Dialogue 101

I am not professing to be a creative writing teacher, or even someone you should listen to, but I thought this was a good way to outline some lessons I’ve learned over the last year that helped me to write more effective dialogue. When I first started writing, it was back and forth on message boards, and we had prescribed to the screenplay method:

Character 1: “This is what I say!”

Character 2: “Naaaw, REALLY?”

When I began to try writing short stories and novel manuscripts, I had a hard time adjusting to dialogue. Thanks to some lessons from Creative Writing class and a lot of paying attention to how my favorite authors do it, I’ve learned a few hard-and-fast tricks to implement when writing dialogue. That’s why this post is “101” and not “How to master dialogue”, I am only professing to be learning the basics – I don’t think I have mastered the nuances of voice and style.

Example of how NOT to do it:

“I’m saying something,” he said adverbially.

Lesson from Stephen King – lose the adverbs. You shouldn’t have to say “excitedly”, “nervously”, “coyly”, “fastidiously”… it’s just something you don’t need to do. Have the dialogue itself communicate the mood, and let the adverb stay in the thesaurus.

Three possible solutions:

“I’m saying something,” he said.

May sound redundant, and as the writer, you may begin to feel like you’re writing those two words all-too-often. But really, they are almost invisible to the reader. You also don’t need said replacements like “responded”, “postulated”, or “pontificated”… not even “shouted” or “cried”. Although, with simple ones like “asked” or “shouted”, I try to use sparingly.

“I’m saying something,” he verbed without using any adverbs.

Describing the speaker’s actions is one of my favorite tricks. “… he leaned against the terminal”, “… she fiddled with the knife on the table”, or “… he picked his nose, then flicked”. These are great ways to communicate what is going on, who is saying what, and giving a feeling of setting and action while the dialogue is taking place. This also lets you get away with a couple more ‘said’ replacements, such as “groaned” or “sighed”, which are actions unto themselves.

“I’m saying something,”

“I know you’re saying something, but I’m saying something else,”

“I disagree wholeheartedly,”

“Well you can disagree all you want, but drop the dang adverbs!”

No dialogue tags during an exchange usually works out just fine. Don’t believe me? Read Hemingway. You can always tell who is speaking, simply because you know who is taking what side of the issue. The character’s voice, also, should inform the audience who is speaking in such a way that renders dialogue tags useless.

Plus, it’s pleasing to the human eye to have all that white space. It moves the pacing along, and makes us impatient readers feel like we’re getting somewhere.


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