“Who says?” A Discussion on Dialogue in Fiction

Dialogue has got to be one of the most difficult things to write, but it can also be one of the most rewarding. Well written dialogue can paint a very detailed picture of your character’s personality and can really help your readers to lose themselves in your story. It can also move the plot forward and help to develop character relationships.

Below are five tips to help you write quality, engaging dialogue.

1- Limit the use of adverbs.
Well written dialogue rarely has the need for adverbs though there may be extenuating circumstances. For instance, if your character says “That’s amazing!” there is clearly no need to follow the quote up with an adverb. Look how silly that would read.

“That’s amazing!” she said happily.
We know the character was happy, otherwise they wouldn’t have exclaimed “That’s amazing!”. A reader needs to be able to infer details in a story in order to build a clear mental picture and to get to know your characters personally. The great thing about literature is that we all experience it differently. A good writer will understand this and cultivate it.

2- Write believable dialogue.
Your dialogue should reflect the personality of each character as well as assist you with plot movement. The right dialogue can help a reader fall in love with a heroine or loath a villain. Remember to write your character’s dialogue as it sounds in your head, not what is grammatically correct. A good way to learn this is to listen to the way people speak. We often use broken sentences, slang, and shortened words. Physical ques can also be helpful.

“Who broke that vase?” the man asked his small son. The boy shrugged his shoulders.

We can tell that the boy meant to say that he didn’t know who broke the vase because he shrugged his shoulders, but we didn’t have to write it. Tricks like these will create the realism that a reader expects in his/her story.

3- Limit unnecessary speech tags.
Speech tags are mostly used to help the reader follow who is speaking. They are not necessary after every line of dialogue and really not necessary unless clarification is needed. Reading the passage to yourself out loud can help you identify where a reader may become lost in your dialogue.

While there are over a hundred other ways to say the word “said”, it doesn’t mean you always need a colorful speech tag. Sometimes using “She cried” in place of “She said” can be useful to your story, but as we said above, your writing should already lead the reader to infer the tone for themselves based on the context.

Another fun and interesting way to avoid boring speech tags is to add character actions. This will allow you to point out who is speaking and insert realism to the story.

Tim rubbed his arm “Jeez sis, that really hurt!”

We know Tim is speaking with no need to point it out and now we have given the reader the mental picture of Tim rubbing his injured arm.

4- Using accents and stereotypical language
We all want our dialogue to be interesting and engaging, but you must be careful when writing for a character with a certain ethnicity or background. If you’re going to include dialogue with accents or ethnically specific language, do your research. Find out how people from those backgrounds actually talk and verify the slang and words they actually use. You wouldn’t want to alienate a group of readers with misguided ideas of their language or heritage. Always strive to represent cultural accents and slang accurately and respectfully. If you’re not sure if your dialogue accomplishes this, reach out to someone who can verify it for you. I’ve done this numerous times in public writing groups online and have always had good results.

5- Punctuation, Punctuation, Punctuation
In my opinion, the most difficult part of writing dialogue is the proper punctuation. This is also one of the most important parts of your dialogue. Improper dialogue punctuation will not only confuse and possibly lose your readers, but it will also make the writer seem like an amateur. Dialogue punctuation is far too broad of a study to cover in this short article, however tomes have been written on the subject and information can easily be found online. A few links are provided at the end of the article, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. I would suggest finding a good resource online, that is aligned with your writing style, and bookmarking it for reference. Another great way to learn dialogue punctuation is by reading other author’s work. Learn to notice those nuances when you read and make a mental note when you see something that catches your interest. Learn to read like a writer.

I hope these tips help you to write realistic and intriguing dialogue. While the information above is very useful, it is just a drop in the bucket. If you truly want to master writing dialogue, read as much as you can about the subject and practice often. Best of luck to you and thanks for reading!

Links for dialogue punctuation tips below:

About the author: Michael Sutch is a writer, musician, and yoga enthusiast who raises funds for life as an Account Manager for a healthcare software company. He writes fiction, poetry, and articles about life while daydreaming of owning a kayak. Michael is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and a father to two amazing little ones who inspire his every breath. He has traveled all over the world and can’t wait for his next adventure.

You can check out some of his writing on his website and on social media: Website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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