Dialogue is simple. Good dialogue is hard. The suggestions I offer here are from my personal quest for good dialogue and even some of my lessons learned. This is by no means a list of everything you need to know to write good dialogue. It is, however, a starting point.
Dialogue Formatting Rules:
Keep tag lines simple. Tag lines describe the act of speaking. He or she said is good enough for most tags. Fancy tag lines (he opined, she replied, he questioned, she inquired) slow down pacing. Keep fancy tag lines to a minimum. You don’t need a tag line if action is included.
Don’t confuse tag lines and action.
Wrong: “Incoming!” he laughed. [Laughed is an action not connected to the act of speaking.]
Correct Action with tag line: “Incoming,” he said with a laugh.
Correct Action without tag line: “Incoming.” He laughed and tossed the ball at Adam’s head.
Correct Action without tag line: “Wait.” Amy handed Joe his cell phone.
A comma is used between the dialogue and tag. When a comma is used, pronouns are not capitalized.
“Come here,” Amy said.
“Come here,” she said.
Amy snapped her fingers, and said, “Come here.”
“Come here,” she yelled. [This is a fancy tag line. Don’t over use.]
A period is used between dialogue and character movement if no tag line is used.
“Come here.” She crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
“Come here.” Amy crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
Amy ran her fingers through her hair. “Come here.”
Exclamation Points. Some sources say a full sized novel shouldn’t have more than 4-5 exclamation points in the entire book. This includes dialogue. Punctuation should not draw attention to itself.
Dashes ( – ) are used when dialogue is interrupted.
Amy stomped her foot. “Put that –”
“No, I won’t,” Joe said.
Ellipses ( … ) are used when the character’s thought trails off.
“I’m tired of being all things to all people. Mother, daughter, sister, friend, taxi, cook, gardener, maid…”
When Not to Use Tag Lines/Actions. Sometimes it’s okay to forgo tag lines and actions as long as it’s clear who’s saying what.
Amy growled and turned toward the door. “What are you doing here?”
Brad shrugged. “You texted me.”
“I did not.”
“I would never – ”
“Here.” Brad tossed her his phone. “Check it yourself.”
Amy looked at the text. It came from her phone.
Grammar Rules and Sentence Structure. Toss ’em. Humans don’t talk in complete sentences. Neither should your characters. If you’re writing non-human characters, create their dialogue norms and stick to them.
- The writer’s speech patterns are not the way all characters in the story should talk.
- Listen to conversations. Sit and eavesdrop. Some people are formal, some only use sentence fragments, and still others are just down right confusing.
- The purpose is to get the flavor and cadence of different speech. Real dialogue has too many stammers, stutters, and clutter. Too much rambling. It will bore the reader. Which sounds better?
“She, you know, slapped me. All I did was, um, open the door, you know. I stepped aside, because that’s what Mom said I should do, you know.”
“I opened the door, stepped aside like a gentleman, and she slapped me.”
Drop Proper Names. Listen to yourself and others talk. Unless the name is emphasized for a reason (a mother calling out the full name of a child who’s in trouble), it makes the dialogue sound stiff.
“David, have you completed your homework for tomorrow?”
Doesn’t the following sound more realistic?
Mom walked in the house, sat her laptop and purse on the table, and asked, “Homework done?”
Create dialogue that reveals character and mood.
- “What sup?” is not the same as “How you been?” or “How have you been?”
- Does the character hesitate before certain words? Is the character defined by run-on sentences?
- Is speech fast or slow? Flowing or stilted?
- Is one character from a different locale than the rest of the characters? Show it, don’t tell it.
- Warning: Keep speech tics, like the repetitive use of “you know” to one or two per scene. The reader will get it without overuse.
Give each character an individual voice. Main characters should be identifiable by their dialogue.
- A group of middle-school students might sound similar, but the rhythm and emphasis of their words will be different.
- Keeping to the middle-school example, in a classroom environment, the teacher should be identifiable by voice alone with no tags.
Repetition. Unless the character is throwing a temper tantrum, there’s no need to repeat dialogue.
“I’m not doing that. Never. Nope. No way. Ain’t gonna happen. No.”
This is unnecessary and bores your reader if it runs throughout your story.
Remove trendy slang. It dates your book. This rule was meant to be broken, but be smart about it. Perhaps the character talks that way (maybe they’re stuck in the 60s), or you’re using slang to identify the time period of the story.
- The decision to use slang must be well thought out and true to your genre. Throwing in a lot of slang from 2017 will make your story outdated by 2019.
- Words like “yeah” and “okay” have been accepted speech for so long that most people have forgotten they’re slang. Use them freely.
Action. Let the speaker do something. Action combined with dialogue moves the plot along.
“No.” Amy grabbed her car keys and headed out the door.
Brad took a long draw of his beer. “No.”
Where’s it going? If the dialogue doesn’t move the plot alone, it belongs on the chopping block. A tangent that reveals quirks or motivation is okay, but keep the dialogue moving toward the plot goal.
Read it aloud. Yes, read your dialogue out loud. No lip-syncing. When you read it aloud you will know if it sounds right, and more importantly, if it doesn’t.
Book suggestions to aid you in your quest for dialogue improvement.
- Story Engineering: Mastering The 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks.
- The Art and Craft of Storytelling: A comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques, by Nancy Lamb.
- Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction, by The Editors of Writer’s Digest.
This is just the beginning of your dialogue journey. There’s more to dialogue than these few tips, a lot more. Think of this as your starter kit to better dialogue.
More RWG Posts on Writing.