If your story features more than one character, it probably contains dialogue. Unfortunately, dialogue can be challenging to write, because it needs to sound natural or it will fall flat. As if that isn’t bad news enough, cultivating an ear for dialogue is not an overnight process. You have to learn to listen to people, get to know the characters inside your head, and understand how the tension in a scene affects communication.
However, today I want to talk about how dialogue looks on paper, not how it sounds in your mind’s ear, and show you techniques you can master quickly that will help you fine-tune the conversations in your current manuscript.
1. Give Each Speaker His Own Paragraph
This rule is basic and you may already know it, but it’s nonetheless important. When the speaker changes, you should start a new paragraph to clarify who said what and add white space to the page, which is easier on the eyes than a solid block of text. Like so:
“Mary, how big is your lamb?” Joseph asked.
“Small,” Mary answered. “You could almost say…little.”
“Hm. Mary has a little lamb,” Joseph said. “Interesting.”
This guideline also extends beyond dialogue, because all thoughts and actions within the same paragraph are assumed to be from or about the speaker. For example:
Humpty Dumpty couldn’t believe his bad luck. Once, just once, he’d told himself he would be safe sitting on the edge of a wall. Now…oh, what a mess. “Hello!” he called. “Hello! Anyone? HELP!”
A tall man walking down the path turned aside and waved to him. “Well, hello there. You’re in a pickle, ain’t ya?”
“Yes sir. Could you please help me get put back together?”
“Aye, aye… Perhaps the king’s men could help. And their horses too.” The man looked over Humpty’s damaged form on the ground and nodded. “Yes, the horses.”
“Begging your pardon, but how would the horses help?”
“I don’t know, man. Also, you’re a talking egg.”
Notice that Humpty’s thoughts and dialogue are grouped together in the first paragraph. In the second, the tall man’s actions and dialogue are blended as well. Never mix a character’s individual actions/thoughts with another character’s, because this will subconsciously (or consciously) confuse readers.
2. Know When to Use a Beat vs. a Tag
Probably the most crucial detail about dialogue mechanics is the distinction between beats and tags, and when you should choose one over the other.
A dialogue tag is simply a speech attribution. In the sentence, “‘I don’t think this is a good idea,’ Jack said,” the tag does nothing except state that Jack voiced the words.
A beat (sometimes called an action tag), not only identifies the speaker but also describes a physical motion: “Why ever not?” Jill laughed. “We’re just going up the hill!” In this example, “Jill laughed” is a beat. It doesn’t actually assign the words to Jill, but since it’s juxtaposed to her dialogue, the attribution is implied.
The first practical difference between beats and tags is punctuation. Tags are part of the same sentence as the dialogue. Unless the dialogue is a question or exclamation, it ends in a comma, and the tag is included in the sentence. A beat, however, is an independent sentence and treated as such.
The second notable difference is that a beat serves a dual purpose and helps paint a picture of the scene. Face-to-face communication involves expressions, intonations, mannerisms, and other gestures. Substituting beats instead of tags captures more aspects of the conversation.
Does that mean you should always use beats? Not necessarily. Tags have the superpower of invisibility. We see them so often that we gloss over them, noting whose name is mentioned before moving on. This can be advantageous, especially in tense situations where interrupting every few lines with actions would be annoying. Also, if you constantly insert beats, your characters may shift around so much that readers will get distracted from the dialogue.
In short, use tags to avoid disrupting the dialogue’s rhythm, and beats to flesh out the emotions and setting with character reactions.
3. Keep Dialogue Brief
In real life, people don’t usually spout long speeches in everyday interactions. Nobody has the forethought to present a well-reasoned and thorough speech in one breath. Plus, they’d likely get interrupted.
Yet many characters don’t seem to struggle with this and are excessively wordy. Unfortunately, long monologues are unrealistic. If a segment of dialogue has more than three lines, you should probably spend time evaluating and trimming it.
