In a story in order to determine who is speaking a piece of dialogue, tag lines are used. Notice in the following example the last two lines don’t have a tag line. That’s because one is not always needed once it’s been established who is talking. Generally, a person will do the speaking every other line. So, in this example, it is assumed that Tia is then doing the speaking in line 3 and Sarah is doing the speaking in line 4. If a tag line is added every time someone speaks, the flow of the dialogue sounds odd. BUT, every now and then, throw in a tag line so that readers can keep track of who is speaking. There’s nothing more irritating than having to go back through a long piece of dialogue in order to keep track of who is doing the speaking.
Example: “I don’t like it one bit. It won’t work,” said Tia. “Sure it will,” replied Sarah. “Trust me.” “That’s the problem. None of your ideas ever work.” “They do too.”
Please keep in mind that you don’t always have to use the word ‘said’ when creating a tag line. Here are some options in the list below. There are many many more than what is here. This is just a taste.
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):
When it comes to writing tag lines, such as ‘said John,’ sometimes we need other words to say instead of the word ‘said’. Why? Because said gets too monotonous. And in this writer’s opinion, it can ruin the flow. It kind of takes the realism out of the dialogue. So…..what are some alternatives? See the list below.
There are much more than these, but you get the idea. Notice these words dig deeper into the mood/emotions of the speaker. That’s what you want because, what this does, is touch the readers’ emotions. That’s what you want.