Writing dialogue is important to fiction, of course, because our characters must have conversations, must say things so that they come across as realistic. But dialogue isn’t exactly like real speech. It needs to be more focused and nuanced, not to mention just plain fun to read.
Let’s start with the mechanics, and then we’ll move on to the more complex techniques for writing great dialogue.
Dialogue is enclosed by quotation marks followed by a comma and a speech tag. The speech tag is what identifies the speaker: she said, he said, and so on.
Here’s a basic bit of dialogue with correct punctuation:
“I’m having a great time,” May said.
Don’t use a period at the end of the dialogue string, use a comma, which goes inside the quotation marks. However, if you’re not using a proper noun but rather she or he, don’t capitalize the pronouns.
“I’m having a great time,” she said.
You can think of the string of dialogue as all part of the same sentence, including the speech tag, so what follows the dialogue doesn’t need to be capitalized.
It gets a little more confusing if you are using different end punctuation like exclamation points or question marks, but the basic format still holds true—don’t capitalize the speech tag unless it’s a proper noun.
“I’m having a great time!” she said.
“Are you having a great time?” she asked.
Obviously, speech tags clarify who is speaking, but they can also provide information that isn’t always provided in the dialogue.
For example, notice the differences in these examples, by adding a bit more information to the speech tag.
“I’m having a great time,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“I’m having a great time,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I’m having a great time,” she said, giggling.
Each sentence conveys different information about the tone or meaning of what the speaker is saying.
It’s best to try to convey as much information through the actual dialogue or the action surrounding it, rather than relying on the speech tags. But on occasion, adding a few words to deepen the reader’s understanding can be quite effective.
Speech tags are certainly necessary when a character speaks for the first time, but it’s important to note that you don’t need to use them every time a person speaks—that would be repetitious and dull—especially when an exchange is between only two people.
“I’m having a great time,” May said, smiling.
“Me too,” replied Jim. “Do you want some punch?”
“Sure, I’d love some.”
Since Jim’s dialogue is on the same line, we know the second string of it is still his, so no need for another tag. Then, since he’s asking May a question, whom we already know he is speaking to, her answer doesn’t require a tag either.
Another way to not overuse speech tags is to use attributive action to indicate who is speaking.
Using our example, it might look like this:
May smiled. “I’m having a great time.”
The action shows that May is speaking.
She stepped toward him, her hands on her hips. “What is the meaning of this?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Use Invisible Speech Tags
Sometimes writers think that varying the old “she said, he said” tags add more variety and interest to dialogue. This is a misnomer, however. We want our speech tags to be invisible; we want the dialogue to do the speaking, not the tags. So, avoid the temptation to use tags like, “he inquired, stated, lamented, questioned,” etc. Plain old he said and she said are fine.
Avoid Unnecessary Verbs/Adverbs
“Are you stupid?” he asked rudely.
“D-d-d-do you mind?” he stammered.
We can see by the question that what the character says is rude. We can see that the character is stammering. The more you rely on the dialogue to convey information or emotion the better. Less is more in terms of speech tags.
On the Nose Dialogue
You know when you read dialogue and everyone says what they mean? It’s boring, right? That’s what on the nose dialogue is. While sometimes that’s okay, especially when the dialogue’s purpose is simply to provide information, often, we can dramatize an interaction between characters by getting rid of on the nose dialogue.
We read books, in part, because of the drama, and that drama, once again, highlights that fiction is different from real life. Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?” Fictional dialogue is more focused than real speech. We leave the boring parts out.
Often, we can fix on the nose dialogue with subtext, that is, what lies beneath what the characters are saying.
Consider this bit of dialogue:
“I’m leaving,” Jack said.
What he said: “I’m leaving.”
What he means: “I’m leaving.”
There’s no subtext. Jack says what he means. But in terms of drama, it’s pretty boring. Let’s revise that with a little more subtext and context:
Mary sat on the couch in Jack’s office, her skirt riding up to show the top of her thigh. “Can we talk?” she said.
