Dialogue is the ball and chain that swings around in my prose, smashing my pretty descriptions all to bits. Even if a character says two lines, there’s at least twenty versions of those lines, and all somehow not “real” enough to me. That said, dialogue is a weakness of mine. When I first started out, I punctuated incorrectly, misused dialogue tags and action beats. My character said stupid cliche things, and talked about nothing for pages.
Books and practice helped sort me out, but it’s still an ongoing struggle to “get it right”. I may never master this art, but I can keep readers from cringing now when my characters open their mouths.
So what sagacious advice can I bestow upon the unlucky few who stumble on this blog?
While there’s no “true” way of writing dialogue, here are some common mistakes.
- Tagging punctuation: This is the foundation of your dialogue. And if you don’t know where to put your periods and commas, you’ll be like me and get horribly embarrassed when someone reviews your story and points out that You’re Doing It Wrong.
Because I’m lazy, I’m going to paste a link on dialogue punctuation and let you frolic over there.
- Dialogue Tagging: He said, she said.
But there’s more to tagging than punctuation. Too many speech verb tags ruin the flow of conversation. Too few tags and you have a bunch of talking heads. You should balance your character conversations with tagging, action beats and lines of straight dialogue.
And where and when to insert these “orange cones of flow” to direct readers to who is speaking, how they are speaking, and what they are doing when speaking, is all up to the writer.
Yep, it’s all on you. And since it’s your plot and your characters, you must figure out what exchanges are needed to advance the plot, develop your characters, and keep your reader glued to every word on the page.
This means, don’t have Sally and John talking about the weather unless some freak storm is approaching. Don’t have Sally and John discussing the color of their wallpaper unless said wall is eating people. Don’t have Sally and John wondering what restaurant to eat at unless John has anxiety of crowded places and hates forks.
Make. Every. Word. Count.
And this doesn’t include micro-tension in dialogue – which btw, you must have.
Don’t want readers skimming through Sally and John’s awesome conversation on biochemistry? Then have Sally and John disagreeing about it – hell, have them fight about it because Sally’s idea will save the world from the Mutated Sunflowers rampaging through town, and John is damn certain her plan won’t work. There you go, plot and micro-tension. And if Sally doesn’t cave to John’s bullying attitude we learn that Sally is stubborn and strong willed, and that John used to getting his own way. There you go, characterization.
And all in one conversation. Your readers won’t be skimming out of boredom again.
Are a fave of novice writers who can’t handle the simple “said” and think it’s too “boring”.
Ex: Sally exclaimed. John chortled. Sally shouted. John bellowed. Sally whispered. John ranted, Sally replied, John answered, Sally indicated, John told, and so on. These are okay when used for effect, and sparingly. Too many, and you diminish the impact of your dialogue itself. Let your character’s words indicate tone and emotion, not your tags. And this brings me to:
Is as vital to dialogue as action beats. In fact, said and action beats are BFF’s forever.
Said is unobtrusive, as invisible as a comma or period. Said allows your character’s words to shine because there’s no dialogue bookism to steal the spotlight. There are opposing opinions on this, but I find those who oppose the usage of said are reading stories that rely too much on the “said” tag, and not enough on action beats and straight dialogue. As I said (heh) balance is important.
Note: Please DO NOT attach an adverb to said. He said happily. No. Just…no. Okay, maybe if you absolutely cannot find another way of indicating tone (which I would suggest you try again, and then try again after that), then use that adverb.
Why? When you tack that adverb on, you not only “tell” the tone instead of showing it, but you make the reader go back and reread the same line differently after reading the tag.
I can’t tell you how many times in published novels that I read a line one way, only to discover the character said it “angrily” or “cheerily”, or “morosely” – and had to reread that line in the proper “tone”.
It’s annoying. Please don’t.
- Action Beats
These are your characters who are walking around, chewing food, punching someone, rocking in the corner, chasing their dog after he poo’d on their brand new carpet – all during a conversation.
These are great for giving your readers visuals of expressions, body language, and physical actions. These are also great when used in place of tagging. Instead of a simple “John said,” we can have John say how they’re all going to die while staring out the window at the comet coming closer and closer, and Sally throwing all their clothes in a suitcase while screaming for the kids to hurry up and get in the SUV before they all blow up. Granted, I think Sally and John are pretty much done for, but you get the point.
So how would action beats, tags, and lines of straight dialogue work together? How do you know what to use and when to use it. Simple.
As I said way, way in the beginning, it’s really trial and error – but, armed with the knowledge that each of your character’s conversations should advance plot, develop or reveal their personalities, include micro-tension on some level, and keep your reader engaged – you have a better idea of the conversations you need for each scene.
Whatever you do, just be clear who’s speaking or performing an action (while they’re speaking), correctly punctuate for each speaker.
And that is that. Hopefully I’ve helped someone, somewhere.