I’d say writing good dialogue is one of the hardest aspects of writing fiction. It is something I’ve focused a lot of time and attention at doing well, and still have not mastered it to full effect. Again, I make no claims at being the best writer in the world, but if I can help someone with the little bit of knowledge and experience I do have, then this blog will have been worthwhile.
Dialogue has always been an obsession of mine; I used to write my stories out like screenplays, where it was nothing but dialogue and the minimal amount of dramatic narrative necessary to transition between scenes. It is a habit I swiftly grew out of, because it didn’t have any sort of rhyme or reason to it and left too little room for building tension or developing the internal workings of a character. When writing and moving the story forward with only spoken word, it becomes all too easy to let exposition seep into the dialogue. You begin having characters speak in inhuman ways to get across a plot point. This is a bad habit I fell into, and what a lot of inexperienced writers who are attempting to live by the show don’t tell mantra fall into.
In this article I am going to go over some things that I really wished were explained to me when I started writing fiction when it comes to dialogue. Things like how to punctuate your dialogue, dialogue tag usage, and how to make your characters believably human.
In my experience dialogue writing should follow a handful of simple rules:
- The dialogue should progress the story in some way. Whether this is simply character development, or revealing an aspect of the world. It can be a super simple thing. You don’t need to reveal an assassination attempt on the king’s life every thirty seconds! The trick is to have several smaller conflicts that drive smaller arches forward.
- Watch your dialogue tags. The simple solution is always best. Your characters don’t always need to be murmuring or sighing or barking out their dialogue. In fact it gets pretty old very fast. The dialogue should stand on its own. A simple ‘he said’ ‘she said’ goes a long way.
- Begin a new paragraph whenever someone new is speaking. It doesn’t sound like a big deal to most people, and it is something most people do already, but our minds work in a fascinating ways. If we are able to visually organize information in a quick fashion, then we’ll more than likely be able to pick up on who is speaking no problem. Dialogue tags, or not.
- Be careful not to tell too much information in dialogue at once. Exposition is far too easy to spout out when having two or more characters talk. The trick, as I’ve said many times before, is to give bite sized bits of a bigger whole. Don’t reveal too much too quickly. The fun of it is to tease your readers with just enough information to make them want to turn the page, but not enough to keep them fully in the know.
- Don’t write dialogue for the sake of informing your audience either. I mean sometimes this seems like a good idea, and can be done subtlety, but on the all, if your characters already know something then there is no point in reiterating it for the audience. There are simpler and more effective ways of getting that information across.
- Lastly, keep the action flowing. Dialogue should never just be floating in white space. I learned this lesson the hard way. You have to keep your readers invested, and sometimes dialogue by itself is not the way to do that. Again, the word balance comes up, I sense a theme forming.
I won’t lie, writing good dialogue is challenging. The best advice I was given in a writing class was to simply eavesdrop on others, and write things out as they are literally spoken. This is both a good practice and a very bad one at the same time. A masterful writer is one who truly knows how to see the world and listen to it as well, but dialogue should leave impressions of normalcy not emulate it to perfection. There are certain conventions in spoken word among peers that just would bog down the pacing and flow of a narrative. So, just be aware of that when you’re practicing your active listening skills. Written dialogue should have elements of spoken convention, but with the excess fat cut away.
Here is an example of how not to write dialogue:
“Hi, Jeff, how are you today?” Tim said.
“Oh, I am doing fine, what about you?” Jeff replied.
“I can’t complain, how’s the home life?”
“Oh, you know, Molly is just acting out again. Teenage stuff. Can’t really complain though.”
“Why’s that?” Tim said, tilting his head to the side.
“We had the same sort of attitudes when we were young, didn’t we?” Jeff laughed. “I mean, remember that time we skipped school to go into the city? That homeless guy wouldn’t leave us alone. Man, our parents were so mad.”
“I suppose so.”
The problem with this example is it takes up too much page real-estate for what little it tells you, it just bogs you down with information you don’t need. It also can be difficult to tell who is talking sometimes. It is difficult to find the balance between excess and making your characters believably human. That’s where the impressions of normalcy come into play; you want to make your readers believe in the authenticity of your characters without overwhelming them with polite filler conversation.
Here is how I would write it if it were going into a bigger piece:
Jeff met Tim at the shop at the corner, the one with the bagels he liked so much. The place was bustling, the sound of clattering plates and clinking glasses overwhelmed the background drone of cars and the undying hum of city life. A sort of energy shook in Jeff’s limbs; he grabbed his steamy mug of coffee and took a sip from the chipped lip trying to quell his nerves.
“Molly’s acting out again,” Jeff said, placing his hand on the table. “It’s getting unbearable, really.”
Tim nodded, lathering an excess of sour cream onto a bagel with a knife. He sucked in his cheeks and swallowed back an abundance of saliva as he thought. Jeff was used to these long pauses; they were a common occurrence with Tim. “What is she doing exactly?” Tim asked at last.
“Skipping school, her grades are slipping. She’s liable to get kicked out if something doesn’t change.” Jeff set his mug aside, and leaned back into his chair. He closed his eyes and sighed through his nose in resignation. A waitress was taking some guy’s order from the table behind them; waffles were popular this morning it seemed.
“We did the same shit when we were young though.” Tim snorted, and then laughed as he set the knife aside.
Jeff let that statement linger in the air for a moment before snapping his eyes open. “I thought the point of parenthood was to make sure your children don’t make the same mistakes you did?”
Tim took a bite out of his bagel, and chewed slowly. “I suppose you’re right.”
See the difference? It isn’t bogged down with filler information. There is a clear conflict and action throughout the narrative. It might not be perfect, but it is far more balanced than the original example. That is the aim, striking balance. And somewhere in there, hopefully, your characters are still believable and human like.
The last thing I want to talk about today is something that eluded me for a long time, the rules on punctuating your dialogue. I did it wrong for years.
- Use a comma if your dialogue transitions into a dialogue tag.
“Molly’s acting out again,” Jeff said.
- Use a period if your dialogue is transitioning into an action.
“We did the same shit when we were young though.” Tim snorted, and then laughed.
- Do not capitalize the dialogue tag if your dialogue ends in a question mark or exclamation point.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the man said, lifting a brow.
- Use a comma if the dialogue following the transition is a continuation of the previous dialogue.
“Hiya Jeff,” Tim said, “how’re you today?”
- Use a period if the dialogue following the transition occurs after a pause.
“You gotta wonder what this place was like in its prime?” the boy said. “Pretty busy, I’d imagine.”
- There are always exceptions to the rules. It comes down to personal taste. You are ultimately the writer of your story. Rules only exist as guidelines in writing. Once you master them, breaking them intentionally can be fun. The key things are maintaining flow, and of course balance.
I know this was a bit of a longer one, but there was a lot to go over. Dialogue is not as simple as some may think, but it isn’t terribly complicated either. It comes down to experimentation, really. Everything in writing has a learning curve, but that in no way should make inaccessible. I hope this helped.
C. A. Guillory