Dialogue Basics

I always pay attention to dialogue. If I’m ever stuck writing a scene, I’ll start with dialogue and go from there. And if I’m ever browsing a bookstore, I’ll flip to any page of dialogue and tell within a line or two if the book is worth the trouble.

In future posts, I’ll get into some specific techniques for how to improve dialogue, but first, it’s a good idea to start with the basics.

PURPOSES

Dialogue serves six essential purposes:

1. Convey Information – *Only* from character to character; never communicate from the character to the reader.

2. Advance Plot – Make sure the information is important. Readers don’t need to waste time on meaningless chatter. Unless the conversation moves the story forward, cut it.

3. Characterization – This means how someone talks, the words they use, etc. You don't want everyone sounding alike. Characters must be distinctive. The words people use reveal a lot about who they are. So make them count.

4. Set Mood – Dialogue can be used to express comedy, conflict, tension, suspense, etc.

5. Pacing – Dialogue can quicken a story’s pace. Listen for the rhythm.  

6. White Space – Reading large blocks of text can be exhausting. Dialogue breaks up heavy prose and gives weary eyes some much needed relief.

The key to writing effective dialogue is doing multiple things at once. If you’re just doing one of those six points, you need to try harder. Convey information AND advance plot AND define characters.

PUNCTUATION 

* Make sure the punctuation is inside the closing quotation mark.

* Commas can separate a tag between two incomplete thoughts.

* Paragraph break between speakers.

* Don’t overuse exclamation points. Elmore Leonard recommends no more than two or three per 100,000 words, and that’s a good standard.

TAGS

* Avoid descriptive tags. Always use “said.” The occasional “asked” or “whispered” won't offend most readers, but avoid descriptive tags like “cheered,” “smiled,” “celebrated,” “snapped,” “snarled,” etc. If you need a descriptive tag, it means the dialogue is weak. If you want that extra emotion conveyed, choose stronger words for the character or show it with an action beat.

* Never use adverbs to modify “said.” Again, if you need an adverb to convey the emotion, then your dialogue needs to be stronger. Rewrite it. Adverb tags distract the reader, shifting focus from what is said to how it’s said.

* Place the speaker in front of the verb to keep things active: “John said.”

* When the dialogue contains more than one line, place the tag after the first line. Don’t make the reader wait to find out who is speaking. Get the tag in as early as possible to avoid any speaker confusion.

* Participle phrases (“Take this,” Jimmy said, handing the monkey the banana.) should be used sparingly. I recommend no more than one per chapter. They’re so easy to use, they can get repetitive in a hurry. And a distracted reader will quit turning pages. 

ACTION BEATS 

* Action beats are descriptive actions used to identify the speaker. Beats can be used to eliminate repetitive tags and also to reveal characterization.

* Always place the beat up front. If you place the beat at the end of the dialogue, it can create confusion as to the speaker.

* Try not to make them empty gestures. Strive to make the beat reveal character. Never waste an opportunity for characterization.

* Avoid repetitive beats like “nodded,” “smiled,” “laughed,” etc. Nodded is, without doubt, the biggest culprit. Strive for one nod per book. I dare you.

OTHER THINGS TO AVOID

* A little dialect goes a long way. Don’t overdo it. Try to avoid weird, phonetic spelling. Focus more on phrasing.

* Avoid repetitive openings, particularly “Well.”

* Always avoid exposition. This goes back to the first of the six dialogue purposes. Convey information from character to character; leave the reader out of it. If you need to explain something to the reader, have a character within the scene act as a surrogate. Even then, you need to be subtle so it doesn’t come across as explaining plot points through dialogue. This also involves the old “Show Don’t Tell” chestnut.  

DIALOGUE MECHANICS

Punctuation

“I like monkeys,” Jimmy said.

“I like monkeys?” Jimmy said.

“I like monkeys!” Jimmy said.

“Wow,” Jimmy said, “I like monkeys.”

Tags

“I like monkeys,” Jimmy said merrily. (INCORRECT)

“I like monkeys,” Jimmy trumpeted. (INCORRECT)

“I like monkeys,” Jimmy said, peeling the banana. (Correct, but don’t overuse it)

Beats

Jimmy took a big bite of banana. “I like monkeys.”