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Tips on Writing Better Dialogue

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Oakley Hall, in The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, offers the rule, "One thought at a time and keep the lines short." In life, conversation takes a long time to get to the point. In fiction, you have to get on the express train. Notice in this example from Raymond Carver, how the sentences are short and relatively free of extraneous words:

"When I left, he drank rat poison," Terri said. She clasped her arms with her hands. "They took him to the hospital in Santa Fe. That's where we lived then, about ten miles out. They saved his life. But his gums went crazy from it. I mean they pulled away from his teeth. After that, his teeth stood out like fangs. My God," Terri said.
The anecdote tells a lot about the main character and the kind of life she lived in the past. It also propels the story to the conflict between the protagonists. And the details are compelling and original -- we've never heard a story quite like this one. Every word is necessary.

This example also shows Carver's mastery in capturing the rhythm of everyday speech. Most people don't talk in complex sentences, so the sentences are short and simply constructed. He uses the dialogue to convey information in a natural way; the drama comes through the description, "She clasped her arms with her hands," and through that final "My God." In one paragraph he makes her distress evident, without using flowery language or adjectives.

If you have a hard time judging your dialogue or hearing the rhythm of it, try recording your dialogue. Then play it back and make notes on where you fumble with the words. Wherever it doesn't feel natural, stop and make a change.

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