Writing Strong Dialogue



Introduction


Every great story must utilize strong plot, characters, and setting. But what creates the action for these stories, whether book or screenplay or short story, is stellar dialogue. I thoroughly believe that dialogue is action and that it propels the story forward.


Yes, the narration carries a lot of weight as well to describe locations, jump into the mind of the protagonist, and reveal events that have happened in the past or have yet to come true. Strong dialogue breathes life into your characters and into your world. Without it, readers will unlikely connect to your world or your characters.


The amount of dialogue isn’t what matters in this case. What matters is if the dialogue serves its function as moving the story forward or revealing character. So, in this post, I want to talk about how to write strong dialogue.


As always, if you need to contact me, shoot me an email and we chat about it.



Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft. - Stephen King


Prerequisites


When starting to learn about a new topic, it’s important to do some research. There are many books on writing dialogue that can be found at your local library or Barnes & Noble, so don’t hesitate looking for those. Also, check out videos on YouTube. Before diving in, also understand dialogue punctuation.


Sitting down and writing dialogue is a challenge for all writers, but to get the best dialogue out is to know your characters. Each of your characters have a specific way of speaking and it must come across that way in the dialogue. Be sure to leverage the personality and charisma of each character. If someone is snarky, write the dialogue as such. If any another is very timid, write the dialogue in a way that comes across as timid.


Always be wary of writing dialogue that’s on-the-nose. Try to find unique ways for characters to express themselves without stating the obvious. You’ll have to understand on-the-nose dialogue and make sure to cover the topic in your research. Don’t have a character say, “I’m very angry with you.” That is considered on-the-nose dialogue. Find a new phrase that implies the feeling without making it so obvious. “You should think about what you just said to me.” That line implies anger. Using subtext in dialogue is tricky, but with practice it can really go a long way.


Dialogue tags are something that many writers struggle with. Know how to use them effectively. A “tag” essentially interrupts, begins, or ends a string a dialogue. There are three things that every writer should remember when dealing with dialogue tags:


  1. Dialogue tags don’t need to be used heavily

  2. Stick with “said” whenever possible. Other verbs in its place may cause the reader to stumble

  3. Use actions instead of dialogue tags where possible



Warm-Up


Read this sample dialogue and begin to create opinions on what is strong dialogue and what is weak dialogue. Also, you may want to open a book to a random scene and read the dialogue the writer has crafted. Take notes.







For all forms, writing dialogue is almost like writing music. I pay close attention to rhythms and tones. - Seffi Atta


The Anatomy of Strong Dialogue

Proper Punctuation


New writers oftentimes have issues with punctuation, so be sure to understand how dialogue should appear in the text. Take a look at the graphic provided above.


“Hey, Doug! How’s it going?”



Any text that is meant to be spoken should be enclosed in quotation marks (“”). Without these marks, your character isn’t directly speaking. Although, there is something known as indirect dialogue that doesn’t involve the marks but indicates that a person is speaking.



Dave told Bill that he was very hungry.


Dialogue always ends with a period (.) or a question mark (?). There’s no exception to the rule. These are sentence-ending marks and indicate that a person has completed their sentence. The closing quotation marks always goes after the period or question mark like in the first example.


For exceptions to the rule, consult your nearest styleguide (like Chicago Manual of Style) that explain rules of quotes within quotes for US English and UK English.



“And then he said, ‘I’m tired.’ I mean, what’s up with that?”



Same thing here. The dialogue ends in a question mark surrounding the sentence-ending mark. Notice that there’s a part where the character directly quotes another. In that case, a separate set of quotation marks is used to show that. Once again, look at a styleguide for the best guidance on how to approach something like this in your writing.




Dialogue Tags


The fun part of dialogue comes with using dialogue tags. As mentioned earlier, these tags can come at the beginning, middle, and end of sentence. They are used to indicate who is speaking at the time.


Again, in case you forgot:


  1. Dialogue tags don’t need to be used heavily

  2. Stick with “said” whenever possible. Other verbs in its place may cause the reader to stumble

  3. Use actions instead of dialogue tags where possible



“I love cake,” said Debbie.



The example above is easy enough to understand. The dialogue being uttered is still set within the quotation marks but take a look at that comma (,). When a dialogue tag exists at the end of the sentence, the comma is used to separate it from the dialogue. Also note that the comma is inside the quotation marks. The sentence ends with a sentence-ending punctuation mark once again because the tag is at the end.



