Home > Techniques and tips > 5 Great Ways to Break up Dialogue

5 Great Ways to Break up Dialogue

June 16th, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
  • Tweet
  • Tweet

Writing dialogue is one of the best shortcuts to showing character. I love it! But you can have too much! A whole page of dialogue can be confusing, and boring – it just doesn’t have the punch that action does! So, how can we break it up and keep our story moving?

Enter five handy hints! Some of these are intended to spice things up, some are intended to keep the action flowing. A good mix of all three should ensure your dialogue has punch and doesn’t slow the pace of your techno-spy-action-megathriller!

Storytelling by Yau Hoong Tang

This great image is courtesy of Yau Hoong Tang

1. Vary he said, she said

I’m all for keeping things simple, me. For that reason I have a tendency to stick to plain “s/he said” when describing speech, or even omit these altogether. The problem with the latter is it can be confusing; the former can be boring. So instead, why not use more descriptive words to add character?

An obligatory note about adverbs: a lot of writers absolutely hate them, and you’ll read plenty of advice telling you to steer clear of things like, “she said, grudgingly” or “he said, enthusiastically”. Although I think a rare adverb is okay, I agree that generally speaking they should be avoided, and here’s why:

  • They sound childish.
  • Just like having too many examples of any “sound” in your writing, the repetition of the “lee” sound most adverbs make can quickly become distracting.
  • They are telling, not showing. It’s much more effective to describe the way someone is saying something and let the reader decide whether that means they were enthusiastic or not.

So instead, use more descriptive words to add a little flavour to your dialogue. Let’s take that last example of enthusiastically. You could use:

“Definitely,” he yelled.

Worried that isn’t enough to show enthusiasm? Don’t be – the context does the rest. If the preceding line was, “want to go play in the park?” the yelling becomes enthusiastic. If it was, “are you pissed off with me?” the response becomes an angry shout. In each case using the descriptive phrase is better than “he said”.

2. Insert a small action

Adding small actions into exchanges is a great way of making it feel like a scene, rather than a dry list of phrases. People do stuff all the time, even if it’s just flicking the hair out of their eyes.

It can

  • remind the reader where the characters are – “Jenny riffled through the cupboard for the coffee, knocking over a packet of pop tarts in the process”
  • add atmosphere – “Mark turned to the window before answering, noting the darkened streets, and the blue-black clouds above” – there’s a bit of description there as a bonus
  • crucially, add subtext or character as described in this post by Becca Pglisi on The Bookshelf Muse.
  • 3. Insert a thought

    This functions in the same way as above, but be careful. By its very nature, revealing someone’s thoughts directly is telling rather than showing. If possible, you should describe the characters’ actions and allow the reader to figure it out as in the subtext article above. Use thoughts to break up your text when it would be difficult or confusing to get the message across in other ways. Consider the following example:

    “You sure that’s not a problem?”
    “Course, she’s done this loads of times. Trust me,” Daniel replied with a wave of his hand.
    Jack wondered if Sarah felt the same way.

    Trying to reveal Jack’s thought with a facial expression might not reveal what you wanted, and at the worst, could use a lot of words to give the reader the wrong impression. Of course, it all depends on context, and what comes next in the exchange can make it considerably easier.

    Also note that we are seeing things from Jack’s point of view here. Generally speaking, a story will be seen from one character’s point of view at a time, or become confusing. It would not make sense for us to reveal Jack’s thoughts in this way if we were seeing the story from Daniel’s point of view, for example.

    4. Play the dialogue over constant action

    Now we’re cooking! This gives you lots to work with to break up the dialogue, and will guarantee that the story keeps its pace.

    In my current WIP I wrote a scene where two characters are talking a lot (this is the inspiration for this post, naturally). I was inserting some thoughts about what the character had discovered in the ship he’d stolen (admittedly a mini info-dump). I realise as I wrote that this would need to be rewritten, and how – the protagonist should be showing his visitor all the great stuff he’d found while they spoke – a guided tour. Why take time out to dump the info when I could be breaking up this dialogue exchange, drip-feeding information, and showing how interesting the contents were through character reactions?

    This example also demonstrates what we mean when we say “action”. We are not necessarily talking a fist-fight, death-defying leap (which would be hard to talk through), or shoot-out here. I mean any action. In fact, a dialogue exchange during an all-out action scene can be distracting or come off as unrealistic, especially if you have a lot of complicated and crucial information for the reader during the exchange. So be careful.

    5. Use more dialogue!

    Sounds a little crazy – break up dialogue with more dialogue? What’s he on about, then? It’s a bit of a cheat, I admit, but what I mean is vary your dialogue.

    But I think it helps to still think of this method as an interruption. Interrupt your dialogue with other dialogue.

    Mr Ed chatting

    Did you know Mr. Ed was played by a zebra? It's true!

    Still confused? How about these examples. You could have your characters

    • literally interrupt each other
    • interrupt themselves. I do this all the time, interrupting my own speech as a new thought comes into my head.
    • talk over each other
    • talk at cross purposes
    • disagree more
    • take offence more

    You can see how framing more dialogue as interruptions produces a certain kind of speech that gives your conversations more punch, variety and generally makes them more interesting.

    So there we have it – five dialogue delights for discussion! So discuss! I’m sure there are other methods. And what about intentionally slowing a story down with dialogue, or using dialogue to speed things up? Please leave your comments on this versatile writer’s tool!

Categories: Techniques and tips Tags: