Dialogue is one of your primary story telling tools. Dialogue means more than just attribution, meaning to tell the reader whose voice is speaking at any given time within any given scene/chapter.
It defines through speaking who they are, their character, their state of mind, and their intentions, most often. The “he said and she said” attribution is the most common and most accepted form for attribution. On the other hand, a “beat” is a description of a physical action that can be used to indicate the speaker instead of an “attribution”.
Tips on Writing Dialogue
- Don’t explain your dialogue. When you follow dialogue with phrases like “he said angrily” or “she said harshly” you are explaining how the character feels. Instead, their feeling should be obvious by the words they say as well as their actions.
- Use of an adverb(ly) almost always catches you in the act of explaining dialogue. Instead of an adverb, use a beat of action to convey your characters’ feelings.
- When you are writing speaker attributions, said is always the right choice. Do not saddle your characters with impossible actions; you cannot beam, smirk or grin a line of dialogue. Said is akin to punctuation. It disappears on the page. For the sake of variety, you can use beats of action in place of said.
- Always place the character’s name or pronoun first in a speaker attribution. Use ‘Sam said’ instead of ‘said Sam’. This is the professional standard for dialogue.
- Choose one way to refer to a character in a scene and stick with it. Don’t use “Detective” the first time and “Jane” a few paragraphs later. This is one case where shaking it up for the sake of variety can be confusing. Please note that this is within the confines of single scene, not the entire story.
- Avoid ping ponging dialogue by having your characters refer to each other by name in order to eliminate speaker attributions. This is just plain awkward. Use the speaker attribution or a beat of action.
- Use sentence fragments and contractions to make your dialogue sound real. Dialogue is the one place you can play fast and loose with grammar.
- Do not use dialogue to data dump. Having your characters speak like an entry in Wikipedia is not natural. If you have a chunk of background information to reveal, do it piece by piece through both dialogue and exposition.
- Let your characters lie to each other, argue and misunderstand each other. Allow your characters to be suspicious of each other, to wonder what the truth is. Real life is never wrapped up in a neat package, so give your characters the chance to disagree and they’ll sound more human.
- Read your dialogue out loud. Listen to see if it sounds natural, and if you can differentiate the characters in your scene by the words they say. As you listen, you should be able to find places where you stumble over words or places where you need beats of action. If your dialogue sounds stiff, make sure it isn’t announcing information that could be imparted through exposition.