Writing Good Dialogue Part 1

Writing good dialogue is one of the most important techniques of fiction writing. But often, many writers consider it one of the hardest things to do. Hopefully these pointers will help.

Grammar and punctuation: When writing dialogue, place the spoken part in quotation marks. Start a new paragraph every time somebody else speaks.

Example:

“Jill,” Tom said, “you’re driving me crazy. I can’t deal with your lies anymore.”

“I’m not lying,” Jill said.

When a character is interrupted, use a dash at the end of the sentence. When a character’s speech trails off so he doesn’t finish, use eclipses or ….

Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE): One mistake common in dialogue is to explain what the person is saying and how he says it. Don’t do this. It insults the reader and weakens the dialogue. If the dialogue is not strong enough to stand on it’s own, consider rewriting. I’ll give a bad example to show how you can explain too much.

Example:

“Jill,” Tom said exasperated, “you’re driving me crazy. I can’t deal with your lies anymore.” He was angry.

“I’m not lying,” Jill said as she tried to defend herself.

Tags: Tags are sometimes needed to show who is talking. Sometimes writers try to get creative with their tags and use as many synonyms for said as they can. This is a mistake. When you need a tag, use said unless there’s a good reason not to. Readers tend to skim over the word said, but other tags bring notice to the word choice instead of the dialogue and story. Many times these other tags violate the RUE guideline. Here’s an example of the wrong way to do it.

Example:

“Jill,” Tom replied, “you’re driving me crazy. I can’t deal with your lies anymore.”

“I’m not lying,” Jill explained.

“I hired a private investigator,” Tom exhorted. “He told we where you were all day.”

“No,” Jill shouted. “How could you do that to me? You don’t trust me.”

“I want the truth,” Tom demanded.

It can get worse if you use tags that don’t make sense.

Another Example:

“Jill,” Tom frowned, “you’re driving me crazy. I can’t deal with your lies anymore.” (Most people don’t frown their words.)

“I’m not lying,” Jill sighed. (It’s hard to talk when you’re sighing.)

“I hired a private investigator,” Tom grimaced. “He told we where you were all day.” (Ever try to speak through a grimace?)

“No,” Jill cried. “How could you do that to me? You don’t trust me.” (Most people say their words, they don’t cry them.)

Other examples of this are smiled, chuckled, and laughed. Always have your characters speak their words. The easiest way to do this is he or she said.

Said is the best tag to use, but only use it when needed. If there are only two people in a room talking to each other, you won’t have to identify who is talking by Jill said/Tom said as often as when there’s a roomful of people.

Names: Sometimes writers try to avoid using said by having the characters call each other by name. The problem with this technique is it sounds contrived. People don’t constantly call each other by name.

Bad Example:

“Jill,” Tom said, “you’re driving me crazy. I can’t deal with your lies anymore.”

“I’m not lying, Tom.”

“I hired a private investigator, Jill. He told we where you were all day.”

“No, Tom How could you do that to me? You don’t trust me.”

“I want the truth, Jill.”

Beats: Beats are actions the characters do while their talking. They can be used effectively.

Example:

“Jill,” Tom said, “you’re driving me crazy. I can’t deal with your lies anymore.”

“I’m not lying.” Jill’s chest tightened.

“I hired a private investigator.” Tom’s hands balled into fists and dangled at his side. “He told we where you were all day.”

“No.” Jill backed up to the counter where she’d stashed the gun. “How could you do that to me? You don’t trust me.”

“I want the truth.” Tom raised his fist and strode toward her.

You can see from this example that the story evolves when using beats. But use beats cautiously. They can be overused when used as only as a tool only to get rid of said. The beats need to be an important part of the story.

Next Monday, Writing Good Dialogue Part 2 will be about dialect and natural sounding speech patterns.

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This entry was posted in Sharpening Our Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , by Tamera Kraft. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tamera Kraft

Tamera Kraft has been a children’s pastor for over 20 years. She is the leader of a ministry called Revival Fire For Kids where she mentors other children’s leaders, teaches workshops, and is a children’s ministry consultant and children’s evangelist. She is also a writer and has curriculum published including Kid Konnection 5: Kids Entering the Presence of God published by Pathway Press. She is a recipient of the 2007 National Children’s Leaders Association Shepherd’s Cup for lifetime achievement in children’s ministry.

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