Say What? Some Words About Dialogue, That’s What

Dialogue idialogues one of my favorite elements of fiction. While it seems to only show two characters shooting the breeze or arguing, it really does so much more than that.

It moves the overall story forward.

It reveals character.

It provides action within a scene.

It quickens the pace of the narrative.

It provides tension and subtext.

Of course, in order for all these things to occur, the dialogue must be written well. There are many great posts and books out there on the topic of dialogue construction, and definitely check those out as well. This is my attempt at succinctly describing what I think are the most important aspects of dialogue.

Dialogue should: move the story forward.

Dialogue is action, and action is movement. Everything characters say should be purposeful, even if it isn’t immediately obvious how. There are a couple places in my work where critique-ers have asked, “Was there a point to that conversation?” Yes, but sometimes the payoff comes later. Bottom line, characters should only rarely and briefly shoot the breeze for no reason.

Dialogue should not: provide info dumps.

Info dumps are the opposite of forward movement. They slam the brakes on the story to give information that may or may not be important for the reader to know (most of the time, they aren’t as important as you think). Seeing that dialogue is supposed to move things forward because it’s action, character-provided info dumps are especially awkward because they slam the brakes while they should be moving things forward somehow, and they never feel natural because they’re obviously for reader benefit. You end up with “As you know!” conversations.

“Well we’ve been working together for twenty years, and I know what makes you tick, old buddy. How else would I know that you like brown sugar in your coffee and wear your pants backwards? But you already know all this! Ha ha!”

Yeah, don’t do that.

Dialogue should: sound like real speech.

Sort of. Try to make your characters sound like real people in casual conversation. People tend to not use subjects in sentences: “Thought I’d get here on time.” They also have the occasional dangling thought: “I just thought the whole thing was…bizarre, I guess.” They say “yeah”, a few say “yes”. People tend to have “signature” words, like “well” or “huh” or “ugh”. Use these for characterization, but don’t get carried away, because…

Dialogue should not: sound exactly like real speech.

People hem and haw and um and lose their trains of thought. Accents are fine to write, but if you get too literal in writing them, the reader will get annoyed. I think only Twain could get away with this. The physical way the dialogue is expressed should not stand in the way of the dialogue being expressed.

Dialogue should: minimize the use of tags.

Tags are those words like “said”, “asked”, “muttered”, etc. I tend to be extremely anti-tag, because usually you can relay a conversation with beats (actions) and reveal some characterization at the same time, or you can trust readers to understand who’s talking. I only use tags when there’s absolutely no other way to make clear who’s speaking. Compare these examples:

“I thought you’d be home for dinner,” Sandy said.

“I didn’t say that,” Bill responded.

“So where were you?” she asked.

“Out,” he said.

That hurt to write. Compare to this:

Sandy slammed the empty plate onto the table lit by the drippy remains of the candles. “I thought you’d be home for dinner.”

Bill stood sheltered by the darkness of the living room. “I didn’t say that.”

“So where were you?” Her voice shook as her tears stole her words.

“Out.” He stomped up the stairs.

Maybe over the top examples, but you get the idea.

Dialogue should not: use flowery tags. 

tagsTags are bad. Flowery tags are worse. I hesitate to share the dialogue poster I found on Pinterest while looking for visuals for the post, because I fear someone may look at it without reading the post and think they should do this. DON’T DO THIS, NON-POST READERS! Flowery tag words make Baby Jesus cry. I’m sure that’s in the Bible. If you must use these, do so very occasionally. If your character is whispering, fine. She whispered. Or maybe she leaned towards him, so her face was inches from his?

See what I did there?

This post is getting to be on the long side, so I’ll wrap things up here. I may write a part two at a later date. I think tension and subtext could easily be in their own post. For now, I leave you with this question:

In what ways do you make your dialogue authentic? 

14 thoughts on “Say What? Some Words About Dialogue, That’s What

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  7. This is good stuff. Unnecessary floweriness was a tough writing sin for me, and a hard habit to break when I started writing. Dialogue tags were the worst. My characters used to do a lot of those elaborate things like sigh and wheeze and exclaim. Those tags bugged me even before I knew what they were called. It took me a while to realize why: they slow the reader’s parsing of the sentence. That really is the opposite of what the writer is trying to do, and until we invent conveying ideas by osmosis or telepathy, writers have to use words in the simplest effective construct.

    My dialogue tags now take the form ([name/pronoun] said), and sometimes I’ll break up a sentence with it to create a small bit of anticipation or make the rhythm fit. I don’t remember whose advice it was that I read once, but the gist of the idea was that if the tag is that simple and repetitive, the reader’s brain will pick up on the format and silently edit it out. It becomes a simple, automatic signal about who is talking. I’ve noticed myself doing it while I read, too.

    It’s taken a lot of tooling around with it, and dialogue still doesn’t feel natural for me to write.

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    • I’ve read something similar about “said” or “ask” blending into the narrative. If I must use tags, I use those. Dialogue is definitely one of those things that takes practice. Keep at it! 🙂

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  8. I’m the odd man out when it comes to tags. As a reader, if I see more than two lines of dialog without some indication of who is talking, I lose track. Even if they stomp, hide, cry and slam, I still need a name. The one thing I hate when reading is having to stop, backtrack and figure out who said what.

    As for info dumps, I am reminded of The Dragon and the Bear by Tom Clancy. I used to be a Clancy buff until I stumbled across a section in this book where a priest went on and on about a whole bunch of moral stuff that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the story. After about two pages of this (yes, pages, plural), I realized Tom was lecturing me through his character. I closed the book and haven’t read anything by him since. I felt duped, tricked, abused and misled. Misusing dialog can cost you money!

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    • Funny – just before I read this I read through a file from a beta reader. He highlighted places where he lost track of who was speaking. 😉 Guess I should put some tags back.

      Pages?? That’s crazy. I think when some writers become big names and no one edits them anymore, we see these kinds of things. But you’re absolutely right. They do so at the risk of losing readers.

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