“You should probably find a quote about dialogue,” she said. “Oh, wait, never mind. Here’s one.”
Dialogue. Every good story has it. Well, actually, scratch that–there are always exceptions to the rule. There are great stories that have been written/produced with very little dialogue. But in general, good stories have good dialogue. And the audience notices. You notice it in books, and you probably notice it just as much (if not more) in movies and TV shows.
How many times have you watched a movie and thought, The action is great, but jeez, the writing is terrible? And by writing, you probably meant “script” which translates to “dialogue.” Could be the actors, but probably, it had a lot to do with the words they were paid to speak.
Dialogue can make or break a story. But just like anything with writing, there’s more than one way to go about it. So I’m not preaching any hard-and-fast rules over here. But I am suggesting some guidelines that I have learned through other master storytellers and through years of personal trial and error.
So without further ado.
he said/she said
You can never go wrong with “said” as a speaker tag. In fact, like 80-90% of the time, it’s all you need. Why? Because dialogue needs to be clear and concise, and it’s often distracting to read things like “he remarked” and “she expressed” when you can get the same point across with “said.”
It’s not that you can’t use other tags. Sometimes “he shouted” or “she sneered” is necessary to painting a vivid picture. But the reason why writers tend to use a crayon box of speaker tags is often because they’re afraid the reader won’t pick up on the tone. However, if you make sure that the tone and mood of the scene are set-up from the get-go, then you don’t have to worry about the reader missing the tone and mood of the dialogue–it will be evident.
Exhibit A: He stood up and looked around the room at his friends. “I have no idea what to do,” he lamented.
This is fine, sure, but why is he lamenting? Obviously we’ve only got a sentence of context, but bear with me here. Try this:
Exhibit B: He stood up slowly and looked around the room at the sleep-deprived faces of his friends. Some were nursing their wounds, but the rest were looking back at him, awaiting an answer. “I have no idea what to do,” he said.
Ya feel me?
use adverbs sparingly
See what I did there? Heh heh, I love irony.
Right alongside the he said/she said principle is the seemingly ever-pervasive rule that you should avoid adverbs like the plague. Honestly, I find this one difficult. Sometimes it seems vital to use an adverb, and you know what, sometimes it is. But I think the idea here is that you don’t need one every time. Just like what I said above, if you set up your scene well, then won’t need to browbeat your reader with the old -ly every time.
A lot of times, it’s a judgment call. But a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if it’s redundant.
Exhibit A: “Yes, of course I’ll go to prom with you!” she said happily.
Well, of course she’s happy, right? There’s an exclamation point and everything! So what do you need “happily” for? Show it in her eyes and in her body language instead:
Exhibit B: Her eyes brightened and she could barely keep herself from bouncing up and down. “Yes, of course I’ll go to prom with you!” she said.
use the right vernacular
For example, if your character is a sixteen-year-old from Bronx, it’s very unlikely that she’s gonna use the word “vernacular” unless she’s studying hard for the SATs, and hey, she might be.
Nor is your classically-trained villain going to use words like “duh,” “cool,” or even “gonna” and “wanna” unless, once again, you’ve established that as part of his character.
I feel like I’m being pretentious, so really what I’m trying to get at is: think about the way your characters talk. They may not all talk like you. Or maybe they do. It all depends on their age, the time period, the demographic, all that stuff. But you can really make characters unique and prevent them from all sounding the same by paying attention to the ways that they speak.
Now, don’t get me wrong: you can go overboard with this in a heartbeat. Don’t be heavy-handed with it, especially with accents. (I speak from experience.) If you want your character to have a particular accent or dialect (especially if it’s not one you’re familiar with), then research it. Read and watch stuff (good stuff) where characters are speaking with that accent.
The same goes for if you’re writing in a particular time period: research how people spoke but make sure it sounds natural.
observe how people talk
Ah yes, this goes back to my sage advice that you should stare at people. Now you should also eavesdrop on them, too. No, but seriously, think about it: we’ve spend our entire lives listening to people talk and absorbing the constructs of our language. How come when it’s time to write dialogue, we can’t seem to recall how people talk?
Well, I’m no scientist, but it probably has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t usually think a whole lot before they speak, whereas you the author are meticulously thinking out everything your characters say.
Come to think of it, a good exercise might be to free write a conversation between two characters and see how different it is, but I digress.
If you pay attention to how people talk instead of just passively hearing it, you may start to pick up on things that you can then incorporate into your story. Like how most people speak in clauses and don’t use proper grammar. Like how most people use filler words (though you don’t have to include every “um” in your character’s dialogue). Like how people–they, like, you know–start and stop their sentences. All of this can make your dialogue more realistic.
Exhibit A: “I went to the grocery store the other day and I saw Todd there. He looked so handsome, but he didn’t even notice me. Why can’t I just go up and talk to him?” she said.
Again, this is, you know, fine. But you know what might be better?
Exhibit B: “Oh my God, I, like, went to the grocery store the other day, and guess who I saw? Todd. Oh my God, he looked so hot! But, like, of course he didn’t even notice me. Ugh, I’m so lame. Why can’t I just go up and talk to him?” she said.
I think that one feels a little more real than the other, but to each his own with how many “likes” and “oh my Gods” you put in. But seriously, can’t you tell she’s a teenage girl?
ask yourself: what’s the point?
A good rule of thumb for cutting out unnecessary dialogue is to ask yourself, Does this conversation contribute to the story?
This can mean several different things. Yes, dialogue can move the action along, and often does. One character says something, the other reacts, and then things happen! But it doesn’t mean everything has to pertain to the main plot. We’ve all watched movies where the only time people talk is to “exposition dump” (explain things that are important to understanding the world/plot of the story). You don’t have to do that.
The other part of the story is the character development. If you’re not moving the plot, then dialogue should, as much as possible, teach the reader something about the characters. Even if it’s something that seems insignificant. Small talk is okay as long as you don’t totally go off the rails.
This isn’t a middle school dance, people, make your characters talk to each other!
Ultimately, you have to judge what kind of dialogue is appropriate for each scene. You can’t record every word of every conversation your characters have, and there’s no need to include mundane remarks if they’re not necessary. But the dialogue is part of the story, and it should enrich it, not distract from it.
A final word of advice (that I should heed, so here I go again preaching what I should practice): if you’re unsure, read your dialogue out loud. You’ll get a better sense of the rhythms and you’ll naturally pick up on anything that sounds funky. Trust yourself, and trust *clap* your *clap* readers! *clap*
What are your best tips for writing dialogue? Comment below!