The Dialogue Police

Dialogue. It is a necessary evil if you have characters. They must communicate, after all. Someone has to talk. It is also some of the most challenging writing you’ll do.

Why? Because you need to know your characters enough to speak for them. As them. Use their vocabularies, not yours. Reflect their histories and emotions. Oh, and don’t make them sound stilted unless that is how your character speaks.

Unlike everyday speech that we engage in everyday, you must also focus and compress your written dialogue so it is interesting. Let’s face it; we have a million conversations a day with family, friends, and coworkers that would put anyone to sleep if they read it. In a book, you need to keep that kind of dialogue to a minimum.

So, how can you make your dialogue more effective?

One way to make your dialogue sound more realistic is to use contractions. When most people speak, they don’t say, “I would not do that if I were you.” They say, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” It will also make it sound more natural if you use sentence fragments in places. When we speak, we don’t tend to think of proper sentence structure. Did I remember to put in all the adverbs I wanted to describe the topic I was just talking about with Karen? No, that just doesn’t happen. Take a common topic in our household, tea.

“Want some tea?” Wendy asked.
“Sounds great.”

Neither of these sentences are built in the proper structure, but they reflect how people talk. You can get away with a lot more of this when writing dialogue because it sounds more natural.

You can also help make your dialogue more natural by stringing sentences together using commas. We don’t often stop completely after each thought when we speak; we leap from one to another.

“Yes, I want some eggs, make sure they are sunnyside up, thanks.”

Never opt for the more complicated word unless your character thinks using big words is impressive to someone. Fancy words can make the dialogue sound stilted, unrealistic, and if they are truly big and obscure, make your reader stumble. Try using ‘obligatory’ in a sentence without sounding awkward and unrealistic. Most people would use ‘required’ or even ‘mandatory’ instead when they speak. Courtroom dramas may be a small exception to this when a character is a lawyer speaking during a trial or if you have medical personnel talking about a case amongst themselves. In these cases, you may need to figure out a way for the reader to understand the terminology.

Dialogue Tags

What are dialogue tags? They are the little he saids, she saids of the literary world. While many of us learned in school to vary our dialogue tags so we don’t just use ‘said’ all the time, the fact is, if you can’t substitute the tag you have now with ‘said’ and still understand the meaning of what is being spoken, you may want to go back and rewrite your dialogue.

Let’s take a look at a sample:

“What do you mean, I can’t go?” demanded Lucy. “I have to be there!”
“Well, young lady,” her mother explained, “you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”
“But Mom…” Lucy whined. “All my friends will be there!”

Using dialogue tags like this explains what should have been explained in your dialogue. If you did get the meaning across in your dialogue, you shouldn’t have to explain it again by using tags. In fact, sometimes you don’t need tags at all.

When you have a dialogue between two people, once you’ve established who is speaking, you can often dispense with the attributions altogether, breaking up the dialogue with beats. Few people just sit there, completely still, while speaking. They may take a sip of coffee or scratch their neck. They may stand up abruptly to add power to what they are saying. Adding physical action to your dialogue makes it more realistic and believable; much more believable than spelling out your meanings through the dialogue tags.

Let’s take another look at that bit of dialogue:

“What do you mean, I can’t go?” Lucy said. “I have to be there!”
Her mother folded another towel. “Well, young lady, you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”
“But Mom… all my friends will be there!”

You still get all the meaning, don’t you? Remember this when you write your dialogue. It will improve your writing.

Edited according to our helpful comment! Just proves that every writer needs an objective editor!