Dialogue is not easy to write, and it can take practice to make it feel natural, especially if the characters are not clearly in your head, talking. So how do you go about making your dialogue less stilted? Your characters feel more real? Below you will find a few of the pitfalls that I have observed, as both a reader and a writer, and practical advice on how to make the dialogue clearer, and feel more real.
Remember, these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Your story is your own, and how you choose to write it is entirely up to you.
The best advice on how to write better dialogue: Practice, read it aloud, then practice some more!
Note: All extracts are taken from my current WIP, Tail of Two Scions.
He said/She said
Dialogue tags are important to establish who says what but, so saying, when two characters are having a conversation, it is not necessary to establish this every line. Generally, you need to indicate it the first time either character speaks, and then can manage several back-and-forth exchanges before having to remind the reader again.
Note: it may be appropriate in your story to leave in the “he said/she said” for every line, especially if you are writing for younger readers, who may not be fully aware of the common conventions and thus become confused. Do not feel obliged to remove them.
“Care to make your report, ranger?” Riana teased.
“Trees,” Aurelia replied. “Lots of trees. A few crows.”
“Care to try again?”
“Give me a moment.” Aurelia scooped up the water flask, downing the contents in great gulps. She stiffened, drawing herself fully upright, as Simone sauntered over to them.
When more than two characters are involved, this becomes somewhat impractical to easily manage, and attribution tags will be required.
“As you know, Jim” (aka Maid and Butler)
Yes, it is a great idea to push the plot along and supply backstory or deliver clues via dialogue. However, you have to do this very carefully. Characters should NEVER have to straight out explain to each other what both characters already know.
“Remember how we met?” Riana asked. “In the hopitaly.”
Aurelia nodded. “Oh yes,” she replied. “You’d given yourself a concussion, flying on that funny glider thing. And I’d cut my hand, trying to climb the tsingy.”
“Why were you doing that again? Weren’t you showing off or something?”
“No,” Aurelia protested. “Not showing off. I was watching for Lanitra.”
Fixing this from stilted and awkward can be as simple as rearranging it to fit into context (in this case, Aurelia’s just tried one of Riana’s flying devices, with unfortunate results).
“Maybe I need to go back to the glider skeleton.” Riana sighed. “But we both remember what happened last time I tried that.”
Aurelia nodded. “A concussion,” she replied. “But if you hadn’t concussed yourself, then we’d never have met.”
“True, true,” Riana agreed. “And if you’d never gone all bravado, tried to climb the tsingy and cut your hand to pieces, we wouldn’t have been in the hopitaly together.”
“It wasn’t bravado,” Aurelia replied. “I was watching for Lanitra…”
In the latter instance, it’s still the characters telling each other what they already know, but it is integrated in a manner that feels more like gentle teasing/banter than a general info-dump. Other ways to avoid this can be: have only one character know and be training the other (teacher/student); use a mix of action and dialogue (ie: if you need to show how a machine works, have the characters fix it and discuss the process); have the two arguing about it.
Using Adverbs Excessively
Adverbs should, generally, be avoided, although there are times when they are necessary to establish the emotions of the characters via their tone of voice. They are a classic example of “tell, not show”. It is better to use an alternate verb if one is available.
But BE AWARE: overuse of said-alternates can also be extremely distracting in a story. Generally speaking, readers often overlook the word “said” and, whilst “raged” is far more concise than “said angrily”, one doesn’t want every dialogue tag to be a different verb. Also, sometimes the meanings will be different: “Raged” suggests a far more dramatic response than a simple “said angrily”, for example.
To test whether adverbs, or even verbs, are truly necessary, I remove them from the text and read the sentence asking myself: is the character’s mood/voice clear from context? Or do I need to keep it in? Does it matter if the reader interprets it differently?
There are some insane adverbs out there—J.K. Rowling is guilty of using some really extravagant ones. Generally speaking, the more syllables they contain, the more likely they are to annoy/distract the reader.
