Writing is in your blood. You’re good at cooking, video games, and making playlists, but you’re amazing at stringing words together to create beautiful and engaging prose. You’d be on top of the world right now, jacking Hemmingway’s literary crown, if only dialogue didn’t give you so much darn trouble. But you know what? That’s okay! It’s only natural to get hung up on the ever-present challenge of generating good dialogue. Let’s face it: it’s tough business—but it’s not impossible. Here are a few tips to get you started and hopefully on your way to finishing up that next great novel or short story. This time when Susie and Johnny argue, you better sprint out of that kitchen: it’s going to get hot in there.
Tip #1: Realistic Seeming Dialogue
The first thing to keep in mind is that while you want your dialogue to be as realistic as possible, you’re still telling a story and it’s important that it flows. Dialogue is a delicate balance of getting down the way people talk in honest, everyday conversation without losing the fluidity and aesthetics of the writing. Yes, we as human beings stutter and stumble and throw out the words “um” and “like” way too much in casual conversation, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to drop seventeen “uh’s” in your sentence to make it realistic speech. That is to say, give us enough to get the point across but keep it readable. One “um” will let us know that this person isn’t very certain; trust your readers, we don’t need to be spoon-fed everything. Some things are obvious. Remember, dialogue is supposed to give the impression of real speech, not be a written transcript between friends. Let’s be honest: do we really want to read how many times we say “like” when describing our weekend? That’s enough to turn any semi-likable character into an instant villain. Keep it real—enough.
Tip #2: Tag-Happy
When selecting tags (“he said”, “she said”) try to keep it as simple as possible. With all those amazing action-oriented synonyms out there, it’s easy to lose yourself in their power. And while it’s nice to switch up your words in order to keep the writing fresh, you don’t want to distract your readers from what’s being said because they’re too subconsciously absorbed in figuring out whether Billy’s going to “mutter angrily under his breath” or “giggle profusely” when speaking. That’s all right every once in a while, but a simple “he said”, “she said” will do just fine. Let’s keep the reader focused on the actual exchange taking place; they may need that information down the road.
That being said, you also don’t want your writing to become stale with constant use of the same tag. It’s up to you to decide just how important it is for us to know that Billy screamed when he spoke his line. Is it relevant? Will it move the story somehow? Does it develop the character more? Is it offering something that we may not have gotten had we not known that that particular line was “screamed”? If you think so then, hey, put it in! At the end of the day, it’s your baby and you know how you want it to read.
Tip #3: Interrupt it!
Interrupt the dialogue. This is important. When reading long stretches of dialogue—and it is nice to have the white space on the page after paragraphs of descriptive writing—it’s imperative the reader be reminded that we’re dealing with actual characters here. Just remember to interrupt it every once in a while to tell us what the character is doing, what action is taking place as these words are being said. Is Sam kicking his foot and staring at the ground? Does Liz fixate on everything but the eyes of the person she’s speaking to? Sometimes it’s the little gestures that tell us the most about a character. It’s not always what’s being said so much as how it’s not being said. If John doesn’t respond because his gaze is locked in on something happening across the street, it’s different than if he doesn’t respond while picking fretfully at a loose thread on his sweater. One suggests distraction while the other implies a desire not to share this information with whoever’s asking for it. Often times, it’s the little things that tell the most.
Tip #4: Punctuate It!
Last, but not least, make sure you correctly punctuate your dialogue. The surest and quickest way to send a reader running for the metaphorical hills is to slap them in the face with bad grammar. Too often, a writer will reel you in with great prose only for poorly punctuated dialogue to pull you up short; it makes you instantly doubt the writer’s intellect and therefore their credibility in telling that story. Keep your credibility and your readers by getting it right. For a more specific guide on how to do this because it is really important you take your time and study dialogue punctuation, I’ve included a link to The Editor’s Blog, an incredible online blog dedicated to honing our craft as writers. Check out their tips on dialogue punctuation here.
There are, however, exceptions here as there seem to be with nearly everything. Maybe you mean specifically to break these rules, to blow the system up from the inside—perhaps your novel is experimental and you downright refuse to follow conventional grammatical regulation. If this is the case, at the very least, be consistent. We’re all artists and we all seek to try new things and expand ourselves beyond the norm and widely accepted, but we still must be mindful of an audience. Make sure it’s legible and steady in its uniqueness and you’ve got yourself a deal.
Now that you’ve got a sense of where to start, dive back in and get to writing. Good luck!