How to Write Dialogue
Dialogue refreshes. Seeing quotation marks on a page has been proven to increase readability, which means that readers find the page more interesting. And you want your readers to stay interested. Dialogue breaks up “gray text” and gives your eyes a break too.
Dialogue uses basic rules for punctuating and formatting:
- When the speaker changes, hit Return and start a new line (which Maeve Maddox demonstrates in Formatting Dialogue.)
- Put punctuation, such as the closing comma, inside the quotation marks.
- A colon can be used in a script, but in other forms of writing, you don’t routinely punctuate dialogue with a colon.
TOM POLHAUS: Heavy. What is it?
SAM SPADE: The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
Here are some suggestions for more effective dialogue:
- Do something, don’t just talk. Conflict creates action out of dialogue. If everything is dialogue, it’s a play. In real life, people do things while they talk, and they don’t talk all the time.
- Don’t be yourself. New writers need to “find their voice,” but when you write dialogue, it’s not your voice now, but another’s. If they all sound like you, they all sound the same. Figure out what makes your characters different from you – perhaps age, life experiences, or social status – and how those differences affect their speech.
- Who’s speaking, please? If it’s hard to tell the characters apart, your reader will be confused, bored or frustrated. Ali Hale gives several solutions in Dialogue Writing Tips. For example, you can have each character speak at his or her own rate, fast or slow, terse or wordy, big words or little words, long sentences or short, rude or polite. Vocabulary can also distinguish characters. They may express agreement in different ways: “Aye,” “Yup,” “Ja,” “Okey dokey,” “Absolutely,” “For sure, dude!” “Indubitably.”
- Limit extreme dialect. In the 1800s, authors would represent a regional or cultural group by phonetically spelling their pronunciations, leaving out dropped endings, and so forth: “Och, dat wuz fright’nin’ an’ no dou’t!.” Unfortunately, deliberately adding misspellings and apostrophes makes your writing harder to read. Maeve Maddox and Kate Evans provide a better way in Showing Dialect in Dialogue and Writing Dialogue In Accents and Dialect.
- You don’t have them with “Hello.” In fact, start your dialogue after the greeting. Leave out the fluff, pleasantries, and repetition. Real speech can be so repetitious that professional transcriptionists have special keys to avoid typing words such as “Okay” and “Fine.” Some people can have an entire conversation using only the word “Fine.” But don’t put it in your novel. Skip past the boring details. Really, it’s not the details that are boring, but the vague parts.
“How are you doing? Fine? Glad to hear it. How is your family? Fine?”
- If a dialogue doesn’t advance the plot or expand the character, omit it. People all over the world say “Looks like rain” every day – everyone can agree on the weather – but you don’t need to do it in your story unless the rain would ruin an important action or object.
- You don’t have to use complete or grammatical sentences. Real-life dialogue isn’t like that. People interrupt themselves, pause, change their minds, and so on.
- Show their motivation. Or at least, show they have motivation, even if what it is remains a mystery. They may not be telling the truth or telling everything, but they have reasons for saying what they do.
- Don’t have the maid tell the butler what he already knows. Yes, dialogue is a great way to feed details to your reader, but it needs to reflect what your characters would have actually asked.
“Is Heathcliffe Manor dark and dismal?”
“Yes, as you remember from working here for the past thirty years, the previous owner had most of the windows painted over.”
- Try it out, out loud. Reading your writing audibly to yourself (or someone else) helps you decide whether your dialogue is natural. It may cause you to shorten parts of it by showing you that you need to breathe.
- Avoid the info-dump. Sometimes at the beginning and the end of a detective novel, someone says:
“First, tell me everything you know about the murder.”
“Tell me, how in the world did you figure out that the butler did it?”
But an info-dump isn’t as much fun as revealing information naturally.
“This gold mirror must be four feet wide! How will we get it downstairs?”
From this one piece of dialogue, we can surmise that strangers are moving rich people out of a multi-story house.
- Limit the cast. The more characters there are, the more confusing the conversation can be. If it’s hard to distinguish character voices spread through the story, it’s even harder to distinguish them when they’re all talking at once.
About dialogue tags
A dialogue tag tells you who is speaking. Writers and teachers disagree about what else it should do.
“Call a taxi,” she said.
“Taxi!” he shouted.
“Where you wanna go?” the driver said gruffly.
- Some teachers want their students to choose from the hundreds of alternatives to said, telling them, “Said is dead.”:
“Stop the presses,” he bellowed.
“Everything will be fine,” Kate reassured them.
“Y’all need to meet my grandson,” she gushed.
“Only the Shadow knows,” he whispered.
- J.K. Rowling is notorious for her adverbial dialogue tags, which she usually places in the middle of a dialogue. Three examples from a single page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
“Oh yes, everyone’s celebrating all right,” she said impatiently.
“You can’t blame them,” said Dumbledore gently.
“I know that,” said Professor McGonagall irritably.
- On the other hand, Stephen King advises writers to avoid adverbs and use nothing but said: “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” He also says, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
- Journalists are taught to use only two verbs in dialogue tags: said and asked. Adding adverbs or using more colorful verbs compromise their objectivity.
I agree with Stephen King. The word said doesn’t distract from the dialogue itself. It is unnoticed and unobtrusive. Dialogue is a character talking. A dialogue tag is you talking. The writer’s rule is “show, don’t tell,” and when you add an adverb to a dialogue tag, you are “telling.” You are also drawing attention to yourself.
When it comes to verbs, I distinguish between active verbs such as croaked or whispered and descriptive verbs such as threatened or urged. Saying “he croaked” shows your reader the sound of the speaker’s voice, something which they wouldn’t otherwise know. Saying “he threatened” is a crutch – the reader should be able to see the threat in the dialogue itself.
I never say ‘She says softly.’ If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so that a reader can hear that it’s soft.”
– Toni Morrison
More suggestions for dialogue tags:
“That’s not necessary,” laughed Bob.
If this could happen in real life, this would sound more like:
“That’s (ha ha) not (ha) necessary (ha ha),” said Bob.
Laughing and talking simultaneously is not possible.
“Someone has let the soup boil over!” Tom said hotly.
“It’s pouring rain outside,” Tom stormed.
“I’ll hold the flashlight for you,” Tom beamed.
“I prefer pancakes,” said Tom flatly.
Don’t be like Tom.
Here’s an example from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace with some of the dialogue tags removed:
“Forgive me!” Natasha said in a whisper. “Forgive me!”
“I love you,” said Prince Andrei.
“Forgive me for what I di…did.”
The detective abruptly snuffed out his cigarette. “How about you and me working together?”
In this case, he reader understands that the detective is speaking.
Dialogue is not just for fiction. Try including dialogue in everything you write, even scholarly papers and business memos. Seeing quotation marks brightens the eyes of an academician as much as anyone else. Instead of formally summarizing what your employers said to you, why not quote them word-for-word?