Hello, Write Owls! Welcome to Day 12 of Storytelling 101. Today we’re talking about dialogue.
Dialogue is the speech in your story. It is used to reveal character and move the plot forward (Jones). You can show things using dialogue rather than telling them in narration, particularly characterization (King). When choosing what to use dialogue for, consider whether it accomplishes the aforementioned purposes. Things like small talk are useless with few exceptions. You also want to avoid info-dumping in your dialogue. No one enjoys reading that. Find a different way to convey that information or spread it out. Also avoid having characters tell each other things they both already know. This is unrealistic and boring for the reader (Moreci).
To make your dialogue realistic, keep in mind it is not a word-for-word replication of actual speech. No one wants to read all the pauses, “um’s”, and everything else that’s common in real-life conversations. Dialogue is a modified version of speech that is more direct and to-the-point. Reading your dialogue aloud can be helpful for determining whether or not it sounds good.
Make your dialogue specific to your characters. Not everyone speaks the same way, so your characters shouldn’t all sound identical. Consider their backgrounds and personalities. How does this inform the way they speak? Educated people tend to use more complex sentences and bigger words while uneducated people use simple sentences, smaller words, and slang. Some people speak in a measured manner, while others speak rapidly without pausing to consider their words. Word choice is important to consider when differentiating characters’ dialogue. It’s okay to write in the vernacular—improper English—because no one speaks with perfect grammar. Just avoid doing over-the-top dialects. Readers find this annoying unless you’re really good at it.
Think about their body language, too. Do they maintain eye contact? Do they slouch? Do they use hand gestures? Consider their various speech mannerisms, both spoken and acted (Moreci). Using body language can also help break up the dialogue to avoid the floating head situation. You need to use details about the setting and body language to ground the reader in the scene. Otherwise, it’s like they’re listening to floating heads talking to each other.
Body language and actions can also serve as dialogue tags, so you don’t have to use “s/he said” all the time. You need to make sure your readers know who is speaking. If you’re really good at writing dialogue, your reader should know who’s talking without any tags; but it’s good to include them just the same. I highly recommend using “said”, “asked”, and the occasional other verb for tags. They tend to be invisible, so the reader skims right over them. I find words like “barked”, “spat”, “hissed”, etc. jarring and distracting. The same is true with “said loudly”, “said with frustration”, “said tenderly”, etc. Your dialogue should speak for itself. Readers should be able to tell your character is screaming, hissing angrily, whispering tenderly, etc. because of the context and the dialogue itself.
These are the basics of dialogue. If you have any questions about this topic, please leave them in the comments; and I’ll try to answer them either as a reply or in my Q&A on Saturday.
Feel free to answer these in the comments if you want to chime in!
1) Have you ever read your dialogue aloud? Did it help you?
2) What distinguishing characteristics do you like to see in characters’ dialogue? Is there a particular character who has really great dialogue? Why?
3) Do you use the said-only rule like I do, or do you use all the colorful verbs and adverbs? Why?
Jones, Catherine Ann. The Way of Story: The Craft & Soul of Writing. Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.
King, Stephen. On Writing. Scribner, 2000.
Moreci, Jenna. “10 Tips for Writing Dialogue: Character Voice.” YouTube, uploaded by Writing with Jenna Moreci, 17 April 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVHp1riaZ-Y