We’re all well-aware of the importance of dialogue. It’s one of the most pivotal aspects of story-writing. It’s where conflicts emerge, resolutions are attempted, clues are given, and tension is built.
Dialogue can make or break a story.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts I’ve encountered in my own novel writing so far:
Do use dialogue and action tags, and use them properly. For those who may not know, Dialogue Tags are add-ons you use to show who is speaking a certain line, i.e. ‘She said‘, ‘He murmured‘, ‘She asked‘, etc. Action Tags go a bit further by not only telling you who is speaking, but what they’re doing as they speak. An example of this would be:
John scratched at his beard. “We should eat soon.” This indicates that John is speaking, but also adds color by telling the reader what he’s doing.
These tags are important because they add depth and flavor to the dialogue. People don’t just sit and talk or stand and talk; they’re constantly doing other things. Whether it’s fiddling with the straw in their cup or playing with their hair or flicking a lighter on and off, people do things as they talk.
Illustrating such action can add to the tone of a scene, and can also subtly bring out underlying emotions and motives which may not be present in the dialogue itself.
For example, if the character is being honest, they might lean forward and maintain eye contact as they speak; whereas someone who’s hiding something might avert their gaze or jiggle their knees nervously.
The trick with these tags is to use them properly. Generally speaking, if you’re using a dialogue tag, you shouldn’t also use an action tag. Using the example above, you wouldn’t say:
John scratched at his beard. “We should eat soon,” he said.
The ‘he said’ is redundant in this case since we know from the action tag that John is speaking.
The only time I show action along with a dialogue tag would be something like:
“We should eat soon,” John said, scratching at his beard.
Do Do Your Homework. This pertains to the slang, phrases, and other terms you might use in dialogue. Make sure these are appropriate for the time and place your story is set in. Also, make sure the dialogue is age appropriate for your characters.
An eighty-year-old probably doesn’t walk around saying, ‘Yo, bro, where the chicas at?’ or something to that effect… :p
Don’t be anal about sentence construction. When writing dialogue, don’t worry about the sentence being complete. We all speak in fragments sometimes, cutting off a word in the beginning, middle, or end of our sentence and knowing it will be understood anyway. You can do this in dialogue (even though Word will taunt you with that green underline…) Using complete sentences all the time can make the dialogue seem wooden and unnatural.
Do Individualize We all have unique ways of speaking, whether it’s a word we use a lot, or a way of phrasing our sentences that’s all our own. So make sure you give your characters that same individuality and uniqueness. Maybe they have a quirk of speaking in movie lines or quoting someone incessantly, maybe they answer questions with questions; whatever it is, make sure to differentiate your characters.
The trick here is not to go overboard and cross the line from quirky to annoying… You don’t want readers mentally groaning when a certain character comes on the scene.
Do Read Out Loud This is an important one. We can get so caught up in our dialogue and imparting the information we want to get out that we don’t realize the dialogue seems rushed or unnatural, or agonizingly tedious.
Consequently, it may be useful to read your dialogue out loud once in a while, just to see how it sounds and whether it’s too long or too rushed or something.
Don’t Go Overboard Sometimes the dialogue can run way too long, to the point where we start getting bored and maybe even forget the plot a bit amidst all the yammering.
There should be a nice balance between action, reflection, and dialogue, with none of these elements running too long or conveying something which may be better portrayed via another device, i.e. that bit of introspection might be better served in a conversation or argument. Likewise, an action sequence might get a point across better than a paragraph of inner monologue.
Don’t Info-dump in Dialogue This is a big one. It can be really easy and tempting to show lots and lots of information in dialogue – especially if you have a ‘dummy character’, i.e. someone who is new to the situation or planet or circumstance and has to be ‘clued in’ to everything.
This is exceptionally annoying to readers and is a painfully obvious device to use. I’m not saying you can’t convey any of that kind of info in dialogue, just don’t be so obvious about it. Action sequences are great ways of showing information as well, and won’t bore the reader with lectures on the civilization’s language or something…
Do Space it Out I’ve read lots of books where the dialogue isn’t spaced according to speaker, i.e. Henry will be saying something, and then there will be a little action or reactionary thing (also pertaining to Henry,) and then suddenly Julia is speaking! All in the same paragraph!
Big no no. If you’re changing speakers, press Enter. Simple as that.
What are some of your Do’s and Don’ts of Dialogue?