- Begin a new paragraph every time a new person speaks. If you don’t do this, the reader gets confused about who is supposed to be speaking. You don’t want that. You want your readers’ minds to be engrossed in the story, not outside the story.
- Remember to use quotation marks whenever someone speaks. Doing this will differentiate between someone speaking out loud and what is going on inside the character’s mind, narration, or description. Here again, you don’t want confused readers.
- Just a reminder here: use dialogue tags (see previous article entitled Dialogue Tags from July 28, 2022 for more details).
I had a conversation with a first time story writer yesterday. She told me she has a problem with stopping shortly after she starts a story, then she never goes back to it. I asked her what was stopping her. She told me it was the dialogue. When I asked her what specifically about dialogue she was having issues with, she said it was difficult starting it and how to use it.
To be honest dialogue can be confusing to someone who has never written it. There are rules that apply. I’m only going to hit on one here. I went over this with her yesterday, and it cleared up so much for her.
Dialogue Tags—A phrase that precedes, breaks up, or follows dialogue and indicates who is speaking, how it is being delivered, and whether or not a new speaker is talking.
One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t necessarily have to use dialogue tags in each piece of dialogue. When there are two speakers, use a dialogue tag in the first two to four pieces of dialogue, then stop for the rest of the characters’ conversation. Trust me, the reader will be able to follow who is talking. But, to remind the reader of the order of who is speaking, add a dialogue tag or two somewhere in the middle of the conversation. Normally, two people in a dialogue speak every other piece of dialogue unless otherwise indicated. See example below:
“Let’s get cracking,” said Jack. “These leaves aren’t going to rake themselves.”
“Really? Do you have to be so bossy? I mean, there isn’t a whole lot to do here. Besides, mom said it was optional, and I choose to meet Kayla at the lake,” said Jim.
“Mom will appreciate it so get busy.”
Jack thrust his rake to the ground and stalked after his brother. Upon reaching him he grabbed for his shirt. (Indicator that disrupts the dialogue order of who is to speak next).
Jim spun to the right and watched his brother tumble to the ground. “That’ll teach you.” (We know it is Jim speaking here because this sentence is in his point of view at the moment. Therefore, no dialogue tag is needed).
Jack stood and glared at Jim. “You’re an idiot.”
“Maybe so. But at least I know how to have fun.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Jack wiping sweat off his brow. (Reminder of who is speaking next).
“Ever since dad died, all you do is work. You used to have fun. We used to hang out together.”
“Yeah, well things have to get done around here. Someone has to do it.”
As you can see in the example above, other indicators, other than dialogue tags, can indicate when someone is talking (But that’s for another blog post; you got a taste of it here). The idea is to make the dialogue between characters flow. You don’t want it to be choppy. So use the dialogue tags wisely. It takes practice. Also, next time you’re reading a work of fiction, pay attention to the dialogue tags and how the author uses them.
In the real world we talk everyday, and what we say and talk about at the time could be part of a directed conversation about a topic or you may move from topic to topic. But, generally, what your are saying has nothing to do with moving a story forward, as in a book. Therefore, the dialogue/conversations in a the story you are writing should move the story forward. However, it needs to be done in such a way that it sounds real and everyday. So, how do you do this? Yes, this is a lot to think about, but remember you can go back later and fix it. I’ve said this before, get the words on the page first. Here are some things to keep in mind when writing dialogue.
- Remember your dialogue tags. You don’t need a dialogue tag after every line of dialogue. Every now and then put one in to remind the reader of who is speaking.
- Small talk is a killer. In real life we make small talk all the time for different reasons. Maybe we’re nervous and don’t know what to talk about, so we end up saying little tidbits of information to try and break the ice. In real life though, we aren’t trying to advance a story/plot. So, leave the small talk out of your dialogue, unless of course it advances your story/plot.
- Keep it natural. Make sure your dialogue sounds natural. One good way to tell if it sounds natural or not is to read it out loud.
- No same sounding characters. This closely relates to voice. I touched on this in a previous blog post (Voice from September 21, 2021) Make sure your characters sound different when they are speaking. Word choice, dialect, and how they say something all plays a part in this. Maybe one of your characters has a signature word they like to say. Use that.
- Using names in dialogue. Normally, one wouldn’t use someone else’s name when speaking to someone else unless one is trying to get the attention of the other or make a point. However, if it DOES work, then use it. But be careful.
- Using exposition can bore. When a character explains the story in dialogue it ends up being a form of telling. What happens when you ‘tell’ a story vs. ‘show’? You risk losing the reader. Obviously, you don’t want this. So, stay away from this.
- Don’t use ‘said’ all the time. Please refer to my blog post Words to Write By on October 18, 2021.
- Be accurate and consistent with punctuation. Some writers like to use double quotation marks (“), and some writers like to use single quotation marks (‘). Pick one and stick with it. Just don’t forget to use them. I knew a writer who, when I asked her what she felt her weakness was as it relates to story writing, said it was remembering to put the quotation marks in.
- Conversation that is unimportant doesn’t belong. If a conversation between your characters doesn’t cause some kind of friction, tension, or if it doesn’t advance the story/plot at all, leave it out.
- Silence is a good thing. Too much conversation can be detrimental to the story so be careful. Silence can add a lot to a conversation sometimes.
I know this is much to think about, but don’t sweat it too much. If you need someone to check your dialogue, have a writing buddy read it and give you feedback. Also there are some good books out there about dialogue. Here are some suggestions below (You can find any of them on Amazon):
How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript by James Scott Bell
The Writers Guide to Realistic Dialogue by S. A. Soule
Writing Vivid Dialogue: Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors by Rayne Hall