Use of non speech verbs as dialogue tags
“Smiled”, “yawned”, “sighed”, etc are not dialogue tags. Yes, you can smile as you say something, but the smiling is not what is causing the speech
Confusion about who is speaking
Describing action instead of using dialogue tags is a useful technique that can go wrong: You can avoid dialogue tags on occasion by having the character doing something instead. If this action follows on from dialogue, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the named character. Be aware of this, and always use a new line if a different character is physically (rather than verbally) reacting to the previous speaker.
Roland stepped forward, head bowed submissively. “Forgive her, Royal Advisor.” He rose his head to meet Mephistopheles’s eyes. “She is young and headstrong, filled with fire and rage. We were just surprised to find you here, in this dark, dank and desolate place.”
Mephistopheles snorted. “I am entitled to wander where and how I choose.”
In the above passage, the reader should automatically attribute the speech to Roland, even though it contains no dialogue tags. When Mephistopheles reacts, it begins a new line. If it did not, the reader might become confused about who is talking.
Hiding dialogue in prose
Try to avoid burying dialogue in the middle of a paragraph of non-verbal prose. You can precede it with a sentence, or even two, if they’re short and concise, but if it is too well hidden, or there is any confusion over who might be speaking, start it on a new line, and dialogue or action tag it appropriately:
A gasp, then her eyes narrowed. Simone let her hand fall slack to her side and Aurelia turned her gaze back at the ground. “So, you are the one then.” Rancid slime dripped and oozed from Simone’s scent. “Heir to the royal dynasty.” Her lip twisted back as though she had smelled something foul.
As you can see in the above paragraph, it is unclear who is speaking. The new paragraph should begin at “So, you…”
For more useful tips and tricks on punctuating dialogue, see Shelley’s post here from 2013:
Some time ago, Shelley Chappell wrote us a good post on Punctuation and Grammar.
But here is a concise break-down for quick and easy reference.
- All first lines of dialogue by a different speaker should begin on a new line.
- Speech marks, either double or single (but be consistent) frame the passage of speech, in most cases, curling towards it. Other punctuation (full stop, comma, question mark etc) goes within these speech marks:
“I really like ice cream.”
- Use a comma if a speech tag follows:
“I really like ice cream,” said Felicity.
- Use a full stop if a non-speech verb follows:
“I really like ice cream.” Felicity grinned.
- Speech tags that follow directly after the closing speech mark should always be lower case, as they’re continuing the sentence, even when your writing program wants to capitalise them:
“I really like ice cream!” said Felicity.
- If another sentence follows, but is not a continuation of the first, then a full stop should precede it:
“I really like ice cream!” said Felicity. “I’m gonna have a goodie gumdrops.”
- But if it’s a continuation of the first sentence, it should be preceded by a comma:
“I think,” said Felicity, “I’m gonna have a goodie gumdrops.”
- If your character is quoting another character in dialogue, then the quote will be in the other form of quotation marks (in this case, single quotes).
“Mother always said, ‘you are what you eat’. In which case, I must be delicious.”
Now for some more complex punctuation, but be aware that not everyone agrees on how this should be done. Different style manuals suggest different ways in which to write your ellipses. One guide, the MLA, indicates [ . . . ]; the Chicago Style indicates [ … ] for omissions; the Australian Style Guide suggests [ … ] as well. Whichever you choose to use, the most important thing is be consistent.
- Ellipses should be used to indicate a pause in speech
“I think I’ll have the goodie gum drops … or maybe a chocolate mint.”
- Or when the person’s train of conversation just trails off
“My favourite flavour? Now that’s a difficult question. I guess it must be …”
- If a speaker is abruptly cut off or interrupted, dialogue should terminate in an em-dash:
“Or perhaps I’ll have a chocolate mi—”
“For goodness sake! Choose one already. Mine’s melted.”
The only punctuation after the closing em-dash should be the speech marks.