This is especially true in emotionally charged scenes. When a friend is dying, when a warrior is rushing into battle, or when a scared five-year-old is about to confront the monster under his bed, these are not appropriate moments for drawn-out words of inspiration. Emotional people might talk a lot, but not in an organized manner. The more tense the scene is, the terser the dialogue should be.
4. Break Grammar to Create Realism
Dialogue doesn’t believe in grammar. Your character can pepper his speech with fragments, run-ons, and improper word usage if it’s true to his personality. In fact, if all your dialogue is grammatically correct, that’s probably a problem. Nobody talks like that. Don’t defy grammar just to be rebellious, but when you’re writing between quotation marks, remember that authenticity trumps sentence structure.
5. Read Dialogue Aloud
Dialogue is supposed to be spoken in the story, so the best method for testing it is to read it in real life. Is it realistic or clumsy? Do you run out of breath with long sentence after long sentence? Does it seem too polished? Editing on paper is nice, but if you don’t read your dialogue aloud, you won’t be able to gauge whether it sounds right.
6. Display Character Emotions Outside of Dialogue
Characters have modes of expressing their feelings besides vocalizing them. People tend to become quiet while in the throes of deep emotions. When they do speak, they may not be 100 percent vulnerable and honest.
If you rely on dialogue to convey characters’ strong emotions, your story will disappoint. Allow their emotions to also influence their actions and body language. And don’t be afraid to use silence. Underwriting is almost always better than overwriting.
7. Don’t Put Words in a Character’s Mouth
Dialogue should never have an agenda. It will sound stilted if you try to jam information into it. Characters can have motivations for engaging in conversation. They can be bursting to say something. You, dear author, cannot.
How many times has an emotionally scarred love interest, who vowed never to reveal her dark secrets, bared her soul because that’s how the author scripted it? How many times has someone divulged secret information to the hero, not because they have a big mouth, but because the author needed the plot to move forward?
Let dialogue go where it will. You can always edit it later, but for now it needs to live.
Applying the Rules to Your Story
If all this advice seems overwhelming, don’t worry. I typically refine dialogue in my second draft. When I’m roughing my way through the first draft, I don’t worry about dialogue mechanics, only on making sure the words belong to the characters. If I’m focusing on stylistic issues, I can’t accomplish that. So, don’t get fussy until you finish your first draft, and then you can swing through it with these (and last month’s) tips in mind.
Strong dialogue isn’t about any one of these tips, or even a combination of them. Strong dialogue is character based, and tuning your ear to the imaginary people in your head requires practice. While you’re working on that, you can use this list to improve your dialogue today.
“Well, I’m back.” The emotion those words spark in Lord of the Rings fans across the world perfectly describes how Brandon feels on a daily basis when he finishes writing and starts working on homework. (Yes, writing comes first.) His fictional worlds, where the suns never set and Rutel is Servant-Lord of the Sky, leave him wanting more…but unfortunately life is still a thing. When Brandon can’t hang out in Faërie, he fills his time with normal mortal things like homework, work, friends, (oxford commas) and family. He enjoys backyard football (or any sport), board games, English country dancing, and reading. He doesn’t particularly enjoy (but still spends time) driving, doing math, and waiting for YouTube ads to end.
Brandon enjoys writing-related-but-still-not-actually-writing activities including critiquing, outlining, and updating his blog, The Woodland Quill. Some of his favorite books (there are too many to list) are The 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, Look and Live by Matt Papa (warning: nonfiction), and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. (Due to his Lord of the Rings reference at the beginning of this blurb, he’s not going to bring that pinnacle of literary genius up again, although he probably should and sort of just did.)
Brandon lives on the Nebraska plains, where the people don’t actually live in teepees but do plant as much corn as the stereotypes suggest. His wonderful family keeps him somewhat grounded in reality, his friends keep his extroverted personality from imploding while he’s writing, and his ice cream keeps him…happy.
Poor ice cream.