Say What? Tips for writing (hopefully) good dialogue

Originally posted March 15, 2009.

All right, friends! So let’s do some more “how to write” kinds of things. Or rather (and hopefully), how to maybe write better. We’ve already discussed POV (point-of-view) and headhopping and why it might be important to stick to one POV at a time (that is, one POV per book/chapter/scene).

The thing about the craft of writing is that different elements tend to intertwine with each other. Today, we’ll be working with dialogue, and as you’ll see, effective dialogue relies, to an extent, on consistent, focused POV. Why? Think about it. If you’re consistent with one POV, then one character per book/chapter/scene is the focal point of a scene and a reader doesn’t have to worry about getting jerked into another character’s head in that same scene. If you’re headhopping (refer to Part 2 of POV above), then you have to keep a reader from getting confused during dialogue, which means you as a writer will probably have to resort to stilted, awkward dialogue constructions like constantly using names in dialogue, even if there are, say, only two people in the room.

Want to know more? Cool. Click on!

If you’re consistent in your POV and you stay focused in one character’s head per scene, then the reader knows that she’s not going to go flinging into another character’s head, and she knows then that the dialogue in which the characters are engaging has an anchor point–the one character–which means that your main character of the book/chapter/scene becomes what I like to call the “dialogue point of reference,” or the fulcrum around which dialogue revolves. That way, the characters don’t have to keep referring to each other by name because the one character in whose head the readers are in, if you will, is filtering the scene for them.

So think about your POV when you’re writing (in general) and also when you’re doing dialogue which, I think, is one of the hardest things to do well. Why? Well, good, effective dialogue doesn’t sound exactly like people talking. Think about it. In actual conversations, people ramble all over the place, interrupt each other, and often don’t complete a thought because the other person gets it or nods or indicates understanding in some way (maybe interrupting). If you wrote dialogue like you heard it, you’d have a jumbled mess of interruptions and exchanges. Written dialogue needs to EVOKE an actual conversation, but it shouldn’t sound exactly like one because unlike in real life, characters in a tightly-written book are using dialogue for specific reasons: helping a reader learn something about the characters, and providing information to each other and the readers about the plot and sub-plots.

Your dialogue is thus a tool.

1) staying consistently in one POV means you don’t have to use names all the time in dialogue
2) strategically placed dialogue tags help narrative flow and mitigate confusion
3) dialogue can help with characterization
4) people don’t talk as formally as written–it’s okay to use contractions in dialogue. In fact, PLEASE DO.

Note: A contraction is a joining together of two words with an apostrophe–generally, a pronoun and a construction of the verb “to be,” usually “is”, “am”, or “will” or a form of “to be” like “should” and “not”. So you get “he” plus “will” and that equals “he’ll.” Or “she” plus “is” and that equals “she’s.” And “I” plus “am” and that equals “I’m.” Or you join a verb like “do” with “not” and come up with “don’t.” How about “will” and “not”? That gives you “won’t.” Go here for a good guide to using contractions and when it might not be a good idea.

Note 2: don’t confuse a contraction with the apostrophe-s construction to form a possessive. One of the most common mistakes I see is something along the lines of these sentences:

“The dog wagged it’s tail.”
Literally, what’s written here is: “The dog wagged it is tail.” What you’re trying to do is attribute ownership. That is, the tail that belongs to the dog:
“The dog wagged its tail.”

And in another example:
“I’m giving you this jacket. It’s your’s, now.”
Okay, literally what’s written is this: “I am giving you this jacket. It is your is now.” I’ve undone all the contractions so that you can see the difference here. “I’m” is proper usage. We know that because when we undo it, it becomes “I am.” We also know that “It is” is also proper usage. When we undo it, it makes sense, right? But when we get to the your’s construction–what happens when we undo that? It becomes “your is” and that doesn’t make sense.

Remember: When you’re dealing with “your”, “her”, and “it”, do not use the apostrophe-s construction to create a possessive. Don’t use this construction for “who” or “our.” The possessive for “who” is “whose.” “Who’s” means “who is”. See the difference?
The jacket is yours. [NOT your’s]
The jacket is hers. [NOT her’s]
The dog ate its dinner. [NOT it’s]
The car is ours. [NOT our’s]
Whose is that? [NOT who’s]
Want some more examples? Go here.

And now back to dialogue. Here are two examples for us to dissect:
“Hey, Judy. How are you today?”
“Why, I am fine, Wendy. Where are you headed?”
“Judy, I am going to the meeting. The entire firm will be there. Didn’t you hear about it?”
“I did, Wendy. And I will be there. What are you doing after that?”
“I have to work late, Judy.”
“Oh, that’s too bad, Wendy.”
This is an exaggeration to demonstrate a point. What’s wrong here? Geez, where do we start, right? It’s stilted, awkward, and bland. The only reason we know there are two people speaking is because they keep referring to each other by name—and why would they need to do that? There’s only two of them, after all. Do they have 3-second memories and they can’t remember each other’s names with each line of dialogue? No. But the author has not gotten into either character’s head and stayed there, so we have no fulcrum for our conversation. And they’re not using contractions. Do you talk to people in such a way that you don’t use contractions?

Another tip: always start a new paragraph when you change speakers, whether one of the speakers is going to say something or do something. For example:
“Hey!” Jim shouted as he ran after the robber.

“Jim, wait! He’s got a gun!” Allie stared after the two men, knowing she couldn’t catch up with either of them.

