- J. J. Hanna
Dialogue Tips and Tricks
I like to think I'm okay at dialogue. My characters have a fun time interacting with each other, and I love recording their conversations for others to enjoy, too.
I know there are places I struggle with it, though. For example, I use the character's name more often than is normal. I mean, how often do you actually say the person you're talking to's name? Almost never. Yet, my characters do it all the time.
Another thing that can make dialogue iffy is if it's outdated or too formal. There are times when your character will say "Yes" or "No," but there are also times when your characters should say "Yeah" or "Nah." Learn to know when that difference is.
In my writing, I almost struggle more with what goes around the dialogue than the dialogue itself. When should I use a speaker tag? When should I use "she" or "he" rather than their name? Should I start the paragraph with an action, before they say anything?
The answers to those questions are: less often than you think, more often than you think, and yes.
I wish there was a clear cut way to write dialogue. I wish there was something I could say that would give you a formula for writing dialogue, a wit+timing=good joke type of formula. But even if there was, I can't teach you timing, and I don't know that I could teach you wit.
Like most things in writing, you learn the rules, and then you break the rules. Here's what I can tell you that are the rules:
Every time a new character speaks, it needs to be a new line.
In scenes with multiple characters, if it's not clear who's speaking, and you want it to be clear, use their name.
Don't be afraid to use "said." It's an invisible word and works wonders for telling your reader who's speaking without distracting them.
Don't be afraid to move the speaker tag around in the sentence. Have it start the sentence. Have it break up what they're saying. It doesn't always have to be at the end, and it shouldn't always be at the end.
Give each character a unique voice. If I can't tell who's speaking based solely on the way they say what they're saying, their voices aren't distinct enough. If there were no tags, I should know who's saying what.
In general, stay away from writing out how dialects sound. Thi' 's annoyin' after a short while. Please don't d'this. Just describe it in a tag.
At the end of a sentence, if there is a speaker tag, there should be a comma in the quotations. Otherwise it's improper grammar. (e.g. "These are really good tips," she said.)
Do your best to let your characters sound realistic. Let them use slang, if it suits them. It may not make sense for a modern white collar criminal to say they were on the lam, but it makes perfect sense for a 1920s pickpocket.
Things should be happening in your dialogue. If your dialogue doesn't advance the plot, it shouldn't be in there.
I hope these tips help you with your dialogue! Remember, if it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right. Make it easy to read and have things happen in your dialogue. Use it to advance the plot.
J. J. Hanna is a Professional Writing major at Taylor University. In her spare time she makes Youtube Videos and Comics, and practices Karate at a local dojo. If you have a writing question, she'd love to hear from you! Reach out to her on the contact page. She is also looking for freelancing work, so if you have editing, beta reading, or writing needs, please let her know.