated, roared, etc. But, as a general rule, you might stick to a mainstay of said, replied and asked, and only use the others when they are most effective. Remember, tags should remain invisible and so should only be used when required.
10. This is what happens when you over-use them:
“Just stick with me,” he confidently asserted.
“Are you certain?” she asked.
“Dead certain,” he replied reassuringly.
“I’m not,” she retorted, nervously laughing.
“I can make you a star!” he repeated.
11. One very effective trick is to intersperse brief flashes of narrative with dialogue in order to reveal what your characters are thinking and feeling, and in order to show what they are doing. This will help you to hide your tags. Or you can use beats. This is when you put in a narrative phrase to describe the character’s reaction or movements and so identify the speaker without using a tag.
This also allows you to place the dialogue in a world which has a physical dimension that the reader can perceive, thus making your writing more vivid. Otherwise, the conversation appears to be taking place in thin air, and this is much less interesting.
(Re-read the dialogue at the beginning of this article in order to see how the author has used narrative in both of these ways.)
12. However, do be careful. Just as you shouldn’t stifle a good free-flowing conversation by over-tagging it, neither should you kill it by putting too much narrative in between each spoken response!
Peter Morrisson is a teacher, author and director of animated films. He currently lectures at the Isle of Man College of Further and Higher Education.