SIX Tips for Writing Dialogue

When dialogue is done well:

(1) You don’t need creative dialogue tags of the adjective variety i.e. “she said, surprised” or “he said, angrily”.  

The reader should not be told that a character is shocked or angry. The reader should be shown this: from the dialogue itself, or from action beats placed around dialogue or, where appropriate, from internalization.

What reads better?
“It’s over,” Sarah said, angrily.
“It’s over.” Sarah threw the coffee cup she’d been clasping. The fine china disintegrated against the cold kitchen tiles.
In the first example we are told she is angry. In the second example we are shown that she is angry, by Sarah smashing a cup.  The dialogue tag is unnecessary because the action beat frames the dialogue.

(2) The dialogue doesn’t state something for the readers benefit only

If both characters in the scene already know what is being stated then there is normally no point in saying it. The writer may be trying to ‘dump’ the information into dialogue for the readers benefit, so that the reader can glean something that both the characters already know.
    • Often dialogue that has “As you know” or “Remember when” in it is often for the readers benefit.
    • A “catch up” between two characters that just repeats what happened to one character to another character is often an information dump. It is telling the reader, you may as well write the scene where the events happen to that one character instead of regurgitating it from the horse’s mouth. If you need the other character to know, don’t retell the scene.
    • Anything that seems unnatural or forced, or something that the character would not usually say, is often just an information dump for the readers benefit. Be true to your characters and don’t force words out of their mouths.

(3) The dialogue doesn’t repeat an action beat. 

Dialogue should not be made redundant, if it is, it does not need to be said.

    • She nodded her head in agreement, “Yes.” 
      • The “yes” is unnecessary, you should have either the action or the dialogue. You don’t need both, unless you are trying to emphasize this for some reason.

    • Jim glanced up at the clock: 8:55. They were late already, and the kids were still in their pajamas; stuffing their little mouths with pancakes. “Come on, come on. Let’s get a move on. We’re going to be late, it’s almost nine.”
      • It feels clunky when its repetitive and does not flow well. You can rearrange as such: “Jim glanced up at the clock: 8:55. The kids were still in their pajamas, stuffing their little mouths with pancakes. “Come on, come on. Let’s get a move on. We’re going to be late.”

(4) The reader isn’t confused by who is speaking at any given time. 

Appropriate dialogue tags, action beats or internalization are used when it is not clear who to attribute the dialogue too.  Without a tag/beat/internalization, and where the dialogue isn’t distinct to a particular character, the reader may get confused.

“But dad, I’m still hungry.” Greta groaned, with icing-sugar powdered lips.
Synchronized moans rang out across the table.
“We’ll be late to church.”
“But, I hate going.”
“Hey,” she narrowed her eyes at Benny, “we don’t hate church.”
We don’t know who said lines three or four. We don’t know who the “she” is referring to in line five. We may assume that Benny said, “I hate church,” but we don’t get this information until we get to line five. All in all, it’s confusing to the reader and may cause them to lose interest or get irritated.

(5) A balance of dialogue tags (John said, she said), action beats, and internalization is used to frame who is speaking. 

Repeating one again and again can be jarring and unpleasant. Where possible mix it up for variety, and where you are able to—without confusing the reader—leave off the tag, the beat or internalization. Also vary where you place dialogue tags, beats and internalization so that they aren’t always at the end of the sentence (though that is preferable for shorter sentences).  Place them at the beginning, middle and end for different effects.

Jarring example:
“But dad, I’m still hungry,” Greta said.
“We’ll be late to church,” Jim said.
“But, I hate going,” Benny said.
“Hey,” Molly said, “we don’t hate church.”
Better example:
“But dad, I’m still hungry.” Greta groaned, with icing-sugar powdered lips.
Synchronized moans rang out across the table.
Jim started clearing plates. “We’ll be late to church.”
“But, I hate going.” Benny’s face scrunched together as his pudgy fingers stabbed holes in his pancake.
“Hey.” Molly narrowed her eyes at him, “We don’t hate church.”        

(6) You don’t need dialogue tags because you know which character has spoken by the way that they speak: by the words they choose to say. 

What else do you think makes up good dialogue?

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