Dialogue is an important facet in most stories.
It can play many roles:
- Advance the plot
- Create conflict or drama
- Set the theme/tone
- Get across backstory (or foreshadow events)
- Reveal information and make it more accessible
- Develop a character
- Create and show relationships between characters
- Show, not tell
Almost every novel will contain dialogue — up to and around 66% — so how do we go about writing it well?
Firstly, dialogue is NOT the same as actual speech. If you listen to people talking, the speech is punctuated with “ums” and “ahs”, random pauses as they lose their train of thought, and often runs off on wild and random tangents. Dialogue in a book should not be like this — it should be concise and relevant to the story that you’re trying to tell. However, it needs to be written convincingly enough that the reader will believe it could be genuine dialogue.
Here are a few pointers:
- Use contractions and colloquialisms where appropriate.
- Give each character a distinctive “voice” and be consistent (no, I don’t mean give each character a catchphrase or anything like that, but a professor of literature will speak more precisely and clearly than, say, a fisherman).
- Keep it concise and on topic. If the characters start to stray off topic, pull them back in. Every bit of dialogue should fulfill at least one—if not more—of the above roles.
- Cliches (and idioms) are fine in dialogue, but please don’t over-do them.
- Bad grammar is also perfectly acceptable in dialogue, as long as it is true to the character.
- The character’s personalities and relationships will show through in what they say and how they say it. For example, if one character dislikes another then they may be sarcastic, or snide, when conversing with that character. Whereas, to another, they might show a more motherly empathy. Be consistent, and keep the relationships realistic to the plot.
- Read it aloud, with a friend if you can nab someone. Does it feel like a genuine conversation? Or does it feel stilted and awkward?
- Try not to involve too many characters in any given conversation. I am comfortable with up to three or four, but any more than that and one will spend the majority of it listening.
- Instead of adding dialogue tags to every piece of dialogue, have the character do something physical instead: pace across the room; fiddle with her cup; stare at her shoes. Even without the dialogue tag, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the person doing the actions, provided it follows directly on (not on a new line).
Having dialogue in a story is great. Dialogue allows characters to speak in their own voices and can quicken the story’s pace. To some of you, the following tips will seem obvious, but to others they may be something you need to remind yourself of when you proofread your work:
1) Each new speaker needs to start on a new line. For example:
“Where did you leave it?” John asked.
“In the shed.”
“Did anyone see you?”
2) Use double OR single quotation marks. When writing for yourself, doing one or the other is simply about consistency. Using one type allows you to reserve the other type for internal quotation marks (see below). However, different publishers may prefer you to use a particular type of quotation mark – check what they want before sending anything off.
3) Put all sentence punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, exclamation marks)inside the quotation marks:
“I don’t think so,” Mary whispered.
“What do you mean, ‘you don’t think so’?”
“I couldn’t be sure.”
4) If you are adding a descriptor after the quotation marks, the final punctuation mark can never be a period, semi-colon or colon. This is because what comes after the quotation marks should be considered part of the overall sentence (unless you are starting a new sentence).
A good practice is to read it out loud to yourself. There shouldn’t be a long pause if you are describing what was said; a long pause only comes into play if you have started a new sentence (which is a sentence that, if you isolated it, doesn’t beg you to answer what?):
“What do you mean?!” he repeated.
“There was a man walking his dog, but I don’t know…” She swallowed. “He might have seen me, but-” She cut herself off.
John picked up his keys.
“I’m going to collect it now then,” he said.
Here, ‘he repeated’ and ‘he said’ make you wonder – what did he repeat? He said what? Both are descriptors, not new sentences. In comparison, ‘She swallowed’ and ‘She cut herself off’ make sense by themselves. These are new sentences so require capitalisation and can come after a dash, an ellipsis – or a full stop.
Do you have any pesky questions about dialogue you’d like some advice on? Please post them here as comments – just paste in your sentence and question and we’d be happy to give advice!