When dialogue is done right, it really adds to the story and allows the reader to get that much closer to a character. When done wrong, it can have the reader scratching their head and wondering what the author was thinking.
Writing dialogue is one of the few things that come naturally for me. I do not profess to be an expert and I know I need more practice and improvement, but I personally believe that dialogue is one of my strengths as a writer. Feel free to disagree with me and tell me so. But because of my perception on this, I have been spending the last two years concentrating on other parts of the writing craft. I have never really thought about the ins and outs of writing dialogue, so I decided to focus on it now. Over time, I have picked up some things about dialogue that I think has helped me to improve. The purpose of this article is to put all that I have learned in one place.
The Purpose of Dialogue
Why have dialogue at all? It seems like a simple question to answer. On the surface, it would seem that the purpose of dialogue is to show your characters interacting with each other. There is more to it than that. Dialogue is a trick in the writer’s bag to shed light on characterization, further the plot and to let us know what the non-point of view characters think or believe.
Characterization is important. You do not want cardboard characters that you place here and there in a story. You want them to come alive. You want the readers invested in them. There are other tricks a writer can use to accomplish this, but dialogue is a great way to display personality. Slang words, repeated phrases and even words that a character never uses say a lot about who they are. A writer can make it very clear without spelling it out for readers that a character is educated or not. An author can show whether their characters have respect for others or if they are rude by the use of crude terms or the absence of them in their speech.
While keeping characterization in mind, dialogue should reveal things to the reader and often to the characters for the purpose of moving the story along. One character can reveal things to another that moves them to action. Characters can have a verbal fight that reveals how they feel about something without a lot of boring introspection.
Dialogue will keep your readers interested. It breaks up the monotony of narration. It draws the reader’s eyes to the page because with each new person speaking, you have a new paragraph.
Ask yourself if the dialogue you have is important to the story. Does it reveal something about the characters that the reader needs to know at the moment? Does it reveal things to the reader that moves the plot forward? Does it move the characters into action or reaction? Bonus points if you can get more than one yes per scene of dialogue.
Too much. Too Little. Good pacing.
I briefly touched on this in my article on pacing. Too little dialogue usually means the pace of a story is slow and in most cases, that is not a good thing. You may have a scene where a character is alone and dialogue is impossible, but most of the time a story is about people interacting and reacting to each other and situations. People interact with speech and if there are two or more people reacting to a situation, they are going to talk to each other.
Too much dialogue can be just as bad. This is the talking head syndrome. You may not even need to cut out the words spoken by characters, but adding what is a called a beat to some of the dialogue would break it up.
A beat is a narrative phrase that can be added into the dialogue where natural pauses in speech occur. These phrases would be one or two sentences that give the reader a visual of hands, faces or other actions that would be like a camera panning away from the faces on a television show so that the reader sees more of the scene in their mind’s eye. Or it could be a quick observation or thought from the point of view character. I am currently concentrating on having more of these beats in the place of he said.
Example: Cam pulled the top of his computer down. “I needed to look something up.”
The above example and a few others below are used with permission from chapter seven of spikes_evilbint’s story Tracked Down. If you want to see an example of scenes with great dialogue that uses beats expertly, this chapter has it.
A beat should be short. About the space of a natural pause in a conversation. I touched on this in my pacing article, but I see this a lot when reading fan fiction. Having one line of dialogue, especially a question, and then having the one being asked have a soul searching thought process that lasts minutes before she answers is very bad pacing. It is unrealistic and is poor writing.
Those that have been writing long probably do not have a problem with punctuation in dialogue. I still thought it would be good to add a section on it because it never hurts to be refreshed. And it was one of the things I had to have drilled into me and practice before correct usage became automatic.
Dialogue is set apart from other text with double quotation marks.
A line of dialogue is a sentence and it should be punctuated like one within those double quotation marks.
“That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing.”
“Did Mom really do that?”
A speech tag is part of the sentence. A period should be replaced with a comma.
“That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing,” said Xander.
Question marks and exclamation marks stay.
“Screw you!” he said.
Notice that the word said and he are not capitalized.
Another issue with dialogue punctuation that I had to keep practicing and my betas had to keep correcting for me is in the interrupted dialogue. I would always want to put a comma after Dawn and have the D in did be lower case. But these are two separate sentences. They need to be punctuated that way.