He slowed, but then increased his speed again and was soon closing in on the robber.


See how that works? Jim didn’t say anything to Allie in response to her warning, but he did DO something. I like to start a new paragraph when I’m dealing with someone else’s (besides the main character’s) speech or action, to help minimize reader confusion.

Now let’s do the Wendy and Judy scene again, adding some dialogue tags and action (and contractions!). The other thing wrong is that there aren’t any dialogue tags. You can’t visualize the scene. Where are they? What are they doing? A reader has nothing to tell her what’s going on through this dialogue. As we’ll find out in a later post, dialogue can be the key to undoing the dreaded “show vs. tell” problem that so many writers grapple with. Right now, however, what we need to do is figure out how to put action in that’s not disruptive to the dialogue but yet provides clues for the reader about the characters. So let’s try our dialogue again.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Wendy asked, smiling at Judy as they passed in the hallway.

“Fine. Where are you headed in such a hurry?” Judy stopped, hoping Wendy would, as well. She did.

“The big meeting. Everybody in the firm’s supposed to go. Did you forget?”

“Oh, geez, almost.” She sighed. “Had a lot on my mind. Thanks for the reminder.” She checked her watch. Ten minutes. Time enough to get to the bathroom and maybe grab a snack. “Maybe we’ll get out of there at a reasonable hour.”

“Hopefully before the end of the day.” She gave her another smile. “I’ll see you there.”

“Oh, hey. You doing anything afterward?” she asked hopefully.

Wendy made a disgusted noise. “I have to put in some overtime.”

“Oh. Bummer. A group of us are going for beers at five-thirty. Sure you can’t come for one?” She smiled, hoping she didn’t sound too nervous.

Wendy thought for a moment. “Tell you what. I’ll join you for one then come back to the office. Sound good?”

“Yeah. Definitely. Cool.”

“See you in a few.” She tossed her a wave and continued down the hall. Judy stared after her, warm little tingles bouncing in her stomach.
So let’s have a looksee. Two characters, Wendy and Judy. Whose POV are we in? Judy’s. How is the reader cued to that? Look at the first line Judy says to Wendy. We’re told that Judy hopes Wendy will stop. We also get some internal dialogue from Judy, when she thinks she has time to go to the bathroom and get a snack before the meeting. And Judy feels a little tingly when Wendy agrees to a beer. Are we privy to that kind of information from Wendy? No. So this is 3rd-person central, written from Judy’s POV. Are we able to get a sense of what Wendy might be feeling? Sure. She smiles at Judy and stops to chat. Then, from Judy’s perspective, Wendy thinks about Judy’s offer and agrees to go. So we know that Wendy doesn’t think Judy’s heinous. After all, she agrees to go out for a drink, even though she has to work overtime. And we didn’t have to headhop to do this. The reader knows Judy’s interested in Wendy because the reader is in Judy’s head (the writer is writing from Judy’s POV). And from Wendy’s reactions to Judy, the reader thinks maybe Judy has a chance. But we want to find out, so we turn the page.

Now, in terms of dialogue. Dialogue tags are words like: said, asked, yelled, whispered. They are not words like laughed or sighed or smiled. Think about that. Do you really laugh a sentence? Or smile a response? This is correct usage:

“That was totally nuts,” she said, laughing.

This is incorrect:

“That was totally nuts,” she laughed.

“Smiled” is not a correct dialogue tag if used thus:

“That sounds great,” he smiled.

You don’t smile words. That is, words don’t emanate from a smile. They emanate from your vocal cords out your mouth. You thus SAY words WITH a smile:

“That sounds great,” he said, smiling.

Now let’s deconstruct the dialogue between Wendy and Judy in the second example. We’ve added some dialogue tags and action to help a reader flow from character to character, we’ve used contractions, and we’ve chosen a character through whom to tell our story. The reader is able to tell who’s saying what without the characters constantly repeating each other’s names or titles. POV helps with that, too. If you’re not head-hopping, you don’t have to constantly use names in dialogue.

Make sense? Remember, dialogue is hard to write effectively. I find dialogue to be one of the hardest things to do, but dialogue is also crucial to the narrative. Through dialogue, you can convey character quirks, regional flavors (something to clue a reader when writing, say, mysteries), even accents. Your characters are reliant on dialogue to tell a reader something about them. If you’re not writing effective dialogue, you’re not showing a reader what that character’s about and you’re also running the risk of tripping up your reader, who might get hung up on not-go-good dialogue because she’s trying to figure out who’s saying what (if you’re writing dialogue AND headhopping); she’s stumbling over awkward dialogue; or she’s barraged by a litany of repetitious tags. Concentrate on using action within dialogue to break up those tags, so your reader doesn’t get stuck in a tag-rut.

And finally, I recommend reading your dialogue aloud, whether to yourself or others. How does it sound when it’s actually spoken? Most writers who are having trouble recognizing when their dialogue isn’t working develop a much better sense of what needs work when they read it aloud. Plus, you’ll get experience reading aloud, and that’s always good for all writing, whether you’re doing a reading in public or just trying to hear what might be going wrong (or right!).

Happy writing!

Other helpful links:
Mr. Braiman’s student site

Top ten tips for writing dialogue (
Sci fi writer Robert J. Sawyer’s tips
Pam Luzier’s dialogue tips
And try the podcasts on The Writing Show.

3 thoughts on “Say What? Tips for writing (hopefully) good dialogue

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