(~6 min read)
For the purpose of this article, dialogue is an alive, action-alike, realistic way to reveal new information about character and/or plot and thus it should carry tension (from 'Make a Scene' by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Writer's Digest Books 2008). To that end, dialogue can destabilise or demand action—which is almost the same if you ask me.
First some DEFINITIONS:
Dialogue consists of the spoken part and the dialogue tag, which tells us who does the speaking.
- Dialogue tags: Is a phrase that precedes, intersects, or follows dialogue and includes the word 'said' or one of its synonyms (asked, yelled, muttered, screamed,...).When used right, dialogue tags should be near invisible, except when they shouldn't as in...
An action beat is a standalone sentence, designed to break apart dialogue. It's a powerful tool for structuring dialogue. See the last example, when Paul sits down? This is an action beat, because it belongs with the dialogue. See later for further information.
- Action beats - huge topic coming!
Some articles talk about 'speaker attributes', and they're not to be confused with dialogue tags, because speaker attributes are stuff we infer about the speaker from how something is said, or what actually is said. A line like "Don't you dare loom!" tells me that the speaker is annoyed at the dialogue partner for appearing big and intimidating. We can use dialogue to show the reader new information without it being obvious. Usually, the dialogue portion of the speech is about showing, while the dialogue tag is the telling part. Even when you now think that action beats are better (and they are, usually, because of showing) than dialogue tags, don't go and do away with dialogue tags entirely. It's not necessary to only write dialogue with action beats. Sometimes it's enough to just let the reader know who's speaking with a simple dialogue tag.
Verbal communication and what goes on in terms of body language can tell us what's going on inside and outside an character (thinking, feeling, processing, or knowing), but also mask what's going on. If you write the dialogue and action beats well, when a character asks his boss for a pay raise, the boss (and the reader) will see small signs that the character's not confident he deserves it. These kind of exchanges are fraught with tension, and rightly so. They propel the story forward in all directions.
Other times, the dialogue will be open and honest, and we'll feel your protagonist relax among friends who support him onto death and beyond. Done well, dialogue is a powerful tool for characterisation. Don't leave me with only smiles, shouts, and hugs.
Examples of an emotionally revealing dialogue is if your protagonist goes quiet or chatty, he deliberately misunderstands his dialogue partner, or maybe he contradict things he himself has said in the past. And his dialogue partners? If they catch these undercurrents, they'll get that something has changed and it might give them pause.
But whatever the ends of your dialogue, choose words your character would choose. Ask yourself which kind of conversation this is and how the characters relate to each other. Do they have specific quirks you can infuse their dialogue with? Something a bit subtle is mirroring patterns. Maybe they mirror each other in words. Maybe you cross your legs when your dialogue partner does. Even body language sometimes mirrors your dialogue partner. These are great tools for characterisation and action beats.
A word of caution about action beats here: Everyone has crutches that he/she uses over and over. My characters are often smiling or balling fists. Or propping themselves up against the wall. When you've written your dialogue scene, go back and look it over with specific regard to those and change them to fresh actions.
And a second caution: Don't use action beats to detail setting, except when it's a tool for characterisation. When a character does something during dialogue, you have the opportunity to—briefly—show me the layout of the room they're in. Maybe Pauline moves her chair over to the fireplace because it's cold. Or Paul flips the lightswitch and a single-bulb dangles forlorn from the ceiling.
So how to do dialogue right, or wrong? First we need to pay attention to the MECHANICS and punctuation, everyone's favourite topic.
Dialogue tags are Paul said or Pauline asked. They can be given after, before the dialogue, or in the middle of the dialogue. You can vary where you place the dialogue tags. They don't always have to come at the beginning, nor do they have to come at the end. Sometimes they are in the middle:
- Punctuation and ways to vary dialogue
There's no rule if you should write "Welcome to our introduction to dialogue," Paul said. or "Welcome to our introduction to dialogue," said Paul. I'd argue that 'said Paul' sounds a bit old-fashioned, but that's something you can hash out with your editor.
When a dialogue tag comes after an exclamation or a question mark, don't capitalise the dialogue tag.
The above were easy. The next ones are not so much:
Sarcasm off. Your readers need to know immediately who's speaking, not only at the end of a long paragraph. Imagine you've just turned the radio on and someone gives a campaign speech. You need to wait until the radio announcer tells you who's said what you just heard, right? Well, we're not on radio. We can avoid the prolonged agony.