“I’m so glad you’re home,” said Dawn. “Did you bring me a present?”
If I make the two sentences into one sentence then it would punctuated as one sentence.
“I’m so glad you’re home,” said Dawn, “but did you bring me a present?”
A very simple, but very good webpage on dialogue punctuation can be found here: Dialogue Punctuation Explained
She said, he said.
Why are they used? To indicate who is speaking.
When should they be used? That would depend on how many people are in a scene. If you have three or more people in a scene, you should almost always have an identifier. A speech tag is one way to identify who is speaking, but those beats I mentioned above can be used in the place of a speech tag. In a scene with only two people, a speech tag is not always needed. It is best to use them at the start of the dialogue at least.
This has to do with speech tags, but it is such a big issue that it deserves its own topic here. A said-bookism is any word used in the place of said. Shouted, laughed, cried, whispered, uttered, demanded, inquired, growled, etc.
In my own dialogue writing, I have evolved somewhat. I started out using said-bookisms, getting creative all over the place. Then I learned to remove them and put said in their place, which forced me to put the creativity into the actual dialogue or the actions surrounding it to get the point or mood across. That is better writing. Let the said disappear on the page and let the characters show the reader their tone of voice. I’m slowly removing more of the saids to where I use the beat phrases with actions to indicate tone or mood.
A said-bookism is to dialogue what an adverb is to narration/prose. It weakens them. That being said, there is nothing wrong with a whisper or an ask here or there, just like there is nothing wrong with having a few adverbs. I’m talking one or two of these per chapter. At least that is the habit I am trying to get into with my own writing.
Em Dashes and Ellipsis
I was guilty of using these incorrectly and I see them used incorrectly on a regular basis. In speech an em dash – at the end of words is used to indicate that the speaker was abruptly interrupted.
The ellipsis … Should be used to indicate words that are left out and a trail off of words. Could be used to indicate stuttering, but I don’t recommend over doing that technique.
“I can’t… It’s too hard. Let me—“
Natural Sounding Speech
Dialogue show flow naturally. That does not mean that you have to add in a bunch of ums and ers. But when you read it aloud, it should sound like something someone would actually say. More importantly, it should read like something your character would say. In BTVS fan fiction, that means making sure your American characters don’t talk about putting their trainers or jumpers on. Or having Giles saying he’s going to put his pants on. He’d say trousers.
Two teens in Southern California would not be having this conversation:
“Would you like another Mountain Dew?”
“I’d love one. Thank you. Oh, and may I please have one of those scrumptious hamburgers?”
It would be more like:
“Hey. Do you want another Mountain Dew?”
“Yeah. Get me a burger while you’re at it.”
Dialogue should be interesting. There should be a flow to it that is not monotonous. If you have two people in a scene, vary when the said is used and vary the beat phrases/action phrases in the beginning or end of dialogue.
“Hi,” he said.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“I missed you. I needed to see you,” he said.
“I’m sorry, but I’m busy right now. Can you come back later?” she said.
“Alright,” he said.
Can be spruced up.
“Hi,” Mark said, as soon as Carey opened the door.
Carey stared at her grinning boyfriend in shock. Mark had just dropped her off ten minutes ago.
“What are you doing here?”
“I missed you,” he said with a slight pout. “I needed to see you.”
After glancing back inside the house, Carey sighed. “I’m sorry, but I’m busy right now.” She made an effort to smile at him. “Can you come back later?”
He backed away, gave her a disappointed nod and then turned on his heels to walk back across the street.
Things To Do
Just write. Don’t over think it and don’t sweat it if I brought up something that you do. If you worry about getting something perfect, you will block your creativity and that is worse than writing less than perfect dialogue.
Once you have a scene written, edit it. I challenge you to find every said-bookism and replace it with the word said. Then see where you can add things to convey tone and mood. Including places where you can then remove some saids and put a beat phrase in its place. An action or a quick thought. Read the scene aloud and ask yourself if it sounds like real speech.
You may also get a kick out of catching all the times that I do not take my own advice. Comments are always welcomed to point them out to me. One can only improve through practice and correction. A positive outlook helps as well.
Have I been lead astray? Have I lead people astray? Have a forgotten something? Comment and let me know.