Writing: Dialogue Refresher, Part I

Writing effective dialogue is one of the most valuable skills for writers of fiction and nonfiction. If your dialogue needs shining up, here’s a little refresher.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips to help your dialogue skills improve:

Punctuation is Vital

The most basic rules of dialogue concern how each line of spoken words is punctuated and/or attributed. For most readers, highlighting spoken words in a particular way helps readers quickly understand that the passage is spoken and that a certain character does the speaking.

Each time a character speaks, indent the first line and offset with quotation marks. Quotation marks generally go outside of other punctuation such as commas, question marks and periods. Each time you change to a different speaker, use a separate paragraph indent to identify that there’s a different speaker.

Correct indentation and punctuation help readers know who’s talking and prevents confusion.

Example: (My program doesn’t indent so imagine it for the first line)

Greg edged toward the open door and peered through the crack. “Looks like the coast is clear,” he said.

“Don’t be such a ninny,” Greg said, “That old mutt is half-blind and tame as a kitten.”

Jane didn’t move. “You sure?” She frowned. “Last time you said that, your neighbor’s Doberman chased me all the way to my car.”

“Yeah,” Jane whispered, “but his teeth are sharp as ever.”

To Tag or Not to Tag

Attributions, or dialogue tags identify the speaker. The most basic tag is said, and I recommend that most dialogue be attributed with this simple tag. Occasionally, attributions such as asked, whispered, yelled or screamed can describe how the speaker delivers a line. Avoid creative tags such as expostulated, observed or interjected, and don’t add “ly” adverbs to the word said (she said welcomingly, he said angrily). Avoid naming—in life we rarely use each other’s names in conversation. (“Mary, will you hand me that wrench?” becomes simply, “Hand me that wrench.”)

With only two characters in a scene, you don’t need a tag for every line. In fact, in short dialogue passages where there are only two speakers, you can safely drop the attribution altogether. However, after around three exchanges, readers will have a harder time keeping the spoken lines straight. The Rule of Three can help you place tags in strategic spots, such as after every three exchanges.

Attributions or tags become unnecessary if you replace them with action or beats of emotion, description or interior thought. Although said is somewhat invisible to readers, a scene flows more naturally if you combine the action with what’s being spoken. Place a “beat” (sentence) of a character’s action, inner thought, emotion or description next to the spoken dialogue.

Greg peered through the crack in the door. “Coast is clear. Run for it.”

Jane shook her head. “Are you kidding me?” Her heart pounded in her ears. “That dog’s just waiting to take a chunk out of my backside.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Greg chuckled. “He’ll only take a little chunk.”

For more effective dialogue, use contractions and the Rule of Three.

Talk Naturally

“Dialogue sounds like real speech—but isn’t.” When you write dialogue, your aim is to make it sound as natural as possible. Yet writers often end up cramming information, using formal language and making characters sound stilted or uninteresting.  Make your dialogue more effective with the Rule of Three, avoiding Speeches and staying away from Talking Heads.

The Rule of Three is simple: After every three sentences of dialogue, switch speakers or use a different vehicle—such as action, description, thought or emotion. Don’t let a character say more than three lines without inserting a “beat” of one of these tools. Speechifying (allowing one character to deliver long passages of dialogue without a break) and Talking Heads (Nothing but dialogue for many paragraphs) can not only confuse readers but also keep them from imagining the other parts of a scene.

Contractions will also help you write natural-sounding dialogue. Unless you’re writing about something from centuries past, contractions help make dialogue sound natural. Most of us use contractions in daily life and using them in your scenes also helps keep the camera tightly focused. The more abstract or general words you use in dialogue, the farther away the camera zooms, taking emotional connection along with it.

Next time: Dialogue Refresher, Part II

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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