(Originally published Oct. 22, 2008)
Dialogue Tags: Ensure that the reader knows who is speaking.
- Ideally, the reader should recognize the speaker from the unique speech pattern.
- You can do up to three interchanges without using any tags at all. After that, take care. The reader can get lost.
- Use action tags to show who’s speaking, e.g. Carla whirled to face him. “I can’t believe you said that.”
- Avoid a ton of dialogue tags, e.g. he growled, she exclaimed, he whispered, she murmured, he grimaced, she chuckled, he smiled. It’s impossible to smile, chuckle or grimace dialogue, and equally impossible to hiss out words containing no sibilants.
- Use “said.” It’s invisible to the reader.
- Rather than using tags, use the dialogue itself to convey emotions. Instead of: “You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment, try: She dropped her spoon, her eyes wide. “You have to be kidding me.”
- If you do use a dialogue tag, use it with the speaker’s name first, e.g. Dave said, rather than: said Dave.
Dialogue is not Real Speech: But it should read like real speech. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was, “Life, with the dull parts taken out.” Characters should always have something interesting to talk about. Give the essence of the conversation. Remember, novels aren’t like real life. Avoid mundane greetings, discussions of the weather, and anything else that is deadly dull — unless it serves a purpose, such as to express tension between characters. Imagine the increased tension if your ordinarily perky heroine resorts to stilted small talk after a misunderstanding. But use it sparingly.
Direct Responses: Don’t always let your characters respond directly to every request or question. This is not authentic. Suggestions:
- Make the response teasing.
- Make the response defensive.
- Answer a question with a question.
- Withholding information builds suspense. Make the protagonist pry information out of another person.
Serve a Purpose: Dialogue should always serve a purpose — move the story forward, provide information, or enhance characterization — unless you’re really witty.
No ‘Talking Heads’: Break dialogue up with action. By grounding dialogue in the physical world, you remind reader that these are physical human beings. Action details also help to break up the words on the page: long periods of dialogue are easier for the reader’s eye when broken up by description. (And vice versa, for that matter.)
Vary the Speech Patterns of Characters: Make the dialogue fit the character. A teenaged girl isn’t going to speak the same as a professional woman. A good writer can make the reader know who’s speaking simply by what and how dialogue is said. Give each character a distinctive speech pattern:
- Use slang that is appropriate to the gender, timeframe, class, occupation. Avoid over-use.
- Be sure to use contractions. That’s how normal people speak.
- Avoid overuse of dialect. If you use it, don’t go overboard. Focus on cadence or select a few authentic words and sprinkle them in sparingly.
- Avoid phonetic spelling. While dropping a ‘g’ or using a ‘lemme’ or ‘gotta’ will work occasionally, writing it throughout the book makes it difficult for the reader.
- Use ellipses (…) to indicate a trailing off or break in the conversation, such as showing only one-side of a phone conversation.
- Use the double dashes/em dash (–) to show an interruption. Show what caused the interruption in the next line.
- I prefer to start a new paragraph of dialogue with a new speaker. If, however, the same speaker delivers a subsequent paragraph of conversation, omit the closing quotation marks in the initial paragraph, but show opening quotes in the next.
- Keep internal thoughts with the speaker’s dialogue.
Read Dialogue Aloud: What works on paper can often sound stilted when read aloud.
- Make sure the reader knows who is talking.
- Watch for long paragraphs of dialogue. Most people don’t speak that long without pausing. Break it up with action tags.
- Avoid lecturing. Pass information to the reader through conversation with someone who is unfamiliar with the subject instead of spending paragraphs describing the subject.