I love dialogue. It’s always been one of my favorite craft elements. I’m fairly certain this is in some way connected to my deep love of television, but it’s hard to be sure. 😉 Whatever the reason, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to dialogue and it has a very special place in my writer heart.
Originally, this was going to be one post with all eight of my top tips for writing dialogue. But it turned out I had a lot to say about the first four, so it seemed best to split this up into two posts. You can find part two here!
For now, here are my first four tips for writing good dialogue:
1) Stick with ‘said’ or ‘asked’ in your dialogue tags.
There seems to be a point in every grade school curriculum, where students are taught not to use said as a dialogue tag. I definitely experienced this, as did every writer I’ve ever asked. We were told said is boring and repetitive, and we need to pick more descriptive words. This lesson usually came with a cute worksheet that says “Said is Dead.” Then suddenly our characters were chortling and muttering and chuckling, and doing a handful of things with their voice while they talked. This was (and is) a terrible lesson. While word variety in most cases is a good thing, the same cannot be said when it comes to dialogue tags. The point of a dialogue tag is to help readers keep track of who is talking in the least intrusive way possible. Ideally, you want your reader’s attention to be more on the dialogue than the tag.
“Said” and “asked” stay out of the reader’s way. Readers are able to quickly pick up on who’s speaking, while the tags are barely registered. By adding different tags, you’re giving your readers something extra, (and in most cases, unnecessary) to process. This slows your reader and takes them out of the dialogue itself.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. In the right situation, you can get away with words like “whispered” or “hissed,” but I would suggest using these sparingly and sticking with unintrusive tags as much as possible.
2) Avoid adverbs in your dialogue tags
Adding an adverb to your dialogue tag is often a sign of weak dialogue or action beats. You shouldn’t have to tell your reader that something was said “angerly.” Instead, you want to write in a way that makes it clear to your reader that your character is angry. Here are some examples to compare:
1) “You shouldn’t have gone there alone,” she said, angerly.
2) She stood with her arms crossed, glaring daggers at me.”You shouldn’t have gone there alone.”
This is ‘show don’t tell’ in action. Adverbs tell, which is what makes them weak. The second example paints a picture. We know the character is angry because of how she’s standing and how she’s acting. We don’t need to be told that she spoke “angerly.”
Personal Process Tip: Often when I’m drafting I’ll use adverbs. It helps me get the draft down quickly and reminds me of the emotion I want to express. Then in revision, I’ll go back through and replace the adverbs with stronger prose.
3) Don’t use ellipses in the middle of dialogue
I think every writer has a handful full of technical or grammatical nuances that they feel unreasonably strongly about. Ellipses are one of mine. This stems from a lesson that really stuck with me from one of my former instructors when I was in grad school.
It’s become fairly common to use an ellipsis in dialogue for pacing and natural breaks in speaking patterns. For example:
“It’s just that…nothing makes sense anymore.”
My instructor came to realize that in most instances when an ellipsis is used like the example above, it’s really a placeholder for an action. So when you see those ellipses, the character is actually doing something while they’re talking. For instance, we could rewrite the example above to read:
“It’s just that–” He pressed his fingers to his forehead, searching for the words. “Nothing makes sense in anymore.”
See the difference? When I follow this rule, I’ve found that it adds a layer to the character and the dialogue, and it makes it easy to avoid adverbs. Also, I think it’s pretty true to life. In real life conversations, we may hesitate to say something or struggle to find the right words, but when that happens we are almost always doing something at the same time. We break eye contact, find something else to focus on, bounce our legs up and down, or play with the sleeve of our shirts. So instead of using the ellipsis, let that action pace and pause your dialogue. I think you’ll find that it reads a lot stronger.
4) And speaking of ellipses, avoid them at the end of dialogue too
Similar to the point above, it’s also become pretty common to end dialogue with an ellipsis if your character has an unfinished thought or isn’t stating something strongly. I think this is in part because it’s how we use ellipses when we send text messages and emails, but it’s really not how you should be using it in your dialogue.
I was taught that generally, an ellipsis should only really be used if a voice is trailing away to nothing. So, if your character were to jump out of an airplane while they were talking to someone still on the plane, their voice would probably trail away to nothing. That would the right time to use an ellipsis. But if it’s just that your character has an unfinished thought, then you’re actually better off with a dash.
Generally, dashes in dialogue are used if your character is getting cut off or interrupted. I would argue that it’s still the same concept even if your character is cutting themselves off. It’s still an abrupt stop in conversation, regardless of who or what is causing the interruption.
hat, if you find that you’re using an ellipsis because your character is uncertain about what they’re saying (i.e. “I just don’t know…“) you might want to reconsider. If the phrase is a sentence or complete thought, punctuate it correctly with a period. Then it’s your job as the writer to make it clear with tags, actions, or voice description that the phrase isn’t being stated with conviction. I think leaning on an ellipsis in this situation can lead to lazy writing. You’re better off describing how your character sounds than letting the ellipsis do your job for you.
As always, I hope this helps! For more dialogue tips, check out Part Two!
Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter. You’ll get a bi-weekly email with posts like this one (plus a handful of email exclusives) delivered directly to your inbox!
Now it’s your turn: What are your thoughts on writing dialogue? If you hate it, what do you struggle with? If you love it, why? Tell me about it in the comments! You can also share any of your own tips and tricks!