Although we speak every day, writing believable dialogue can be surprisingly difficult. From fluidity, to speech tags, to punctuation, there are many pitfalls when it comes to annotating your characters’ spoken words. Luckily, I have a few easy tricks to help you get by!
1. We don’t write how we speak.
Even when working with dialogue, it’s important to recognize that we don’t actually write how we speak. How do I know this? Well, I moonlight as a transcriptionist. In other words, companies send me recordings, and I type out everything everyone says, word for word, verbatim.
Here’s an example of how people really talk:
Angie: What, um, what, sorry. I lost my train of thought. Uh, oh yeah. What do you think we should get, uh, uh, Carrie for her birthday?
Billy: Well, I mean, like, I d-, I, uh, I dunno. You know? I just, w-, w-, um, what do you think she’d like? How ’bout, [clears throat] excuse me, sorry, how ’bout this one? Think she’ll like it?”
Now, here’s an example of the same conversation, but as we would write it for a story:
“What do you think we should get Carrie for her birthday?” Angie asked.
“Well, I don’t know,” Billy answered. “What do you think about this?” He picked up a music box and held it out for Angie to see. “Do you think she’ll like it?”
So, how do we get from the first example to the second example? Short answer: Follow the next four steps.
2. Say the dialogue out loud.
I know you’re thinking: “But you literally just said we don’t write how we speak.”
True, I did. But if you think too much about dialogue being writing, it can easily become stilted and overly formal, especially for budding writers.
An example of stilted dialogue:
“What do you think that we should buy Carrie for her birthday?” Angie asked.
“Well, I do not know what we should purchase,” Billy said. “Do you think that she will like this music box?”
When you say that dialogue out loud, you’ll notice that it sounds almost robotic to include “that” and to exclude contractions, like “don’t,” and “she’ll.” So listening to the words you’re writing can help you make sure that they flow smoothly.
If you have a writing partner, you can ask them to play one character while you play the other. And if not, don’t be shy about talking to yourself in the mirror!
3. “Said” is the only dialogue tag you really need.
Tip three is short, sweet, and to the point, just like the word “said.” People are used to seeing “said,” so it’s less intrusive than other tags. While “bellowing,” “whispering,” and “crying,” certainly have their place in the land of dialogue tags, it’s better to save them for when you’re trying to convey something really important.
And actually, you only need dialogue tags when the speaker is unclear, which leads us straight into . . .
4. You don’t have to use dialogue tags at all!
Depending on where your dialogue falls in the action, sometimes it’s clear who the speaker is. If that’s the case, you can ditch your dialogue tags all together.
“What do you think we should get Carrie for her birthday?” Angie picked up a figurine and turned it over to look at the price tag.
“What do you think about this?” Billy held out a music box for Angie to see. “Do you think she’ll like it?”
5. Remember: You’re just making a sentence.
For many new writers — especially young ones — the final, and most daunting aspect of dialogue is often punctuation. The easiest way to address punctuation is to remember that you’re just trying to make a sentence.
Of course, there are a million different ways grammar can go awry when it comes to dialogue, but let’s just give a quick example using the following line:
ANGIE: Hello. How much is this.
|With Dialogue Tag||Without Dialogue Tag|
“Hello,” Angie said. “How much is this?”
Your first sentence is: Angie said hello.
Your second sentence is: How much is this?
Incorrect: “Hello.” Angie said. “How much does this cost?”
You have a sentence fragment: Angie said.
Easy fix: Ask yourself, “What did Angie say?” Then, use a comma instead of a period between Angie’s dialogue tag and her dialogue.
“Hello.” Angie held up the music box. “How much is this?”
Your first complete phrase (not a sentence in this case) is the greeting: Hello.
Your second sentence: Angie held up the music box.
Your third sentence: How much is this?
Incorrect: “Hello,” Angie held up the music box, “How much is this?”
Hello, Angie held up the music box, how much is this? is a run-on sentence. Additionally, it wouldn’t make sense to capitalize “How” if there is no period preceding it.
In the end, if dialogue has you all freaked out, just remember:
- Say it.
- Write it.
- Add tags and/or actions.
- Make it a sentence.