Writing Dialogue That Speaks Volumes
Fiction is made up of two main structural elements: narrative and dialogue. Narrative is the description of what’s happening–the describing of characters, settings, moods and actions. Dialogue is either spoken or thought.
* Spoken dialogue, often referred to as external dialogue (or verbal, active or impassive dialogue), is always easy to spot. Just look for quotation marks. ‘Like this,’ she suggested. Everything within those quotation marks is something someone is saying out loud.
* Thought dialogue, usually referred to as internal dialogue (or passive speech or passive dialogue), is a direct thought sometimes indicated by a tag like he thought or he realized. A thought can also be injected into a passage of narrative, and is often indicated by the use of italics. Or the thought can stand alone like a line of dialogue. Sometimes single quotation marks are used: ‘What is he doing?’ she wondered.
Dialogue is a key element of fiction, and it is often formatted incorrectly. Some writers overuse dialogue to the point that it is difficult to visualize the setting or the actions. It might feel like everyone is just standing around gabbing, instead of doing something to save the world. Other writers create so much narrative that their story is merely being told and described versus experienced. The reader misses out on the connection to the character. Dialogue must have a sense of balance and natural flow within the work.
The purpose of dialogue in a story is to move your characters through not only their actions but their speech. Some short stories can be effective as pure narrative, but in general, you want to incorporate dialogue so you can engage or capture the reader’s attention and draw them into your characters’ lives. Imagine rewriting the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Let’s say you wrote: Then Papa Bear asked everyone if they knew who was sleeping in his bed. (This is very dry.) It is not nearly as exciting as writing: ‘Who’s been sleeping in my bed?’ Papa Bear bellowed. (Can you hear him, imagine his voice?)
When people read a story with dialogue, they usually imagine a voice and sometimes a dialect (like a French or Scottish accent). Dialogue engages a reader into believing that the imaginary world the writer has created is real. And as a writer, that is exactly what you want. This means that your dialogue must look and feel authentic.
Engaging dialogue can be constructed using 3 main parts:
* a verbal message/ dialogue that sounds real ‘ ‘I should’ve gone into computers.’
* a ‘tag’ or speaker attribution ‘ he muttered.
* a ‘beat’ ‘ She paused, stroking her chin. ‘‘‘
Verbal messages: Dialogue should always sound natural. Listen to how people talk, the words they use, the slang, the abbreviated sentence structure. If you write everything primly and correctly, without using these factors, your dialogue will not sound real and everyone will come across as extremely educated, pompous people.
Authentic dialogue comes from knowing your character. Who is he or she? If your character is five, his vocabulary is five. If the character is uneducated, his vocabulary is uneducated (use slang). If your character is a lawyer, he may use legalese (lawyer speak) or legal terms. If your character is from Scotland, lad, he’ll use that sing-song voice, now won’t he?
Use contractions (I’m, don’t, shouldn’t, we’ve, she’d, they’re, they’d etc.). Use slang (yeah, naw, gonna, shoulda, yo, ain’t) if it fits the character. Have your characters swear if it fits them, but watch that you don’t overuse expletives. Most readers find it distracting if characters are cursing on every page or every time they speak. The same goes for slang.
Tags: Tags are character identifiers. They tell you who is speaking. Tags like he said or she whispered are common. Use said more than any other tag. Tags with mumbled, muttered, whispered, grumbled, replied, quipped, responded, demanded, retorted, commanded, shouted, hollered, cried, etc. should be used sparingly and be varied.
The tag ‘hissed’ should only be used with dialogue containing soft ‘c’ or ‘s’ sounds.
RIGHT: ‘Sally!’ she hissed.
WRONG: ‘George!’ she hissed.
Words like ‘laughed’, ‘chuckled’, ‘scowled’, ‘sighed’ and ‘grimaced’ are physical actions and should not be used as a tag. Use them as beats or after ‘he said’.
‘That’s gross,’ he said with a grimace.
‘I know,’ she said, laughing.
He scowled. ‘Then why are you still doing it?’
Tags can be placed before, in the middle or after a section of dialogue.
Irma said, ‘I’ll take that cup of coffee now. I need something to wake me up.’
‘I’ll take that cup of coffee now,’ Irma said. ‘I need something to wake me up.’
‘I’ll take that cup of coffee now because I need something to wake me up,’ Irma said.
The general rule of placement is that it is always best AFTER a sentence of dialogue. If you use tags before, use them very sparingly. It is the dialogue that you want to stand out.
If you insert a tag between two or more sentences, the tag always goes AFTER THE FIRST SENTENCE! This mistake is one that I’ve seen well-known authors make.
RIGHT: ‘I didn’t know it was so late,’ he said. ‘I need to get to work.’
WRONG: ‘I didn’t know it was so late. I need to get to work,’ he said.
Also RIGHT: He said, ‘I didn’t know it was so late. I need to get to work.’
Adverbs/’ly’ words (he said loudly) should be used very sparingly. Whenever possible, use a stronger verb (he shouted). Never use he shouted loudly. Use adverbs only when the dialogue or tag does not give enough information to the reader.
‘Back away from the door.’
‘Back away from the door,’ she said quickly. Here we get a sense of urgency.
Using adverbs correctly in a tag takes special care. When you are ready to edit your work, do a ‘ly’ check. Look for every adverb, in narrative and dialogue, and ask yourself: If I delete it, will the sentence still have the same impact? Delete the ones you don’t need. If your dialogue is written correctly, it will usually tell the reader what the tone is.
