Using reported speech to avoid writing boring dialogue (tip 34) Reply

Unless you’re a certain type of Californian, the question ‘How are you?’ isn’t designed to solicit and in-depth answer. Rather, like much of our spoken communication, it’s designed to merely perform some social task – it’s an example of what linguists call a ‘phatic expression.’ Other conversations are mundane, and the information they contain is only important to the participants – it may matter to Jack what time Jill will get home from the dentist, but it’s not a conversation that would entertain an eavesdropper. When writing dialogue in fiction, we normally want to cut out as much phatic and mundane speech as possible, so that only the interesting stuff remains. One of the best ways to do this is by using reported speech.


Video transcript follows below:
Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out,” and this is something we should remember when we’re writing dialogue.

How often have you seen something this in a film.

I need to meet you tonight
(…)
I know, but you won’t regret it. Just be there.

And the guy hangs up and the scene moves on and you’re thinking… Wait – they never arranged a time or place to meet!

But there’s a very good reason why they didn’t – because it would be boring. Think how the conversation might play out in real life.

I need to meet you tonight
(…)
I know, but you won’t regret it. Just be there.
(…)
Oh yeah, good point. Well, I was thinking of that seafood place down on– You don’t like seafood? No, no sure. Okay… what about Italian? You like Italian?
(…)
Great. Well how about that little Marco’s place behind the opera house?
(…)
It’s shut? When did that happen?
(…)
Well, it’s a tough climate isn’t it? Hmm. I don’t know where else does Italian food.
(…)
That sounds great. Let me get a pen. What d’you say it’s called? Ciao Roma and that’s–
(…)
Oh, near the Train Station? I’ll google it, don’t worry. What’s the parking like round there?
(…)
Sounds good. Let’s say six then– Actually, no – I’m getting the boiler repaired and I don’t know what time the guy’s coming at. How about…’

Before you know it, the conversation’s taking up half the film.

And whether you’re writing a screenplay or prose, you need to ensure that every line of dialogue has some purpose within the story. So try to cut out all the boring bits, and be especially wary of writing introductions and conclusions to conversations. Consider this dialogue:

‘Hi Steve. How are you?’
‘I’m fine, thanks. How are you?’
‘Not bad, thanks – at work but what can you do?’
‘Ha ha, me too. Did you have a good weekend?’
‘Yeah, it was okay. Didn’t do much.’
‘Quiet one, eh?’
‘Yeah, few beers and a DVD.’
‘Nice.’
‘Listen, Steve, I wanted to ask about Debs.’
‘Debs? What makes you think I know anything about Debs?’

It’s realistic – that is how real conversations develop – but it’s really boring.

That conversation would be much better rewritten using reported speech. For instance:

Monday morning, I asked Steve about Debs. ‘Debs?’ he said, ‘What makes you think I know anything about Debs?’

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail photograph uses an image by Brian Henry Thompson. It’s covered by a Creative Commons License and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brianhenrythompson/

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