Knowing how to write effective dialogue is crucial to an engaging story. Little or no dialogue can feel heavy going, make the eyelids flicker and ultimately make you want to stop reading. Too much dialogue though and you’ll find yourself needing a breath. Let’s explore.
A good starting point. A few things on presentation:
- This may sound daft, but use quotation or speech marks (“). It just gives your manuscript clarity. A simple omission like this will see your manuscript rejected. You may notice some writers use a single quotation mark (‘) and some opt for the double (“). Historically in Britain the single quote has been favoured, and in America the double the preferred method. There’s no right answer really, though double quotation marks give more clarity. For example if a character is speaking and quotes someone else, you can use single quotation marks to make it clear, for example:
“I can’t believe she called me ‘an ungrateful cow.’ She’s got some nerve.”
- Whenever a new character speaks dialogue should begin on a new line. This avoids confusing the reader, e.g.:
“Who was at the door?” Nick asked.
“A couple of Mormons,” Sarah said.
It’s nice and easy to follow and doesn’t draw negative attention to the writing.
- If a character reacts to something another character says or does, the reaction should go on a new line, followed by dialogue. So for example:
“We’re all sold out,” Dan said.
Jim sighed. “Have you not got any in the stock room?”
An attribution, also known as an identifier, is the part of the sentence that follows a piece of dialogue, for example: “John said.” Brandon Sanderson has a few tips on attributions.
- Put the attribution as early as possible. It makes it clear in the reader’s mind who is speaking. This can be done mid-sentence, such as: ‘”I don’t fancy that,” Milo said. “What else do you have?” Breaking like this works well if a character is going to be speaking for a few lines or paragraphs. You can also use an attribution before the dialogue, though there’s something about this which I find jarring. Used sparingly it works well, but too often just seems annoying and archaic. It’s all personal preference though.
- Use beats, but not too many. What’s a beat? A beat is a reaction to something said or done. So for example facial expressions like frowning, smiling, narrowing of the eyes, a biting of the lip. There’s hand gestures such as pointing, clenching fists, fidgeting. And then you’ve got physical movements, like pacing up and down, smashing a glass, punching a wall. Use too many beats and it’ll disrupt the flow.
- Don’t worry about using too many ‘said’s’ and ‘asked’s’. To the reader these words are almost invisible. What they care about is who exactly is speaking.
- When a character first speaks refer to them by name, but after that it’s fine to refer to them as he or she, provided they’re still the one speaking. It’s even desirable to use the pronoun; repeating a name over and over can irritate a reader.
One thing I’ve picked up from some of the great writers of dialogue, James Barclay and George .R.R. Martin in particular, is, when possible, avoid using an attribution altogether. Less is more, as they say. If there’s only a couple of people talking, it should be clear from the voices and language of the characters who exactly is speaking. Achieve this and your dialogue will flow like a river.
Using constant attributions suggests you don’t trust the reader to follow what’s happening. Find a balance. Look for moments where it’s unclear who’s speaking and add an attribution there.
If there’s a conversation involving more than three or four people, attributions ought to be used whenever a different character speaks. Again, this aids clarity.
A brief point on the styles of attribution. If you read a lot, you may notice some writers say “John said,” and some use “said John”. I’ve often wondered about this. Sanderson is of the view that the character’s name should come first because that’s the most important bit of information to the reader. But the likes of Tolkien adopted the latter version. It’s all personal preference. You could even mix the two.
A character’s voice is an important factor in dialogue. Nobody speaks in the same way. Some people have lisps, some people say their ‘r’s’ like ‘w’s’, some people don’t enunciate properly, say words differently, speak in accents, have a nasal twang. There’s so many variables. Strive to give your characters their own voice, and thinking about things like this will help you find it.
Linked to voice is the use of language. A person from a particular region might say particular words. So people from Liverpool, or scousers as we’re known, often refer to their friends as “lad”, for example “Hello, lad. How’s it going?” Or we also often use “sound” instead of “good,” for example: “How are you?” “I’m sound, thanks.” It adds layers to your story. But a few words of caution. Don’t overcook it. Clarity is always king. Make sure it’s easy to follow.
The same goes for the use of accents, like “Am goin’ for a smoke. Ye comin’?” If a reader is frowning in frustration, you’re doing it wrong. Instead, you could describe the way they speak instead rather than express it.
Using commonplace phrases such as “Hi, how are you?” ought to be avoided. It’s pretty unoriginal to write in this way. One way to get over this is to avoid detailing every line of the scene. No one will castrate you for leaving out the boring hellos. If anything they’ll shake your hand.
A short and simple one. Dialogue increases the pace of the story. Don’t overuse it. As literary agent Noah Lukeman suggests, a writer must learn how to use restraint when it comes to dialogue, “to sustain suspense and let a scene unfold slowly.”
Linked to pacing is the use of beats and description. Strive to let your dialogue flow.
Passive voice is okay!
What? Did you read that right? You’ve probably heard that you ought to avoid using the passive voice. Well when it comes to dialogue it’s not always the case. The active/passive voice will have its own post next week so I won’t go into great detail here, but in brief passive voice involves describing actions which have already occurred. The active voice involves the subject of the sentence performing an action. Active-action, passive-past. Using the active voice brings the story to life. Things are happening now.
There’s a few passive words to look out for:
A little acronym you can you use:
Have you met my friend, Babaw Twiab?
If you find yourself using these a lot, restructure your sentences, such as introducing a subject or moving the subject to the beginning. Anyway, back to dialogue. In reality, most people when they speak use passive language, the above words in particular. So if a character speaks in a passive voice, it’s more real, genuine.
In his book on writing, The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman says that one of the reasons for rejecting a manuscript is use of informative dialogue, or in other words, using dialogue as a means for conveying information, or info dumping. He says it suggests the writer is lazy, too unimaginative to convey the information in a subtler way.
Sometimes dialogue will give us no information at all. Sometimes snippets. Most of the time if you overhear a conversation between two people you’ll find you understand little of what they discuss. But it’s the little details they reveal that are most interesting. Someone mentioning they went to the hospital for example. The person they’re with may know why they went, but you don’t. Give the reader pieces of the giant puzzle and leave them wanting more.
Lukeman suggests a few solutions to mend instances of informative dialogue. One is to highlight pieces of dialogue which merely convey information and do not reveal or suggest the character’s personality or wants. Break them apart and find a way to let them trickle into the story.
For more writing tips and guides, head here.
Thank you for reading this guide on how to write effective dialogue. Next week we’ll be looking at the active and passive voice in more detail. Subscribe to receive a notification when it goes live!