Well, hello there.
Funny to start this post with a greeting, given its topic. But this is our inaugural post, and I didn’t want to begin without saying hi.
Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, we can get down to business. Specifically, the business of writing dialogue in fiction.
First, a list of what to do and what not to do.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do listen to people speak in real life. This will give you a feel for speech patterns.
- Don’t repeat conversations verbatim. When people pause to think, they counter the silence with filler words and phrases (like, um, well). Unless you need to show a character pause (for example, to come up with a believable lie) omit the fillers.
- Do let readers know dialects may be heavy by certain speakers. (I considered hiring a translator to decode his southern accent.) Pepper in a phonetic word every now and then from there on, just as a gentle reminder to readers.
- Don’t actually write the entire conversation in heavy dialect, particularly if you’re using apostrophes to denote missing letters. Mark Twain handled dialect beautifully. Most authors don’t, resulting in a string of italicized words or paragraphs of nearly unintelligible text dotted with apostrophes. (Whatchu mean I’s goin’ ta git in heaps o’ trouble fo doin’ dat?)
- Do use contractions in speech. Only very specific characters would speak with formal speech (King’s English) that omits contractions.
- Don’t use words a character wouldn’t use. A butler wouldn’t say “yeah,” nor would a contemporary teenager say “Forgive me. I humbly beg your pardon.”
- Do attribute conversation to the speaker so readers know who is speaking.
- Don’t overdo the attributions. The following section will deal with this topic.
Unless a character is alone, readers will need some clue as to who is speaking. These indications are called tags and beats.
Tags are attributions most people are familiar with (said, asked). In fiction, despite what your junior high composition teacher told you, those are the only tags that should be used with frequency. Readers skim over “said” and “asked” because they know those words. They expect to see them and tend not to notice them.
Tags like these (replied, exclaimed, questioned) are distracting to readers. You might get away with a “whispered” or two, but not often. You may need an occasional “yelled” as a tag, but usually an exclamation point will suffice. Typically the sentence context will let readers infer how a character is speaking.
Beats also let readers know who is speaking, but instead of a “said” or “asked” with the dialogue, there is an action. She grabbed his arm. He stifled a laugh.
Note that beats are complete sentences. The dialogue will not be set off with commas (like with tags) but with periods.
Let’s look at a few examples.
He took Muffin for a walk. The leash broke, then she ran away.
We need to know who spoke these words. We’ll demonstrate first with tags. Note the use of commas inside the quotation marks.
- Tag before dialogue:
James said, “He took Muffin for a walk. The leash broke, then she ran away.”
- Tag in the middle of dialogue:
“He took Muffin for a walk,” James said. “The leash broke, then she ran away.”
- Tag at the end of dialogue:
“He took Muffin for a walk. The leash broke, then she ran away,” James said.
Now we’ll use the same sentence with beats. Note the lack of commas. Periods are used, instead.
- Beat before dialogue:
James cleared his throat. “He took Muffin for a walk. The leash broke, then she ran away.”
- Beat in the middle of dialogue:
“He took Muffin for a walk.” James cleared his throat. “The leash broke, then she ran away.”
- Beat at the end of dialogue:
“He took Muffin for a walk. The leash broke, then she ran away.” James cleared his throat.
Here are some tips for crafting dialogue:
- Attribute speakers to dialogue as sparingly as possible. Every paragraph does not need an attribution. Readers can follow along pretty well with just a reminder once in a while.
- Beware of repeating names. If the conversation is between a man and a woman, the pronouns “he” and “she” will be far less obtrusive than “Tom” and “Kathy” all the time. (Obviously if there are two or more speakers of the same gender, names will need to be used more often.) But neither two men nor two women talking need attributes every paragraph, and pronouns can still suffice if it’s clear who is speaking.
- Remember, each character should have his or her own voice, and if the two people talking speak very differently, their speech patterns can serve as their own attributes.
- Characters won’t often use the other’s name, other than in greeting or in frustration or surprise. Don’t namedrop in the middle of a conversation to force an attribute. (Really, Carley, that’s crazy!)
- Even “said” and “asked” will become noticeable by readers if used too often. Rely on beats when possible. Not only will they offer clarification as to who’s speaking, they can also depict mood and define character.
So that’s a brief tutorial on dialogue in fiction. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. We’d love to help make your next work the best it can be.