At first glance, dialogue writing may seem easy and simple. But the truth is, there is more to writing dialogue than a mere “he said” or “she said”. A dialogue could make or break a novel. If you’ve ever encountered a book with such bad dialogue that you just had to put it down, then you understand what I mean.
I realized the importance of dialogue when I first read through the first draft of my book. My dialogue rambled on, there didn’t seem to be any flow to it, and I felt that it fell flat (tongue twister there!) of what good dialogue should be—not to mention I couldn’t decide how to punctuate the darn thing.
So, I researched. I discovered that most writers’ dialogue dilemmas can be classified into three major areas: function, grammar and style. The following post is an aggregation of all that I’ve gleaned from the wonderful books and articles on dialogues that I’ve read.
There are 15 rules, which I’ve divided into three major Dialogue Dilemmas: Dialogue Function, Dialogue Grammar, and Dialogue Style. Follow these 15 Rules, and you’ll never have another Dialogue Dilemma again.
15 RULES TO WRITING GOOD DIALOGUE
1. Identify the speaker. Know where to place your dialogue tags so that your readers know who’s speaking. Usually, the tag comes before, in the middle of, or after the first line of dialogue.
Correct (Before the first line of dialogue): Laura said, “Yes, we should leave. We should leave now.”
Correct (Middle of the first line of dialogue): “Yes, we should leave,” Laura said. “We should leave now.”
Correct (End of the first line of dialogue): “Yes,” Laura said. “We should leave. We should leave now.”
Awkward: “Yes, we should leave. We should leave now,” he said
2. Every character in the scene must have an objective, in order for the dialogue to be authentic.
By remembering the most important rule of all, a definition that comes from the noted playwright ands screenwriter John Howard Lawson (also one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten in the 1950s). Dialogue, he said, must be viewed as “a compression and extension of action.”
That means you never have a character say anything that is unconnected to that character’s objective in the scene. And every character in every scene must have an objective, otherwise he shouldn’t be there. Replace him with a chair.
James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers
3. Dialogue must provide us with insight into our characters’ personalities, and make us feel like we are part of the characters’ world.
Noah Lukeman, in his book The First Five Pages, says of the following of dialogue:
In real life, most dialogue is odd: clipped, repetitious and from an outsider’s perspective: enigmatic, fragmented, filled with unknown, personal references.
Real life dialogue will not tell reader anything at all about the story, but will only further the relationships between characters.
Dialogue should be real for whatever world you are creating.
Sometimes, dialogue will provide no insights at all, just give us glimpses into one or more characters at one moment in time. Nothing interesting will come of it, but reader will feel as if she is in a real world, experiencing real piece of art.
4. Avoid informative dialogue. This is when the dialogue is used as a way for conveying important plot information such as current or future events or backstory. As authors, it is our job to convey important plot information in more subtle ways throughout the story. But sometimes, when our creative brains are running low on inspiration, we think the easiest way to convey this information is through our characters.
The dialogue then becomes fake, as the characters end up saying things that are—well, out of character. They say things they wouldn’t normally say, or utter words which shouldn’t come out of their mouths.
Informative dialogue might fill the reader in on missing facts or plot points, but this is a dialogue that isn’t artistically real or authentic because it doesn’t spring from the character’s needs, desires and relationships.
5. Punctuate your dialogue correctly. A dialogue is one sentence made up of two parts—the dialogue, and the tag (he said, etc), so for sentences that end with a period, replace the period with a comma. For sentences that end with a question mark (?), exclamation point (!), ellipses (…) or a dash (–), leave the punctuation as is.
Correct: “Let’s go!” Ron said.
Correct: “I stole the clock,” Harry said.
Incorrect: “I stole the clock.” Harry said.
6. Do not capitalize the dialogue tag unless it is at the beginning of the sentence
Correct: He said, “I’m having tummy troubles.”
Incorrect: “I’m having tummy troubles,” He said.
7. Place the subject before the verb when using tags. In other words “he said” is better than “said he”. You can use “said he” when you want to change the pace or flow of your dialogue—but this should only be on rare occasion. The truth is, most editors don’t like this old school way of using dialogue tags, so to be on the safe side, use the subject-verb tag arrangement all of the time.
