In this article I’m going to touch on three very simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:
1. Avoid too many identifiers
2. Leave out odd descriptors
3. Use proper phrasing
A common mistake many novice writers make is to put in too many identifiers, or tags, to let us know who is talking. When only two people are having a conversation you can almost avoid tags altogether. The conversation naturally flows back and forth and it is evident who is speaking by the formatting. But often writers put in too many he saids and she saids or they will do a lot of name calling to “help the reader keep up.” For example…
“Carol, can I talk with you for a minute?” Bob asked.
“Sure, Bob. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, Carol, you know I have this big proposal due tomorrow,” Bob said. “I could sure use your help.”
“No problem, Bob,” Carol replied, looking at her watch. “I have a meeting in a few minutes. Can we get together after that?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Bob responded.
“Okay” Carol said. “I’ll come by your office as soon as I get out of this meeting.”
This dialogue can be cleaned up and will read much better by eliminating most of the tags and all the name-calling.
Bob stopped Carol as she came down the hall.
“Hey, can I talk with you for a minute?” he asked.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Well I got this big proposal due tomorrow and I could use your help.”
“Okay.” She glanced at her watch. “But I have a meeting in a few minutes. I’ll come by your office when I’m done with that.”
Bob nodded and Carol hurried off to her meeting.
Of course, the best approach would be to strike this whole scene and start with them talking in Bob’s office. As it is you have an unnecessary discussion that ends because Carol has a meeting. Unless her meeting has something to do with what Bob wants to talk to her about then you should cut it out altogether.
Another problem writers run into is using odd descriptors. They’re concerned the reader will get bored or distracted by all the saids so they start using descriptors like he exclaimed, she sighed, he intoned, she breathed… I’m currently reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Her characters do a lot of sighing and breathing words in their conversations. I find this distracting. People sigh and they breathe and they speak. But they rarely do those things at the same time. But my all-time favorite odd descriptor is something that you used to see a lot in the Saturday Evening Post years ago: he chortled. I don’t even know what that means. I’ve never heard anyone chortle in my life. Thank goodness that descriptor has gone out of style.
The fact of the matter is that readers breeze over all the saids without much thought. But they get distracted when someone intones or chides or expostulates. Stick with the same old boring descriptors – he said, she asked, he replied, she shouted… There are plenty that you can use that will not distract the reader or break up the flow of the conversation. Just use them sparingly.
The third rule is to use the proper phrasing. Robert Parker tends to follow a question with the tag he said. I found this very distracting when I first started reading his books. Then I noticed that I was mentally reading he asked even though he said was printed on the page. But you don’t want to distract the reader. If someone asks a question and you follow it with a descriptor, simply say he asked. That’s no more effort than he said, and it’s the correct phrasing. No distraction. You read right over it and keep going.
In review, when writing dialogue avoid using too many identifiers. When only two people are talking you can leave out most of the tags. When three or more people are involved in a conversation then you have to use more tags. But you still want to keep them to a minimum. Don’t use odd descriptors. People say things, they ask questions, they may argue with each other from time to time, but don’t let them expostulate. And be careful to use the proper phrasing. Improper phrasing distracts the reader and breaks up the flow. You want your dialogue to flow and sound natural.