“Well hello there, friend,” says the author, looking up from perusing your book as you enter the room. “It seems you’ve been struggling with your writing lately. Come, join me, and let’s have a little chat.” He gestures to the seat across from him, a comfortable-looking armchair next to the fire. There’s a cup of hot tea waiting for you, done exactly how you like it–he’s been waiting for you. “So, tell me, what’s been the issue?”
You look at him as he smiles over the rim of his own teacup, waiting patiently. The problem is, you’re not sure: your characters seem strong, your plotline is solid, your pacing feels pretty good. And yet, something feels off about your writing. Something important.
And then it hits you.
“I think…maybe, the issue might be my dialogue,” you say. “Can you help me?”
The author nods. He knew the answer to his question already, he just wanted to hear you say it. “Of course.” He places his cup down on the table beside him, lacing his fingers in a thoughtful pose. “Let’s start with the basics, then, shall we?”
You nod, grabbing the notepad and pen laying on the side table next to you.
“When writing dialogue, it is important to remember that you are, in essence, translating from the medium of the spoken word to the written one,” he begins. “So, in order to do that, you must first understand the rules of translation.”
“Yes. So, here is rule number one: when in doubt, ‘said’ wins out.”
“What do you mean by that?” you ask.
“Have you noticed how so far in this conversation, I’ve not once shouted, cried, murmured, whispered, nor laughed?” He took a sip of his tea. “If you let your character’s words speak for themselves, there should be no need for such frivolities except for in the most poignant of situations. That doesn’t mean you should abandon speech tags entirely,” he adds before you can argue with him. “After all, we aren’t simply talking heads–you’ve been taking notes, I’ve been drinking tea–let the reader know that we’re not in a vacuum, and they’ll fill in the blanks themselves.”
“Ok,” you nod, scribbling it down.
“Next rule: let your dialogue do the talking when it comes to emotions.”
“You lost me on that one,” you say, furrowing your brow.
“Well, just look at what you just said,” he explained. “Your actions, your word choice, they show the reader your confusion without my having to use the word ‘confused’ at all. This is also true for if you are happy, or sad–If your character were to say, ‘my father passed away’, I would never add, ‘he said sadly’ to the end of that. It’s implied within the context of his words.”
“But what if the reader can’t–”
“Have faith in your reader,” he interrupts. “Let them do the work. After all, a puzzle is no fun if its already solved, is it? As they say, show, don’t tell–your writing will be better off for it.”
“I guess you’re right.” You note that down, too.
“Good. Next rule.”
“Only a few more,” he says. “But they are all important. Which brings me to my next point, which is: trim the fat.”
“Are we talking about cooking now?”
“Not at all, my friend. Think of this way: have I mentioned the weather at all since you sat down? Asked about your family? It has no bearing on our conversation, so why would I bother? If I wanted to read about two people talk about nothing, I’d sit in a coffee shop and listen to the banal conversations of the real world.” He takes a sip of his tea. “No, our job is to streamline the speaking process. No ‘ah’s or ‘um’s, no ‘goodbye’s at the end of conversations–if it’s not furthering your scene, snip it out. Try using grammatical tools like ellipses or commas instead.”
“…ok.” That’s a hard one for you to get, but you jot it down anyway.
“Oh, but do be careful when you do this,” he continued. “You don’t want all your characters to sound the same, now do you?”
“No, not at all.”
“Remember to keep the voice of the character in mind at all times. I’m sure your young protagonist sounds quite different than the scheming villain in your head–be sure to show the reader that as well.”
“Good.” He smiles. “Now, my final piece of advice.”
“Which is?” Your pen hovers above the paper.
“Read out loud.”
“Read…it out loud?” That sounds like a horrible idea–you hate the sound of your own voice.
“Yes. You’re translating from the spoken word to the written one, so, the best way to know if you’ve done that correctly is to translate it back. You can also use text-to-speech, or have a friend read it out loud for you if you prefer, but I feel that this is absolutely vital if you want to write something that sounds natural.” He laces his fingers together once more, leaning back into his chair. “So, that’s all there is to it,” he says. “Simple enough.”
“Thank you.” You look over your notes. It’s not that simple, but it helps. Ripping out the paper, you tuck it away in your pocket for later, and with a nod, head for the door.
“Oh, and one more thing, my friend,” he calls from his chair.
“Yeah?” You turn around to see him with your book back in his hand, thumbing the pages idly.
“I’ve listed some grammar basics and a couple of exercises at the end of this article to help you get started–I suggest you make good use of them.”
“Thanks.” You head out the door, wondering what the hell he’s talking about.
- When writing dialogue, always use quotes to signify when a person is talking. Each time a different person speaks, create a new paragraph.
- If you are adding a tag at the end of the sentence, replace your period with a comma, and finish the sentence with your tag:
- Correct: “I’m feeling kinda sick,” she said.
- Incorrect: “I’m feeling kinda sick.” She said.
- Do not use a semicolon to introduce a quotation:
- Correct: He looked her over. “You look fine to me.”
- Incorrect: He looked her over: “you look fine to me.”
- Follow basic grammatical rules for dialogue as you would the rest of your story
- Write a scene between two characters using only dialogue. Try to use a maximum of three tags.
- Take a written scene and cross out every word ending in “-ly”. See if it still makes sense without the word.
- Write a scene in which one character is imitating another. Have a friend read it and see if they can figure out who the character is imitating.