How to Write Dialogue
Dialogue is one of the things that can make or break your writing. It has the power to draw your readers into the narrative, or rip them from it. Unfortunately, good dialogue is also one of the hardest things to learn. As with most things, practice makes perfect, but you can speed up that process a little bit.
Dialogue Tags are the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ parts of speech. One of the most common pieces of advice that will ever be given to writers is to ‘show, not tell’ and this applies to speech, as well. Show the reader how they are talking, don’t tell them.
This is telling:
“Knave, I will have thy head!” Jim roared.
“No you won’t,” Fred exclaimed loudly.
This is showing:
“Knave, I will have thy head!” Jim’s voice echoed throughout the vast hall, a thick spray of spit coating his opponent.
“No you won’t.” Fred’s vocal chords trembled with the strain of his voice.
There are two things wrapped up in moving away from telling to showing. Firstly, using tags like roared, exclaimed, chortled, barked, etc. remove the reader from the flow. Stick to said, asked and replied. The second point is to remove tags altogether and replace them with actions. Not only does this make for a stronger narrative, it shows the reader instead of telling them.
This is the thing that I struggled with the most when I was starting out. Your characters are real people in their universe and, as such, need to speak like real people. Going back and looking at some of my old writing, every character spoke in exactly the same way; the way that I speak.
“I did dun gud, innit, bruv.”
This is perfectly acceptable dialogue assuming that it fits the character. Having said that, however, things like accents or odd speaking patterns shouldn’t really be reflected in the words you write. I once had a character that spoke like a snake, so I wrote things like ‘yesssssssssss’ into my dialogue. Don’t do that. Just establish how they speak through the tags or actions you use.
“Yes,” he said, extending the ‘s’; serpent-like.
“Yes,” he said in his thick Texan drawl.
If you do that a few times throughout your writing, allowing the narration to comment on the style of speech, then the reader will know how they sound without you telling them. It makes for a much more pleasurable read.
Real people use slang, they use the wrong words or they use speak incorrectly. You should reflect this in your dialogue. Not everyone speaks perfect, grammatically-correct English. As long as it’s appropriate for your character, it will work. Joey Essex speaks very differently to Stephen Fry.
Nobody just talks. You will struggle to find a person that stands perfectly still while they talk to others. People move their hands, they move hair out of their face, they reposition their glasses, they’re doing something with their hands like peeling an orange, they’re eating the orange. Putting these details into your dialogue can go a long way to improve your writing.
“What you doing?” She chewed a segment of orange while talking, pausing to swallow.
You don’t want to be doing this every time somebody talks, especially if they’re a minor character who has one line of dialogue in the entire book, but you’ll want to be using it enough to build up a picture of who that person is. I can’t tell you how frequently you should be doing it. All I would suggest is do it for every line of dialogue in your first draft. When you go back to edit you’ll find yourself getting annoyed with the volume of information, or you’ll question why the reader needed to know that someone flicked some fluff from their sleeve for the twelfth time in a conversation.
Dialogue Tags, Again
By all means, still use the traditional tags instead of actions. Sometimes you can just say that Jim said something. But you don’t have to use them every time.
“Hi,” Sally said.
“Hello,” John said. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” Sally said.
“Good,” John said.
“And you?” Sally said.
“Fine,” John said.
“Great,” Sally said.
As a general rule, you can get about five pieces of dialogue before you have to tell people who is speaking again.
“Hi,” Sally said.
“Hello,” John replied. “How are you?”
“Great.” Sally picked up an orange.
That is a general rule, not one that must be followed at all times. A short conversation between two people like that is relatively easy to follow, but if each person is having a page or so of dialogue you’ll get lost easily. A good way to check if you need to tell people who is speaking is to read it back to yourself, or get others to read it. If you or they get confused as to who is speaking, you need to tell the reader.
The best thing that you can do to improve your dialogue, however, is to listen to people. Spend a bit of time in public places listening to how others talk, take in what they’re doing while they’re talking and incorporate that into your writing. A great help is to also read your dialogue aloud. If you’re stumbling on words, or it doesn’t sound right, you should think about altering it.
© 2017 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.