By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
Whenever I critique manuscripts or judge for contests, I always pay particular attention dialogue techniques. Dialogue can say a lot about the skill and maturity level of a writer. In fact, really good dialogue can draw me into a story faster than anything else.
As I thought about the kinds of things I like to see in dialogue (and as a reminder to myself of how to write my own dialogue), I came up with seven dialogue basics. They’re NOT hard, fast rules, but more like good principles we can apply in order to tighten our stories.
1. Don’t over-address characters in the dialogue.
Over-addressing people makes dialog sound stilted.
“Mother, won’t you please pass me the salt.”
“Oh, thank you, Mother.”
“Mother, you’re such a dear. I just couldn’t live without you, Mother.”
We don’t constantly address people in real life. And in our dialogue we need to be careful with how often our characters use each other’s names. Sometimes I throw in a name for dramatic effect or so that I can clarify to whom the person is speaking. But usually during editing I eliminate most (not all!) the names within dialogue that aren’t absolutely needed.
2. Don’t forget to use contractions.
If we don’t use contractions, our dialogue begins to sound too formal and unrealistic. Yes, even historical writers need to use contractions. In fact, when I was writing the first draft of Luther and Katharina I tried to avoid using contractions that weren’t yet “invented." But later during editing, I changed them to contractions because it was difficult to read.
If we have a good reason for not using contractions (whether for historical accuracy, voice, or formality of certain classes), readers aren’t going to know or care. They’re only going to know it sounds awkward. Sometimes I might give a formal character one or two un-contracted word (like "cannot") as a tag, but then I try to use contractions for the rest of her speech.
3. Don’t have large paragraphs of monologues.
In real life, we usually don’t speak for ten sentences straight without stopping (unless we’re monopolizing a conversation!). We say a sentence or two, take a break, and let someone else have a turn. Dialogue in our books needs to stay succinct and our paragraphs short.
4. Don’t let dialogue monopolize other story elements.
This is often referred to as “talking heads” where two people converse back and forth with nothing but dialogue between them. In short bursts, this technique can work, especially in more tense, fast-paced scenes.
But most of the time we need to intersperse internal narration (the character’s thoughts and feelings) along with action beats and setting details that can bring the scene to life. I always like to have my characters acting out some aspect of the plot and talking at the same time. I try to intersperse important details amidst the talking so that my readers still feel grounded in the setting.
5. Don’t blatantly convey story information within dialogue.
I give myself the rule that I won’t intentionally use dialogue to convey story information (usually backstory). But if the information comes up organically during a conversation between characters, then I allow it. I also ask myself: Would my character really say this? Or is she saying it for the benefit of the reader? If so, then I need to look for ways to weave that information in elsewhere.
6. Don’t use dialogue tags unless necessary.
By dialogue tags I’m referring to words like: said, asked, repeated, shouted, whispered, etc.
We should always strive to make each character’s dialog sound unique. But there will still be plenty of times when we need to use tags, and the preferred mode is “character said” (in that order and with as simple a tag as possible). The reasoning for the simplicity is that it’s almost invisible in the story flow to the reader and therefore allows for a smoother read.
I often use an action beat before or after a line of dialogue to help clarify who’s speaking. But we don’t want to stick random action beats in either, having our characters scratching their heads, nodding, and sighing every few minutes just to identify their dialogue.
7. Don’t include chit-chat.
Our readers don’t need to know everything that happens to our characters in the course of the story. Yes, our characters will go to the bathroom at some point in the book. But unless it’s part of the plot we don’t need to include it. Right?
And the same is true of dialogue. Our readers don’t have to have a word-by-word replay of an entire conversation. In other words, we need to cut out the chit-chat, the fluff, and get right to the meat of what’s important to the plot.
I rarely have my characters greeting each other, answering yes or no to questions, or chatting about peripheral issues that aren’t absolutely necessary to the story.
Summary: As I mentioned above, none of these are strict rules that will cost you a publishing contract. If your story is well-told and riveting, agents and editors won’t be counting your dialogue tags or contractions.
But if we work at smoothing out the rough spots and tightening our prose, we make it all that much easier for others to fall in love with our stories.
What do you have the most trouble with when writing dialogue? Have I missed any “rules” that you think are important for modern writers to consider when writing dialogue?