- Let the reader know who's speaking.
I didn't put a dialogue tag in the above line; but eliminating them can easily confuse your readers about who's speaking, so make absolutely sure the reader attributes the dialogue to the correct person. And the easiest way to avoid confusion is to break a new line, use dialogue tags, and put them near the dialogue.
Talking head syndrome is when you write unaccounted dialogue and the reader gets confused who says what. A rule of thumb for unaccounted dialogue is three lines, no more. You need strong characters' voices if it goes on longer, but if in doubt... ask someone else for critique.
An ellipse (three full-stops in sequence) can be used as trailing off, while an em-dash (the long dash, not to be confused with the slightly shorter en-dash) shows a sudden cutoff.
- A word on dashes and ellipses:
In the following, I'll list some ERRORS that are common enough to have found their way into writing craft books like Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Rennie Browne & Dave King, William Morrow Imprint, 2004). Some examples are taken from this book.
How often do you need to tell the reader that Paul really, truly doesn't want to?
- Overexplanation and redundancy:
The next one is a bit more subtle:
When the dialogue itself conveys emotion, don't prop it up with adjectives/adverbs in character description to tell the reader how it's said. Here, the perennial discussion about adverbs comes into its full glory, so watch out for these little beasties. Overexplanation can also hide in a longer line of dialogue that explains the character's emotions when we'd be better feel it with an emotion beat.
Don't use dialogue as a means of exposition. Just don't. If you must give the reader vital information, find a way to make the exchange organic, but don't ever preceed it with the words 'As you know'. It's blatantly obvious that next will come a wall of text that rams a mountains of words into the reader he absolutely has to have right at this moment.
- 'As you know'
I get it; you're tempted to give colour to the little word 'said'. I am, too. 'Said' feels monotonous all the time, and here we come to the temptation to use different dialogue tags as descriptors of how something is said, instead of letting your readers feel these emotions. Your characters are snapping, yelling, whining... sounds familiar?
- Distant relatives of speaker attributes
But there's worse to come:
- The pysically impossible.Notice the comma. Now, how could she do that? When she smiles (and it's not all about smiles but also grimacing or grinding your teeth together), she can't say something. When she says something, she can't smile at the same time. Try it. It simply is impossible.
- Addressing people by their namesNo one talks like that, not even when your characters are sitting on a long dinner table with acquaintances right and left and have to shout to make themselves heard over the din.
You might have a campaign speech in your story, but you can interrupt even those with the crowd moving about, maybe a Secret Service agent whispering something to his colleague, or the occassional water bottle that needs refill. Break it up. Give it a bit of variety.
- One person speaking for paragraphs and pages
If a speaker must go on for more than one paragraph (and the rules for beats exist in dialogue as well!), for quotation marks, notice the full stop without double quotes at the end of the first paragraph. This indicates that the dialogue goes on from the same person.
Filler dialogue is one that could as soon be left out, for example greetings: do they really add that much to your story? Dialogue is just like another part of your story: Everything you write should contribute to the plot/characters/tension/setting. Filler dialogue ad per definitionem does neither.
- Filler dialogue, speech patterns, contractions, and phonetic dialogue
Apart from friends who genuinely want to know, how often have people asked you 'How are you' just because of curtesy? 'Like, so, I mean' hit the same groove. Also uhms, ehms, and ahs: Real people often use them, but in your story you should only use them sparingly, as you should curses. I don't say eliminate all of them entirely, but use them only when it's required for characterisation.
Run-on sentences are sentences that are not grammatically correct, like they're missing a noun or a verb (or sometimes consist only of one word). In real life, we often don't speak grammatically correct sentences but for the purpose of a story you should; except when you shouldn't but this is later article material.
And then you have the opposite to run-on's, contractions:
People can't be arsed to properly pronounce 'people cannot be arsed'. In real dialogue, people use contractions a lot. Just listen to someone speak. A dialogue without contractions doesn't sound quite right (or maybe you only have politicians and aristrocrats speaking). But for accents and slang, toe the line between how people speak and clarity. Keep in mind that not everyone has grown up around Scots (and I've been told their slang is almost unintelligible). Be careful, is all I say. I apologise to the Scots.
I hope the above has given you food for thoughts on how to craft dialogue. Don't only read articles but go out and listen to people speak with each other. Put into words how they interact with each other in body language and interaction, friends and adversaries alike, and you can't go too wrong.