Below, are some techniques for how to ‘show’ with your dialogue. You’ll find that adhering to certain “rules” will help you create a stronger narrative and dynamic between characters.
Do follow the rules the grammar
Start each line of dialogue as a new paragraph. This paragraph should be indented. Be sure to enclose dialogue with quotation marks.
Do use “said”
I know. There are a thousand great words to use instead of “said.” Words like exclaimed, cried, vocalized, whimpered, nudged, opposed… I could go on and on. But unfortunately, for the most part, these words indicate lazy writing. Observe:
“The dog is hungry,” she nudged.
While the reader may understand what you’re saying, it’s not as effective as writing:
“The dog is hungry,” she said.
I know this may sound boring, but the point is to keep dialogue tags as unobtrusive as possible. “Said” is so unobtrusive, it’s practically invisible. By using dialogue tags other than “said,” you force the reader to notice it. That takes them out of the experience zone and into the reading zone.
Do set the scene
The above doesn’t mean you can’t describe what’s happening. Set the scene so that when dialogue begins, it’s interrupted by too much expository.
You’ll find the dialogue tends to have a better pace when it’s not weighed down by descriptive tags. For example, instead of adding descriptive tags after a dialogue tag like, “he said as he…” do the work of setting up the scene before launching into the dialogue. That way, the reader will have a good understanding of what the characters are doing and where they are located in relation to each other.
Do make each character sound unique
An 8 year old will sound different than an 80 year old. A man will sound different than a woman. Assign appropriate phrasing to each character to give valuable insight on the character.
Do use realistic dialogue but don’t make it too real
It’s so important to use dialogue as a device that pushes the story forward. That’s why dialogue should move the characters and not be static. It should never be gratuitous. It’s a simulation of a real conversation but it doesn’t need to follow the entire conversation.
There’s no need to use small talk because that doesn’t propel the characters further into the plot.
Don’t create monologues
Unless it’s a king speaking, who’s going to sit there and listen to one character drone on and on about any subject? Even if the character is particularly long-winded or verbose, you should break up extended monologues with insights on how the other character is non-verbally responding. Here are a couple of examples:
Without moving her head, Sally quickly glanced at Graham.
- He softly tapped his fingers on the side of his arm like a trumpet, hearing only the music of the impromptu jazz melody.
Don’t use more words than you need to
In both fiction and nonfiction, dialogue serves three purposes: to develop the story, to move the characters, and to explore internal motivations. While you may be tempted to write like you would speak to your buddy, that would be a mistake. A heavy one.
Wordiness kills drafts.
Don’t go overboard with tags
“He said” and “she said” slows down and interrupts the reader. It takes them out of the present and into the mechanics of scene. The goal is to write characters with enough unique dialogue that there’s no need for identification tags… well, at least not a constant need.
At a certain point within your book, it should be fairly obvious to your readers who is talking, especially if you’ve set up the scene correctly.
Don’t use fillers
Um, uh, er and similar hemming and hawing just don’t sound good in literature. You can create the same effect of one stuttering or seeming unsure through contextual description of how the character is acting within the scene.
Don’t get fancy with dialect
There is rarely a reason to spell any word phonetically. At best, it slows the readers down by forcing them to read the word out loud. There are other ways to convey that someone is from a specific location. For example, a southern belle may use “bless her heart” and a British person may use “it’s sorted, mate.” There’s no need to use awkward spelling when there are several other devices and description tags at your disposal.
Dialogue is great when you get it right but it can weigh down your book if you don’t know what you’re doing. Implement these do’s and don’ts into your draft to create a lighter, easier read for your readers.