The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: The Basics of Dialogue

There are many aspects of writing good dialogue, and I’m probably not qualified to write about most of them, as I’m still working on mastering the dialogue art myself. So that is why I’ve titled this post as “the basics.” If you are just getting started with writing your first work of fiction, or you struggle in other ways with conversations between characters, hopefully these points can help guide you in the right direction.

Proper use of quotations. In reading manuscripts (either critiquing for friends, or back in my writing classes in college), I learned that a lot of people don’t understand how to use quotation marks at all. (I recently wrote a punctuation post, and I briefly cover quotation marks.) As a general rule, all spoken dialogue should begin and end with double quotes. Other punctuation, like commas and periods, go inside the end quotes. If a character’s spoken sentence is split up with a dialogue tag, the tag and other descriptions do not go inside the quotes. Example: “I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “Maybe we could do it tomorrow?”

Dialogue tags. Many writers (myself included) like those fancy words like sneered, cried, shouted, whispered, etc. Or, worse yet, the offensive adverb: he said loudly, happily, sadly, sternly, sleepily, etc. I may be going against the advice given by professional writers and editors, but I believe that the occasional fancy word or adverb with your dialogue is not a mortal sin. Just keep it to a minimum, and make your selections wisely. Dialogue tags can be filled out with showing action instead of telling, like in my example above. …she said, shaking her head instead of she said glumly paints a fuller picture of what’s happening in the scene. Don’t be afraid of the simple word said.

Read aloud. I don’t do this one as often as I should, but when I do, I usually find a phrase or exchange of dialogue that just doesn’t flow. Reading your dialogue aloud is a great way to quickly find out if what you’ve written sounds real. Would you hear an exchange like that out on the street? Does anyone actually talk like that? Yes, you want to keep the voice of your character – the alien might have awkward English, the mathematics professor uses big words that no one else understands, the fairy speaks telepathically, whatever. But reading aloud can help you even in cases like that to really hear your characters speaking, and thus help you make each character’s voice realistic and unique.

There are other points I could add to this, but three is enough to get you started if you’re struggling with writing dialogue. What are some other tips or tricks that you’ve used to improve your dialogue?

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