‘What the hell is going on?’
We don’t need a tag or beat as long as it’s obvious which character is speaking. If it’s not obvious, use a single verb like said, asked, demanded, muttered, etc.
‘What the hell is going on?’ she demanded.
But don’t write it as: ‘What the hell is going on?’ she asked harshly.
‘Where’s your mother?’
This one line of dialogue can be said in various tones. Is the person angry, confused, terrified? Is she yelling or whispering?
RIGHT: ‘Where’s your mother?’ she asked gently.
The above example portrays caring because of the word gently. Perhaps she’s speaking to a terrified child. Or someone who is dying.
RIGHT: ‘Where’s your mother?’ she demanded. She sounds angry.
RIGHT: ‘Where’s your mother?’ she screamed. She sounds frustrated, terrified maybe.
Beats: Beats are also character identifiers, but they are complete sentences, almost always containing some kind of action. Beats can be used at the beginning, middle or end of a piece of dialogue.
She knocked on the door. ‘Please let someone be home. I really need help here.’
‘Please let someone be home.’ She knocked on the door. ‘I really need help here.’
‘Please let someone be home. I really need help here.’ She knocked on the door.
All of these are RIGHT. In general, don’t put a beat last if there is any chance the reader won’t know first who is speaking. Beats tend to lose their effectiveness when placed last.
VERY EFFECTIVE: She eyed him suspiciously. ‘What are you doing here?’
LESS EFFECTIVE: ‘What are you doing here?’ She eyed him suspiciously.
Using a tag: ‘Where’s your mother?’ she demanded.
Using a beat: She let out a gasp. ‘Where’s your mother?’
Using a beat with an adverb: Her eyes flashed dangerously. ‘Where’s your mother?’
When bouncing a conversation between 2 people — once you have set up who they are with their first beat or tag — you can then eliminate tags and beats. As long as the reader can follow who is speaking next, keep the dialogue clean.
When bouncing a conversation between 3+ people, you must have tags and beats.
Thought dialogue/internal dialogue:
The purpose of internal dialogue is to reveal a character’s thoughts, showing us something that wouldn’t normally be revealed by narrative or dialogue. But remember, you must know whose POV (point of view) is being featured in that scene or chapter. Stories told in first person POV or ‘I walked into the room’ can only use the thoughts of the narrator, the ‘I’ character. If a scene is told from Bob the plumber’s POV, then you can’t show his wife Martha’s thoughts.
I knew that I had to act fast. ‘Hurry! In here!’
Shari looked at me, and I could tell she thought I was crazy, but she jumped into the pit.
I knew that I had to act fast. ‘Hurry! In here!’
Shari looked at me. He’s crazy, she thought before she jumped into the pit.
Every scene or chapter should be one person’s POV. They are the only ones allowed to have internal dialogue. Tags and beats apply to thoughts too. Always ask yourself, would it be natural for the character to say this out loud instead of think it? External dialogue is always better than internal.
Single person scenes: Even if your scene is a woman trapped in a cabin all alone, with a raving lunatic hunting her down. She can talk to herself — out loud. Don’t have her think everything. If she looks in the mirror, she can mutter something about her appearance. If she drops something, she can call herself clumsy. Keep ‘thinking’ to a minimum. J
Last words on dialogue: Other elements of great dialogue are the use of ellipses (-) and em-dashes (?), providing they are used properly. Many novice writers confuse the two. Use ellipses when your character says something that fades away or trails off. Use em-dashes when someone is interrupted by another character’s dialogue or a sudden action or they interrupt themselves.
‘Look over there, Ralph. I think I see a-’
He stared into the woods. The light flickered again and he was sure it was the cabin.
Ralph shook his head. ‘I don’t see?’
‘Over there,’ George interrupted. ‘By the oak tree.’
‘Ah, now I see it.’
There are no spaces before or after ellipses or em-dashes. Some people use the horizontal bar on MS Word as an alternate and acceptable em-dash.
Exclamation marks must also be used very carefully. In narrative, they are rarely used. In external and internal dialogue, use an ! only with speech or thoughts that are sudden bursts, especially commands or short sentences that are yelled or screamed. If someone is screaming and you’ve written long sentences, don’t use exclamations marks.
RIGHT: ‘Quick! Over here!’
WRONG: ‘Come over here real quick so we can hide in the shed!’
RIGHT: Oh my God!
RIGHT: ‘I don’t know what you see in that girl,’ his mother said.
WRONG: ‘I don’t know what you see in that girl!’ his mother said.
Also RIGHT: ‘I don’t know what you see in that girl,’ his mother shouted.
Again, don’t use a tag like she shouted after dialogue with an ! unless it’s not obvious who is speaking.
Writing a novel is not just crafting the story, it is also creating an artistic design on paper. It is the fine balance of narrative and dialogue that produces an inviting canvas for readers. Many studies have suggested that avid readers prefer ‘white space’? space around text, which can easily be created by adding dialogue. White space makes a page easier to read by allowing the eyes to focus, then have a break.
Work on crafting your dialogue until it rings clear and true, until we can hear and visualize your characters through what they say. When you write dialogue, make sure you read it OUT LOUD. Listen to your voice as you read each line from your character’s perspective. It’s like acting. Think of how you’re delivering the lines. What is your character’s mood? How does your character sound? How do they speak?
‘Show! Don’t tell!’ Cheryl said with a grin. ‘And enjoy!’