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
The #AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event on the topic of resources and learning for authors. Feel free to hop around to the various blogs and see what you learn!
To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click here.
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Always good to be reminded of the rules and ways to make my writing better. Thanks.
I once read a book which had no quotation marks at all. It took a little getting used to. We might know the points you made and yet not be able to pin point them when we write. This post of yours needs to be bookmarked and returned to.
I love quick wit in dialogue and tend to write that when I’m editing mine. Banter, quick wit, and fun show what a character is made of. hehehe
Sorry the link was something I read recently. Here’s my blog link if you need it: http://emaginette.wordpress.com
I’m reading a book with a — at the beginning of each dialogue part. No quotation marks. Very distracting. Thanks for visiting.
I love the passage, Cheryl! And thanks for the reminder about the do’s and don’ts for dialogue!
I’m a sucker for good dialogue, and I loved reading your examples 🙂
Some great tips too. I’m pretty sure I use characters names too often in dialogue, and until recently I’d been using dialogue tags all wrong!
In the UK, we use single inverted commas for dialogue rather than double quotation marks. One of our little quirks 🙂
I love how you emphasise on the fact that dialogues should flow. There are some books, where dialogues look so not thought about that you cant go on after a few pages. This indeed is an essential art to learn.
These are all amazing tips! Thanks! I agree with all of your points, but 2 and 3 really speak to me. People always talk about creating “realistic” dialogue and getting inspiration for how people “really talk” by eavesdropping on conversations, etc., but the way people really talk often makes for tedious reading. Great tips!
Thank for the checklist for dialogue. Very helpful and great reminder of what to review when editing dialogue.
Right! It’s kind of like writing medieval history. We don’t show the unwashed body, poor dental hygiene, or smallpox scars. Reality is blurred around the edges.
Great list. Lots of writers struggle with making dialogue feel natural. As you know and on the nose dialogue drive me crazy. Thanks for this list
This is such a great post. Thank you for pointing this out. It’s important to capture the character’s personality and culture through it.
Great post topic. I struggled with dialogue in the beginning until I took a screenwriter’s course. It taught me so much. I think one point I still struggled with though, was using the name in the dialogue line. I had a beta reader point it out to me and the light bulb came on. Thank you.
Studying screenwriting is a great idea!
Great post, Cheryl! These examples are perfect.
I keep having a weird issue where my curly quotation marks become straight when I transfer files between programs, but that’s another matter entirely. 😀
I’m bookmarking this for future reference!
Great tips here, Cheryl. I’ve shared them online. I agree that said and ask are pretty much invisible. People can’t laugh or hiss a line of dialogue. Dialogue needs to be pithy. Real dialogue includes all the hems and haws not needed in story. Thanks for sharing this with Toolbox authors.
Great reminder on the basics of writing good dialogues. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for the writing tips. Will keep these in mind…
Great tips here – great dialogue is tricky sometimes. Thanks for including a shout out to ProWritingAid too!
Great tips! Good dialogue is so important 🙂
Cheryl, this is great advice. I find that dialogue flows better for me the second time through. I get the ideas down and then refine it. And say it out loud if I can. LOL
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