Last post we discussed writing scenes and the associated must-haves. Most good scenes also contain dialogue, and writing good dialogue also requires a few must-haves.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some dialogue must-haves and how do you use them?
When a character speaks, readers need a few markers to orient themselves and keep confusion from stopping them. The number one must-have is for readers to immediately know who is speaking and to whom. We can identify the speaker either through a dialogue tag or attribution (the old he said she said) or with action, thoughts or emotion situated next to the spoken dialogue.
Many writers start out with colorful and ridiculous tags, fearing that repeating a tag (such as said) is not acceptable. Yet for most readers, a simple said is sufficient. Don’t bend over backward trying to insert different tags. At times, if the scene’s pace is rapid, it’s okay to write a short exchange without the said. However, readers often lose track of who said what, so keep these exchanges brief.
Avoid abstract or formal attributions. She expostulated, opined, exclaimed, interjected or similar terms rarely fit the scene’s tone and will stop most readers. Occasionally, emphatic tags such as yelled, shouted, screamed might provide emphasis, but make sure the tag actually matches the scene’s emotions. For most other dialogue, stick with said.
Speeches and Talking Heads
Other dialogue must-haves involve the pace and presentation of your story. If your Main Character speaks in long-winded speeches, the other characters in the scene fade away from the reader’s mind. In life, most of us want to put in our own two cents without waiting for a speech to end. I counsel students to remember the Rule of Three. When one character has delivered three lines of dialogue, switch to another speaker or write a beat of action, thought or emotion.
Talking Heads is a similar dialogue mistake. Our readers want to experience a story like a mental movie. Yet if all they have for a length of story is only dialogue, the setting and other visuals fade quickly. Readers need frequent reminders to continue to “see” a scene. Intersperse your dialogue with “beats” of concrete sensory details, action, thought or emotion to prevent Talking Heads.
In constructing dialogue, be sure to have at least one other character on stage. Too many monologues make a story feel too interior and readers can feel trapped in the character’s head. I call this the Wilson Principle. In Tom Hanks’ Cast Away movie, he had Wilson the volleyball to talk to. Get your character something to talk to.
Give your character something to talk to.
For the past few years, a battle has raged between writers who use attributions and those who use sentences of action to identify speakers. I don’t see this as all or nothing. Sometimes, a said may help readers get to the next important story point. Other times, a flurry of saids might limit readers’ three-dimensional experience. Mixing and matching is fine—as long as readers aren’t confused and your story pacing is maintained.
More importantly, does the dialogue sound natural? Read it aloud. If it sounds phony, look at your use of contractions. Use them! Writers sometimes think they’ll sound educated by using no contractions, but the opposite is usually true. The same goes for naming your characters in dialogue. In life we rarely use a name when we speak to others (because we both know who we’re talking to). Exceptions might be scenes with more than two characters or for special emphasis.
Finally, don’t allow your characters to give information they both already know. Writers sometimes provide necessary info by inserting it into dialogue. The result is unnatural—get that info into the narrative instead. Let your dialogue resemble natural speech—except don’t allow characters to chit-chat the way we do in real life. Remember, dialogue sounds like real speech—but it isn’t.