This post is the fifteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
Today is the third installment on the topic of dialogue in your novel. The first week, I wrote about the importance of dialogue and gave some tips on writing dialogue. Last week, I talked about the special type of dialogue that goes on in your character’s head – internal dialogue.
Today, I wanted to give you some examples of dialogue and talk a little bit more about dialogue tags (the he said/she said that allows the reader to know who is speaking).
Dialogue with a Purpose
Dialogue can be great at bringing the reader into the story and sharing information about a character. We can learn a lot about a character in how they speak and what they say. It can help set the mood for the story. But most of all you need to make sure that the dialogue advances the story.
You do not want to fill your pages with meaningless drivel. Such as two characters greeting each other.
“Hi, Bob. How are you doing?”
“OK. I guess.”
“Nice weather, huh?”
This exchange could easily be deleted from the scene and replaced with Sally greeted Bob. Now if you want this scene to share something about the characters, you would need to make some changes.
“Hi, Bobby. How are you doing?”
Bob continued to stare at his shoes. When he spoke it was more to them than her. “Ok. I guess.”
“Nice weather, huh?”
All she got in response was a nod. Sally shot a glance at the doctor. She didn’t know what to do. All she knew is she wanted her brother back and the boy who stood before her wasn’t him.
In this case, the dialogue is being used to show the strained relationship between Bob and Sally, which is better than just telling the reader. (Sally worried about her strained relationship with Bob. He rarely said more than a word or two to her when they saw each other.) Actually both ways (a summary or a short dialogue) would work in the story depending on how you want to portray it.
Though people talk with a lot of fillers (ums and pauses), most often you will want your dialogue to be crisp and filled with tension. You want to compress your dialogue, cutting fluffy words or whole lines from the exchange.
Here is an example from another website.
“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked.
“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.
“But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!”
“Oh but I do, I do. And you can see it in my face, can’t you?”
“You angry with me?” John asked.
“Damn straight,” Mary said.
“You got no reason to be!”
Mary felt her hands curling into fists.
As you can see the second rendition is much tighter and increases the conflict. So go through your dialogue and compress it as much as you can. Take out the adverbs. Use sentence fragments. Cut words out ruthlessly. The dialogue will improve as will your story.
For readers to know who is speaking, you need dialogue tags such as he said and she replied. And while they are necessary, you don’t need them every time someone speaks.
I am sure we all have encountered books full of too many or too few dialogue tags. Even from professionally published authors I sometimes have had to stop and count lines backwards to figure out who is saying what.
Dialogue tags should be like punctuation marks – they should be invisible, guiding the reader, but not getting in the way of the story.
Here are four tips to help you use dialogue tags like a pro.
1.) While your high school English teacher may have encouraged you to stray from the boring “said” or “asked,” there is nothing wrong with sticking with these words. But many new authors don’t want to stick with “said” and “asked.” They search out posts like this one that show you 100 different ways to say “said.” And while there is nothing wrong with interjecting a few of these into your text, you should do so sparingly. The concern with these more frivolous choices is that the words draw the reader’s attention away from the dialogue.
Bad Example: “You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary cried.
“What now?” Edward groaned.
“No, no, no,” she muttered. “Too dangerous.”
“What is your problem?” Edward wondered.
Here is a writer trying to use too many fancy tags. It should be rewritten to something more like this.
“You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary said, blocking the door.
Edward groaned. “What?”
“No, no, no.” Mary shook her head with each word. “Too dangerous.”
“What is your problem, Mary?”
The second scenario allows you to focus more on the dialogue.
Now there may be times when your dialogue may not communicate the tone or emotion clearly. And there is nothing wrong with using a descriptive tag such as whispered, shrieked, muttered, grunted or boasted to help your reader understand the scene.
Example: “Leave me alone,” he muttered.
But don’t worry about using other words than “said” or “asked.” If you only use them when necessary, and the dialogue is interesting, no one will even notice them. And that is what you want.
2.) The placement of dialogue tags and how often you use them are important – even more so if you have a lot of characters in a scene. Well-positioned tags insure your scene make sense and eliminate any reader confusion. If a reader has to backtrack a few paragraphs or pages to get the conversation straight, a writer risks the book being abandoned.
Example: “You always do this to me, Mary,” Edward said. “You get all worked up, forbid me to do something and it turns out to be nothing.”
Bob held up his hand. “Stop it right there, Ed. You don’t need to pick on poor Mary.”
“Thanks, Bob,” Mary said flashing him a smile. “I knew I could count on you.”
“Anything for you.”
Edward rolled his eyes. “If you two are done…”
3.) You don’t have to always use said or any other dialogue tag to indicate who is speaking. You can use action to indicate this as well as to provide information essential to understanding the character and/or some element of the scene. In the above example, Bob holding up his hand and Edward rolling his eyes are examples of this way to identify the speaker without a dialogue tag.
Or you can have the characters use each other’s names as they speak – but again, this is done sparingly.
Bad Example: “What are you doing, Bob?” Mary asked.
“I am helping you out, Mary.”
“You know she doesn’t need your help, Bob,” Edward said.
So in the above example, characters are calling each other by name but a little too often. In real life people use other people’s names sparingly (typically at the beginning or end of a conversation) and so should your characters. Here is the above example revised.
Mary glared at Bob. “What are you doing?”
“I am helping you out, Mary.”
Edward stepped in front of Mary, shielding her. “She doesn’t need your help, Bob.”
4.) Use adverbs (such as loudly, softly and angrily) with your dialogue tags sparingly – as in almost never. Nothing points out a novice quicker than a writer who uses adverbs to tell your reader how someone spoke or even worse uses an adverb with one of the fancy alternatives to said.
Examples: she said excitedly
He exclaimed loudly (redundant)
Using an adverb is telling your reader how the dialogue was spoken instead of showing them.
Example: “I never want to see you again,” she said angrily.
But instead of telling us she is angry, show us.
“I never want to see you again,” she said, storming out the door and slamming it behind her.
Of course, as with any “rule” there are exceptions. Sometimes adding an adverb can be a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion (she said quickly; he said coldly) without writing longer, descriptive sentences. But keep this to a minimum.
- Unless you have a good reason, stick to the standard “he said, she said.”
- Other simple verbs – she asked, she whispered, – are fine.
- Fancy verbs – he bellowed, she interjected – should be avoided.
- Use only as many dialogue tags as needed for clarity. If two people are speaking, one every three or four lines is about right. You will need more dialogue tags if you have more characters speaking in the same scene.
- You can also use character action or calling a character by name to indicate who is speaking.
- Never use adverbs (or at least very rarely). Instead of telling, show the reader the action.
Even though “said” is the preferred verb, if you use it every time, your dialogue will become tedious. So aim for variety. With some practice, you will learn when a dialogue tag sounds correct and appropriate. In fact, if you don’t even think about or notice the dialogue tag…you got it right!
Writing dialogue well is hard even for seasoned authors. Hopefully, these three posts help you master this difficult, but important, task and allow you to write well-written, realistic dialogue in your novel.