"Words are the voice of the heart."
Welcome to Writers' Wednesday! Remember, everyone who leaves a comment on today's post is automatically entered into a drawing for a $5 Amazon Gift Certificate (if you comment on my post at The Wild Rose Press blog, also up today, you'll be entered twice...)! And today, we are talking about...
It’s a tricky thing, getting it right, getting it realistic, getting it paced and tagged in just the right way. And yet it can be one of the most powerful elements of writing. It can deliver character, conflict, backstory, emotion, all in the span of a few short exchanges and utterances.
So how do you get it right? Well, I’m not claiming expertise, by any means, but today I’m offering 5 tips that I try to keep in mind when writing dialogue in my own stories. It’s pretty much a compilation of what I’ve learned over the last decade or so of writing. Some of it may be more applicable to novice writers, but I hope you find some use for yourself, no matter where you are in the writing or publishing journey.
And by all means, leave me some of your best tips and advice as well!
1. Don’t over-tag. If you have 2 people talking in a scene, you can get away with a back and forth exchange that doesn’t require you to tag every comment:
“So what happened to you last night?” Jenna asked.
Paul shrugged. “Missed my flight.”
“Weather. Taxis were all tied up. Couldn‘t find one that would come out to the hotel.”
“Uh huh. So how did Marty manage to make it home on time?”
“Dunno. Why don’t you ask him?”
Did you have a hard time following who was speaking? Probably not. And yet I only added tags to the first two lines of dialogue. Of course, if you have more than 2 people talking, you’ll have to add tags more frequently. Still, don’t over-tag. Trust that your reader can follow you. A lot of novice writers think they have to spell out every line. Believe me, you don’t.
2. It isn’t necessary for characters to refer to each other by name as they’re speaking. Please take this one seriously. I see many novice writers in my writing groups who include something like this in a scene:
“Emily, please come downstairs. We have something we need to discuss.”
“Mom, I already told you I was doing my homework last night. I wasn’t online. I promise.”
“Then why did Mr. Rooney call me from school today to talk about an IM you sent to Darla Green, Emily?”
“I don’t know, Mom. He must have mixed me up with someone else.”
“Emily, we aren’t finished talking about this. Wait until your father gets home.”
Again, trust that your reader can follow who’s speaking, and to whom. It’s normally not necessary to repeat the name of the person to whom the line is spoken, unless for emphasis.
3. Use beats, or action tags, as often, or more often, than you use regular taglines. I have found this to be one of the most useful guidelines. You don’t need to accent every comment with a “he said/commented/uttered/shouted.” Instead, insert an action. Here’s a great scene from a Jennifer Crusie novel (Tell Me Lies) I’m currently reading:
“You really do feel okay?”
“I feel fine,” Maddie said. “Stop worrying.”
“Then can I spend the night at Mel’s?” Em bit off a corner of her toast. “If you’re not okay, though, I can stay with you. I don’t mind at all.”
“Oh.” Maddie swallowed. “Have I mentioned that you’re the perfect child?”
“Thank you. Can I stay with Mel?”
“Did you ask Aunt Treva?” Maddie bit into her toast carefully and chewed. Her head didn’t come off in pain. So far, so good.
Em shook her head. “No, Mel’s going to. Can I?”
“Call and find out.”
Em scraped her chair back.
Notice how you can insert a great deal of action/character/setting by using action tags instead of dialogue taglines.
4. “Said” is still the best dialogue tag to use. Every once in a while, you can get creative and thumb through the thesaurus, tossing in a “ordered,” “barked,” “pleaded,” and so on. But don’t overdo it. For the most part, you want the reader’s focus to be on the words spoken, not the verb illustrating how they’re spoken.
5. Read your dialogue out loud. This was a great tip I received from a conference presenter early in my career. Written dialogue generally won’t mirror actual conversation. People aren’t too eloquent in real life; they have way too many “ums” and pauses and restarts as they speak. But you can still get a general feel for how authentic dialogue sounds if you read it aloud. Case in point:
“Sara, just watching you pull off that dress is enough to make me lose control,” Duke said as his roommate slipped from her drenched clothing.
Would an adult male, all riled up from a female getting naked close by, really talk that way? None that I know would.
“Jesus, you take that shirt off in front of me, and I’m not making any promises about what does or doesn’t happen next,” Duke said as his roommate slipped from her drenched clothing.
Better, but not great. I still don’t think he’d talk that much.
“Jesus,” Duke said as his roommate slipped from her drenched clothing, “are you trying to kill me?”
Bottom line: play around with your dialogue; try different tags and read it out loud. Have other people read it as well and give you their feedback. Dialogue can be challenging, but it can also be a writer’s best friend.