Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Writers' Wednesday: Working With Dialogue

"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.

“After breakfast.”

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.

Good luck! Basic Author


Fred Charles said...

Great post! Number 4 is especially true. Another thing to avoid it overuse of adverbs with tags:

He said slowly.
She said softly.
He said loudly.

The one that bothers me the most is:

He exclaimed.


Judy said...

Fred came up with my pet peeve. I think the idea about reading the dialogue aloud is great. I try to do that, but sometimes I forget. Loved the illustration about the roomie!

ollie1976 said...

Great advice-thank you!

Carolan Ivey said...

Another thing I'm conscious of, whether I'm reading or writing, is the character's nationality. For example, I often have characters from either the Deep South or from countries like Ireland, where they speak English but the dialect is so different they might as well be speaking a foreign language. LOL

My goal is to give the reader the flavor of the character's dialect without it being overwhelming, which would leave the reader tilting her head and muttering, "Huh?"

jonjo said...

I recently discovered I am guilty of the second felony and am busy going right through my WIP to eliminate the problem.

No 4 is a huge challenge. One I might have ignored once upon a time, now I'm enjoying trying to meet.

Thanks for sharing, Allie.

Marie-Nicole Ryan said...

Great points. I also force myself to read the entire book aloud during one of my final edits. It's a great way to make the entire book flow naturally. It's my contention if your tongue falters over the wording (dialogue or otherwise), it's an awkward passage and needs to be revised until you can read it without stumbling.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out that tags are used all too often. It seems like that's a way a writer shows they don't trust the reader to figure out what's going on in the scene. Show, don't tell; always a good motto in this case!

Cheri said...

Wow, I just found this site today and I really like the way you explain writing tips! To be sure, I will definitely be back here often. thanks!

bunnygirl said...

Yes to all that! I read a lot of stuff on crit sites that could stand to apply #1 and #4, and drop some adverbs, too.

The trick to getting #5 right is developing a good ear for how people talk IRL. Reading aloud is great, but that doesn't always keep one from falling in love with their own words, resulting in grand speeches where none are called for. I think most of us have been guilty of that at one time or another.

Real life conversations can be repetitive, full of fragments, and as you point out, full of hemming and hawing. I've found I can go back to most first-draft conversations and cut them by anywhere from a third to a half just by eliminating anything repitition and words like, "oh," "yeah," or "well." It isn't that these things aren't realistic, because they are. But for the reader, you gotta trim some of it, otherwise you bog down the story.

Above all else, though, a writer must devlop a good ear.

If your only experience with English was from what you had learned in a classroom, what would you notice about the conversations taking place around the office water cooler or in a shopping mall? Write how people really talk. Then go back and strip out the superfluous stuff. What's left won't always be elegant, but it'll be real.

g.i. george said...

wow, this is really fun to know. I didn't even know about number 5 and when I come to think about it, "yea, it probably works!"

Leif D. said...

This is nice to know Allie..thanks for another great post!

Shy Writer said...

wow, this is interesting, Allie! I do get irritated when the writer uses a lot of tags. Good point Carolan. I like it when speakers seem real like in "Abiding Darkness" by John Aubrey Anderson.

Dylan said...

i don't really like reading dialogues but since you said so, i'd probably try. Gracias for the tips!

franz said...

I have another question, when do you know where to put the punctuation mark in a sentence in quotation marks?




when do you know it goes after or before the quotation mark?

Lenz said...

guilty of #5 here. do we really need to that? I find it weird to read my dialogues aloud. But gez, have to change now.

Melissa said...

I followed a link from Marianne's blog. Writing dialogue can always be a challenge. I really liked the final version of the duke's line. He really sounded like a guy. I have a probably with my heroes sounding ike girly men. It was great how you had all his emotion, thought, feeling summed up in that one sentance!

Ceri said...

Great post! It drives me batty when writers use names within dialogue all the time. I've definitely gotten a lot out of this. Thanks!!

Gay said...

You forgot one of my peeves.

Sighing speech. A character can sigh. But they rarely do it at the same time they are speaking... (try it--it's very difficult to get to the words out at all!)

sherlyn said...

I've heard you gotta use contractions
and keep attributions to a minimum to improve dialogue.

marylin said...

But when do you know when to stop the dialogue part and start with the narrative?

Anicz said...

How about "not using too much dialect"? I find many authors doing that and the result? I can't even comprehend what they're writing.