Okay: “I bet he’ll win,” said Sandra.
Best: “I bet he’ll win,” Sandra said.
8. Use said 90% of the time.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writers sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary. –
Elmore Leonard, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
It’s okay to use “asked”, and “replied”, but don’t use them too often. And if you want to keep your dialogue flowing, avoid intrusive (and complicated) dialogue tags such as “queried”, “interjected”, “interrogated”, or “asseverated”. Choose dialogue tags that are simple, so it doesn’t interrupt the pacing of the story. Choosing complicated, difficult words will only bring your readers out of the story.
Good: “Could you open the door for me?” Beth inquired.
Best: “Could you open the door for me?” Beth asked.
Bad: “Could you open the door for me?” Beth appealed.
9. Use modifiers sparingly. Sometimes “said” or “asked” can’t fully express the emotion or thought behind your character’s dialogue. Modifiers come in handy in these situations, and lift the dialogue up a notch in the eyes of your reader. But too much of anything is never good, and if you use them in every line of your dialogue, they not only slow down your dialogue pace, they also distract your readers from the story.
Modifier – Adverb: “But I thought you were coming with me,” she said sadly.
Modifier – Adverbial Phrase: “But I thought you were coming with me,” she said in a small, pleading voice.
10. Choose dialogue tags that clearly show the character’s emotion. In the first example, “warned”, and “her voice is rising” are repetitive words which give only a hint that Mrs. Thompson is angry. The second sentence clearly shows Mrs. Thompson’s anger.
Awkward: “You are not going out with that boy,” Mrs. Thompson warned, her voice rising.
Good: “You are not going out with that boy,” Mrs. Thompson glared, hands on hips.
11. Use easy beats to add more life to your dialogues. Easy beats are actions which your characters perform while they are speaking. Easy beats are a great way to show your character’s habits, or quirks, or mannerisms. Just be careful that your beats don’t repeat too often.
Also, as a general rule, these easy beats should come at the beginning or at the end of the dialogue block.
Robert shrugged. “I don’t care. If you want to go your way, then that’s your business.”
“I don’t care. If you want to go your way, then that’s your business.” Robert shrugged.
Renni Brown & Dave King, in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, recommend asking yourselves the following questions when writing easy beats into your dialogue :
- How many beats do you have? How often do you interrupt your dialogue?
- What are your beats describing? Familiar, everyday actions (such as dialing a telephone or buying groceries)? How often do you repeat a beat? Are your chracters always looking out windows or lighting cigarettes ? (Garrison Keller said of his first novel, “my characters smoked cigarettes the way some people use semicolons”
- Do your beats help illuminate your characters? Are they individual or general actions anyone might take under just about any circumstances?
- Do your beats fit the rhythm of your dialogue? Read it aloud and find out.
12. To tighten your dialogue beats, avoid using “-ing” and “as” constructions.
Awkward: -ing construction: “I’m not going with you,” Veronica said, furrowing her brows.
Awkward: -as construction: “I’m not going with you,” Veronica said, as she furrowed her brows.
Tight: “I don’t want to go with you.” Veronica furrowed her brows.
13. Conjunction tags can be used for additional effect—to add depth to the conversation, but like modifiers, should be used sparingly.
Okay: “You look handsome,” Donna said. “I think you’re going to make many girls swoon tonight.”
Better: “You look handsome,” Donna said, her words a soft whisper in his ear. “I think you’re going to make many girls swoon tonight.”
14. The proper placement and timing of dialogue tags can be used to add depth to the dialogue.
Okay: He said, “Yes, I love you. I always have.”
Okay: “Yes, I love you. I always have,” he said.
Better: “Yes,” he said, “I love you. I always have.”
Better: “Yes, I love you,” he said, “ I always have.”
15. Dialogue tags may be omitted in order to add impact to the scene.
He wanted to scream, but he stood frozen and unmoving. “You planted the bomb in his car?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Why?” He asked, the color draining from his face, his fingers turning to ice.
He wanted to scream, but he stood frozen and unmoving. “You planted the bomb in his car?”
“Why?” The color drained from his face, and his fingers turned to ice.
Dialogue Tags – A Study In Common Errors By Jennifer Turner
The Editor’s Room
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction
The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell
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