Daniel said, “I hate it here.”


In the example above, the dialogue tag comes in at the beginning. Note that the comma separates the tag and dialogue once again and that the dialogue ends the sentence.



“Why do you hate it here?” said David. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”



The above example is a bit more complicated. The dialogue is two separate sentences. Both end with a sentence-ending mark. The tag splits two pieces of dialogue. Note that even though the sentence-ending marking in that first part of dialogue should indicate a capital “s” to start the tag, it doesn’t. Technically that sentence isn’t over. And then, we continue the dialogue with a new sentence in sentence case that ends normally.


“You hate it here,” said David, “don’t you?”



This other example is also true. The dialogue in this case also indicates who is speaking, but the comma separating the tag from that second part of dialogue makes it sentence style. No capitalizing the first letter because the dialogue is incomplete. But! New dialogue generally starts with a capital letter.


Many new writers feel the need to overwrite scenes or strings of dialogue out of fear that the reader will not understand:


“I hate you!” he yelled.



While the sentence above is fine, it’s still overwritten. An exclamation point (!) implies yelling. So, there’s no need to use the dialogue tag he yelled. At this point, it’s irrelevant. Also, look at this:



“I HATE YOU!” he yelled.



ALL CAPS implies yelling. So, don’t do that either. Let the dialogue speak for itself. That first example could be written without the tag. We understand the emotion behind it without it. And if you want to emphasize a certain word or phrase, use italics.


“You are terrible person.” – A single-word emphasis


“You’re a terrible person.”Emphasis on entire phrase



If you’re ever stumped on how to format your dialogue, take a look at the Chicago Manual of Style. It has great instruction on how to format your dialogue. With tags, be mindful of your intention.



Dialogue is Action. Sometimes literally


All writers should consider that each scene that has dialogue also has action. Narration is great for many things but moving a scene along can be daunting without some action, some well-written dialogue to set the stage for the conflict and the stakes at hand. Instead of using dialogue tags over and over again, let’s add some action into it.


While a dialogue tag tells us who is speaking, it’s not always necessary. If the sentence or paragraph precedes the dialogue, the reader can assume who is speaking based on the POV presented:


David moved to close the door on him. “We’re done here.”




On-The-Nose Dialogue and Subtext


In this last section, it’s important to note that on-the-nose dialogue will ruin you. This particular type of dialogue essentially states the obvious and gives readers no opportunity to ascertain a character’s emotion for themselves. A lot of the time, this is where dialogue supports the narrative and not necessarily props it up.


“I’m so angry with you.”


And? What does this do for the writer? Where is the subtext, the underlying emotion behind the dialogue? This subtext makes the scene open without the use of dialogue as a crutch. This is where you write less dialogue.



When Lilly entered, Stan gave him a long hard gaze. His scowl pierced like steel.


Now it comes down to the question of whether Stan needs to say anything at all to Lilly. Can the reader understand that Stan is upset with Lilly without playing with on-the-nose dialogue to state the obvious? Dialogue should not be used as a shortcut to great subtext. And it should not be used to convince your audience.


But, what if Stan just stood and did nothing. What if his stare is blank, but you want the reader to know he is angry without him blatantly saying so.


“I waited all night for you and you didn’t show. I’ve already packed my stuff, so there’s no need to convince me to stay.”



Sad? Angry? Disappointed? What does the dialogue tell you about Stan? A lot.



Nothing teaches you as much about writing dialogue as listening to it. - Judy Blume


Conclusion


Now that you’ve had the opportunity to learn about writing strong dialogue, you can start writing what your characters are saying in each scene. Also, you can make decisions about whether or not dialogue is necessary for the scene.


Go back to your previous works and look at how you wrote the dialogue. Read it and then read this post. Did my advice help you in any way? If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, shoot me an email.


Leave a comment below to further the conversation as well.







Resources


How to Write Great Dialogue - The Masterclass Staff outline five basic rules to writing dialogue.


8 Strategies for Improving Dialogue in Your Writing - The Masterclass Staff provides eight tips on how to improve written dialogue.


How to Write Dialogue: 9 Tips for Writers - The Reedsy Staff compiled nine tips, with examples, on how to write good dialogue.


19 Ways to Write Better Dialogue - Kristen Kieffer gives 19 examples of how she improved dialogue in her own writing.


Ten Keys to Effective Dialogue - The Liternauts Staff put together another great list with 10 ways to writing effective dialogue.



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