9 Rules for better dialogueOne way to make your characters memorable, is to give them better dialogue. Click To Tweet
One way to make your characters memorable, is to give them better dialogue.
Dialogue is a key component to any fictional work. It serves many purposes:
- Moves the story forward
- Defines characters (background, cultures, etc)
- Sets mood, tone, time, and space
- Adds tension
- Adds conflict
- Gives information
- Controls pacing
- Adds subtext (it’s not what they’re saying, it’s what they’re not saying)
Rules of dialogue:
Start a new line with a new speaker.
- Incorrect-“Where are you going?” Emil asked. “None of your business,” Zoe said.
“Use double quotation marks” and make sure your quotation marks match.
- Pick either curly or straight. The same goes for single quotation marks. (used when quoting someone inside a quote)
- “Bob told me, ‘I hate my mother’ when I spoke to him last night,” Emily said.
If one speaker is talking without interruption, use opening quotation marks “ at the beginning of each paragraph.
- Use a closing quotation mark ” at the end of the speech or whenever it is interrupted by action or thought.
Cut to the chase.
- In real life, we greet each other and spend time on small talk, but it will bore your reader. Cut to the meat of the conversation.
Cut out filler words: uh, ah, er, like, stammers.
- Pretend you’re at a Toastmaster’s meeting. In other words, don’t write speech like we talk it.
Don’t constantly use the other character’s names.
- Otherwise known as the Bob & Emily drinking game from The Bob Newhart Show. I’m terrrrible at constantly having my characters use the other’s name. In my last edits of Red Riding Hood and the Lone Wolfe, I eliminated dozens of Olivers and Rosewyns. Bad me. The only time your character needs to use another’s name is if they’re trying to get their attention.
Don’t use dialogue as an info dump, otherwise known as “You know, Bob…”
- “You know, Bob, flying to Vegas will not hide us from Big Daddy Nelson, crime boss, who saw us witness the murder of two men in the alley behind your house in Detroit.”
- Just don’t do it. Find another way to convey information to your reader.
For a examples of how to write better dialogue while conveying information, read this post.
Give each character a different voice.
- My word choices don’t sound like yours. Give your character a verbal crutch or word choices unique to him. In Red Riding Hood, Rosewyn is the village baker. Her speaking is not as refined as King Oliver’s.
Minimize dialogue tags.
- Use “said” and “asked”. People do not hiss words, nor do they laugh words. “Said” is invisible, and not always needed. In one 1800 word conversation in Red Riding Hood, I used “said” three times. Instead, I used action and thought. Go here for a list of 50 things your characters can do while talking.
Dialogue example using action, thought, different voices and no tags:
“I am a mess, aren’t I?” He returned the cloak and sketched a bow. “Many thanks, mistress.” He reached into a pocket, but came away with an empty palm. “I have no coin for you.”
Rosewyn’s eyes rounded. “I’d not take it. Can I not help those who do need it?”
“Again, my apologies.” He leaned down and picked up the basket she’d dropped when he fell. His eyebrows rose as he saw the bread and rolls inside, wrapped in flannel. “You’re a baker?”
Did he insult her craft? Rosewyn straightened, and ice entered her voice. “I’m the baker of Chissen Village.” As had been her ma, rest her soul, and gran afore her.
“I’ve not had decent bread in weeks.” His eyes looked like a puppy’s, big and begging.
“Take what you wish.” Her heart pounded. Could he hint any heavier? Did she have a choice? Refuse a gentleman? She’d have to scurry home and bake anew for her customers. Pray Goddess they’d understand.
“I’ve upset you again.” He returned her basket. “Can I not say anything without offending you?”
“You can say goodbye.” The words ran from her mouth before she could catch them.
(Example is from “Red Riding Hood and the Lone Wolfe”, to be released October 14th.)
Good dialogue habits:
- Read dialogue aloud to avoid stilted speech and similar voices. If it sounds forced to your ears, how will it sound to your reader?
- Keep dialogue tags to a minimum. Use thought and action instead.
- Make sure you have opening and closing quotation marks. This is important if you, like me, play Jenga during editing. Editing programs like Grammarly and ProWritingAid will help catch any errors.
- Not all dialogue has to be snappy like the screwball comedies of the 1930’s and ’40’s. Sometimes, silence is golden. A shake of the head, lips pursed in disapproval, lips pursed in a kiss, can say more than words.
This post is part of October’s #AuthorToolboxBlogHop
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