How to Write Good Dialogue
Writing dialogue can often be a tricky process. It’s not just about capturing the essence of how your characters would speak according to their age, the time period they live in, and where they live, it’s also about using a mixture of various beats and dialogue tags in a way that is most effective for your story. If the previous sentence made your eyes spin, keep reading. I’m about to break it down.
(sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to break it down in that way)
So the first thing to keep in mind when using dialogue tags is not to get too creative. Sure, it might sound good to you when your characters grumble, yell, sneer, whisper, exclaim, etc. Spoiler alert: Nope, it really doesn’t sound good. Check out the sequence below.
“Marge,” John yelled.
“What?” Marge screamed back. “Just give me a minute.”
“Don’t you use that tone with me,” John sneered.
“Ugh,” Marge grumbled, “he’s so annoying sometimes.”
“What did you say?” John responded.
“Nothing!” Marge exclaimed.
Although the above scene was certainly riveting, a lot of the dialogue could have spoken for itself. Many times, those tags aren’t needed because the dialogue should already clue the readers into how the characters are saying the words.
Another reason you don’t want to use too many creative tags is because they often take away from the dialogue itself. Said and asked are two dialogue tags that are nearly invisible, and that means they’re the ones you want to use most often. So put away all those wacky tags, and save them for when you feel they’re really necessary for a piece of dialogue.
There are various types of beats you can use in dialogue. Action beats, description beats, and inner thoughts are all acceptable ways to spice up dialogue so you don’t end up with characters constantly saying “said” and “asked.” Although these tags are invisible, a friend of mine recently shared a post where someone complained that they listened to an audiobook and got so annoyed by the constant use of “said,” they almost put it down. In a time where audiobooks are growing, that post is really interesting. Said and asked are invisible when reading, but would be harder to ignore when listening.
The solution? Beats. Instead of using tags, include action beats that show what characters might be doing while speaking. Or use description beats that give an idea of the setting. Or use inner thoughts the key readers into the character’s reaction or thoughts about the conversation taking place.
Let the Dialogue Standalone
One of the best techniques you can use in writing is to let the dialogue stand by itself. If you have a good grasp on character voice, then this is a great option. Constantly tagging your dialogue or using beats can feel exhausting for readers. It can feel overwhelming, like the author’s trying too hard to make it known who’s speaking. In those instances where you’re noticing that you are using too much with the dialogue, pick out a few sentences from every scene that could stand alone. Identity sentences that showcase strong voice or sentences where it’s clear who is speaking because of the conversation being had.
So let’s try and rewrite that atrocious (and I’m being kind using that word) scene from above, using a variety of techniques mentioned in this article.
“Marge,” John yelled from downstairs.
“What?” Marge ran around their bedroom, trying to find the gold necklace John had given her for Christmas. She promised she would wear it for their date, but couldn’t find it anywhere. “Just give me a minute.”
“Don’t you use that tone with me!”
“Ugh.” Marge dug through a pile of clothes that sat on their bed. “He’s so annoying sometimes.”
“What did you say?” John asked.
A glint of gold shone from beneath a shirt on the floor. The necklace! It must’ve gotten caught up in her clothes from the last time she’d worn it. She clasped the thin piece of metal around her neck and settled the sapphire-studded pendant over her shirt.
Yes, Marge and John seem like they’re complete slobs (then again, I can’t really judge . . .). That’s not the point. Hopefully you noticed the mixture of techniques used when writing this scene. Notice I still used one of those “creative” tags. Although yelled isn’t the most creative, it works in this scene, so I kept it. That’s okay. Don’t feel the need to delete every tag you have other than said and asked. Sometimes, other tags are called for and appropriate.
And that’s it for writing dialogue. What about other tip and tricks you use? Comment below with your favorite dialogue writing advice!