Tag Archives: how to write dialogue

Effective Dialogue – Proper formatting

In this article I’m going to provide four more simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:

  1. Don’t write phonetically
  2. Don’t use italics
  3. Go easy on the exclamation points
  4. Use paragraphs that include actions

Few things are more distracting or more frustrating than trying to read dialogue that is written phonetically.  “Wail, dayud-gum!  I ain’t a gunna let dem young-uns git away wit dat!”  Huh?  Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen dialogue this bad in print…and it wasn’t a joke.  This falls back on the most basic premise in writing dialogue: don’t write anything that causes the reader to stop, back up, re-read, or waste time trying to figure out what the heck your characters are saying.  If you’ve developed your characters well enough, then you don’t need to write their dialogue phonetically.  The reader will hear it as it would be spoken without all the misspelled words, hyphens, apostrophes and other odd characters.

You also want to avoid italics.  About the only times italics are acceptable are when the reader is thinking to himself, having a dialogue in his own head, so to speak.  Sometimes you also see italics used to denote a flashback or departure from the present time.  But even that can be confusing.  Don’t use italics for emphasis.  Simply use the appropriate tag: he shouted, she wailed, etc.  Besides, italicized print is harder to read than regular font.

Too many exclamation points are also a problem.  It’s okay to use a few but too many become annoying.  Use tags and scene settings to provide emphasis, not punctuation.  If you’ve set up the scene properly, the emphasis should be obvious.

The last rule for writing dialogue is to break it up into logical paragraphs.  Each time a new character speaks, start a new paragraph.  This is how to let the reader know who is talking without using a lot of tags.  But if the same character is speaking and doing something at the same time, you don’t have to break that into several paragraphs.  You can use the action to create the scene and reduce the use of tags.  For example:

        Mary glanced around the restaurant, then reached into her purse.  “I’ve got something for you.” She placed a plain, white envelope on the table.  She leaned in and lowered her voice.  “This is what you’ve been looking for.  This letter explains everything.  Everything.”  She drew the last word out, making sure he understood the letter would leave no doubt.

See how the combination of dialogue and action set the tone for the scene, provided emphasis, and kept the action going without a lot of stops and starts?  One paragraph with one person talking, but interspersed with actions and descriptions.  No italics or exclamation points or tags.  But the reader knows Mary is the one talking and hears her speaking in a hushed voice, whispering, making her point and emphasizing her words.  The words and actions set the tone, not the punctuation.

From the viewpoint of an agent or editor, nothing screams novice writer!!! more than using italics and too many exclamation points.  Phonetic writing is also distracting and should be avoided.  If you need punctuation to make your point then you haven’t developed your characters well enough or set the scene properly.  Remember that the reader will provide the emphasis and hear the dialects without a lot of coaching.  Don’t distract them with punctuation or odd phrasing or confusing paragraph construction.

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Effective Dialogue – No expostulating allowed

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.

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