For many writers, figuring out how to punch up their dialogue is a bit of a challenge. As one literary agent says, “good dialogue illuminates your characters, moves your plot forward and develops relationships.” She goes on to write, “If you find that your dialogue does need explanation, then frankly, something is wrong with your dialogue.”
Dialogue performs four functions:
- Reveals character
- Advances the plot
- Provides information
You want to aim for two minimum and aspire to incorporate all four in each line of dialogue.
There are some basic conventions that quickly identify the novice from the practiced.
Show, Don’t Tell
§ Your mantra is “show, don’t tell.” Engage readers by helping them to experience your story through words, sentence length, punctuation, italics. Readers want to escape into your book. When you tell them, they can’t. Don’t spoonfeed readers with adverbs and adjectives.
§ Don’t use dialogue as an information dump for back-story or pontificating. Lengthy tracts of dialogue quickly become boring.
Character Point of View
§ When a character speaks or thinks, start a new paragraph.
§ When the character point of view (POV) changes, start a new paragraph and, better yet, a new scene.
§ Avoid changing the POV too often. It’s called ‘head hopping’ and can make a lot of work for readers. Most novice writers do well to stick with one or two POV; the more experienced will usually stop at four. I’ve seen POV change three times in the same unedited paragraph… a real no-no.
§ Punctuation goes inside the dialogue quotation marks.
“You’ll feel better soon, Tom,” the doctor walked back to her desk. “I’ve given you a sedative to reduce the pain.”
“You have no clue what it’s like!”
snorted. “You aren’t the one who lost sight of her feet for five months and
then gave birth to a baby the size of a watermelon.”
§ Essentially, 99% of punctuation can be achieved with a period, comma or question mark. All other forms of punctuation should be used sparingly. Your words and sentence length should convey pace and meaning. Readers want crisp sentences with simple punctuation. It’s your words that should pack the punch, not overly creative punctuation.
§ Successful authors use only one type of punctuation in a sentence. Example:
“Where did you get that idea?” vs. “Where did you get that idea?!!”
§ Use words, actions and italics to convey emotions not a bunch of exclamation marks.
“Stop!” I said, “Stop!” vs. “Stop!!” I said, “STOP!!!”
§ Never use underlining in fiction. It jumps off the page and is distracting for readers. Same with Bold. Your words should pack the punch, not formatting.
§ When a name or endearment is used, use a comma:
o “Adam, I need to speak to you.”
o “Come over here, darling.”
§ People speak in contractions. “I’m upset”; “where d’ya think you’re going?”; “you’ll be sorry” are all normal contractions of speech. Use the more formal “I am”, “you are” to indicate strong emotions such as anger, fear and impatience or in formal conversations.
§ When just two characters are speaking, cut back on dialogue tags until the scene ends:
“What do you think about this, John?” Edgar asked.
John responded, “I’m really worried, to be honest.”
“What can we do though?
- When a line of dialogue continues after a dialogue tag, the continuation does not start with a capital letter:
“She’s right about that,” she mused, “but there is no way I’m giving up the farm.”
- Action tags can add to or replace many dialogue tags and keep the story moving forward:
“Why do you say that?” she said, reaching across to snag a donut.
“Why do you say that?” she snagged a donut before he could slap away her hand.
- Never use a semi-colon when a period will do. Readers like sentences that are not overly long. Shorter sentences help keep up the pace. Semi-colons slow it down. Semi-colons should be used for special effect; to shift the way a sentence comes across.
Overuse of Adverbs
§ Perhaps the #1 pitfall for debut authors is overuse of adverbs. In live conversation there are no adverbs. We use body language, voice tone, word choice and inflections to interpret the emotions and sounds at play. How something is said is often just as important as what is said.
As Stephen King warns in his bestselling On Writing, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” If your dialogue is strong, adverbs simply re-state the obvious:
“Isn’t that wonderful!” she replied
A few tricks
Be a people watcher. How people speak, walk, dress, their body posture, their facial expressions -- all will help you when you write dialogue and tags.
Practice thinking about and observing dialogue in your everyday experiences: at home, at work, in school, on the bus, at the store, on the phone, online. Aim for a natural flow of a conversation between people in different contexts such as informal chitchat, asking directions, deep conversation about a serious topic, etc.
Read your dialogue out loud or ‘hear’ it in your head.
- If you need to take a breath, shorten the sentences.
- Notice where contractions would imitate natural speech and use them.
- If one word in particular is emphasized, consider using italics.
The dialogue used in fiction writing will be crafted and polished in a way that separates it from real-life speech. Unless it serves a real purpose, for example, you won’t have “um” and “ah” and, unless it’s a teenager, “like”.
Writing strong dialogue is both an art and a craft. Both require practice, patience and a persistent willingness to polish, polish, polish.
It’s also great fun to put words in a character’s mouth!