He moved toward her, taking a seat next to her. “I’m leaving. I have a meeting,” he said, as he took her hand.
She leaned in to kiss him, and he took her in his arms.
“I have to go,” he said as he tightened his hold on her, kissing her more deeply, making no move to leave.
What Jack’s says: “I’m leaving.”
What he means: I should go, but there’s no way I’m leaving now.
Let’s try another one.
Dan had just sat down to lunch with a few of his coworkers when he saw Carrie, his wife Sherry’s best friend approaching the table.
“Hey, Dan,” she said smiling widely. “Mark said he had a great time with you the other night. I’m glad. Mark really needed a night out.”
Yes, he thought. Maybe she’d tell Sherry, put him in a good light with her. They’d been fighting too much these days.
“Would you like to sit down?” he asked.
She remained standing, holding her phone and typing absentmindedly .
“That was so nice of you,” she continued. “You guys went to that club on First? The one where all the college kids go?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said, grinning at the men around him in the booth.
“Why don’t you sit down, have lunch?” he tried again.
She typed a bit more, then took out a pocket mirror and began to apply a deep-red lipstick. “The one where the girls usually don’t have much on?” she said.
Oh, oh. “I wouldn’t know,” he said, watching as her smile faded.
“Really? That’s funny because Mark said you had a great time talking with a petite red-head named Jackie.”
Carrie knows from the start she is there to confront Dan about his flirtatious behavior, but she doesn’t come right out and say it. Dan, of course, doesn’t either. But through the interaction, we slowly get a sense of what’s going on, the little clues, the subtext like the red lipstick, and Carrie’s seemingly nonchalant actions that act in counterpoint to her words, which slowly build into an accusation.
Here’s another example, which highlights using action in counterpoint to a character’s words:
“Are you coming back?”
He ran a trembling hand through his hair, his shoulders drooping a little. “Yeah, yeah, of course,” he said, but his voice was tired, defeated.
That’s drama. And it makes dialogue much more fun to read.
Interweaving Dialogue with the Narrative
Long strings of dialogue can be exhausting.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
It’s got a rapid fire feel, a staccatto rhythm.
But if you weave in actions and thoughts, you not only create a smoother rhythm but you evoke more of the story for your reader:
“Where are you going?” Her heart leapt into her throat as she watched him throw clothes into a suitcase.
He balled up a T-shirt and tossed it into the bag. “I don’t know. Somewhere.”
Why is he doing this? she thought. We’ve had fights before, and he’s never left. “Are you coming back,” she asked, her voice wavering.
He shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Avoid using heavy dialect. It was considered acceptable years ago, but now it’s pretty widely frowned upon. Consider this brief dialogue exchange from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:
“Tom, it was middling warm in school, warn’t it?”
“Powerful warm, warn’t it?”
“Didn’t you want to go in a-swimming, Tom?”
Although it certainly evokes region and time period, page after page of dialect can be tiresome to read. It’s better to evoke a dialect through more subtle use. Perhaps the Tom Sawyer example might be rewritten as:
“Tom, it was middling warm in school, wasn’t it?”
“Powerful warm, wasn’t it?”
“Didn’t you want to go swimming, Tom?”
By keeping a few of the unique words (yes’m, middling, powerful), we retain the flavor of the dialect without it becoming tedious to read. You can also use a little nonstandard grammar or slang to evoke a dialect or certain way of speaking.
Besides being difficult to read, dialect can also come across as stereotypical—especially if we are writing as an author who does not have intimate knowledge of the culture or region we are writing about.
Getting into Your Character’s Head
We’ve talked about getting into your character’s head in my posts on character. That advice is important for dialogue too. Characters can have catch phrases or patterns of speech that maken them easily recognizable. Good dialogue along with good fiction involves getting into your character’s head, seeing from their point of view.