In real life, conversation is usually the quickest and most effective tool we have for getting to know another human being. This is true in our stories as well. Nothing draws a reader into a scene more quickly than a lively exchange of spoken words between two motivated characters.
In a novel or short story, this is called dialogue.
Writing effective dialogue for your story characters, however, isn’t as simple as replicating real-life conversations word for word. Fiction writers must be skilled in choosing which parts of a conversation best move the story forward while also providing subtle insights into the personalities, backgrounds, goals, and/or motivations of the speakers.
Here are a few pointers to keep in mind as you craft dialogue in your stories:
1. First and foremost, remember that story dialogue should be only an approximation of real-life speech, a condensed version that maintains the flavor of real speech but hits just the high points, the elements of character interaction that best serve the plot. You can quickly spruce up and tighten your characters’ speech by nixing most of the small talk, greetings, ums, ers, and wells we typically hear in everyday conversations.
Exception: Sometimes small talk contains subtext, which can clue the reader in on the speaker’s frame of mind or personal take on the situation. Here’s a short example from my brand new Love Inspired romance, Rancher for the Holidays. In this scene, the hero, Ben Fisher is helping unload painting supplies for a church outreach committee and secretly hoping to impress Marley Sanders, the heroine. However, he’s already running afoul of Ernie, Marley’s friend and self-appointed protector. Note the implied sarcasm in Ernie’s tone, and also in Ben’s terse reply. Clearly, neither of these guys means quite what he’s saying!
Before he [Ben] could lower himself to the ground to move the bucket into the wagon, Ernie returned and grabbed the handle. “Careful, there. Wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”“Thanks.” Ben stifled a twinge of envy as Ernie effortlessly shifted the paint can into the wagon. Note to self: find new gym.
2. Know how to correctly use dialogue tags and beats. A dialogue tag identifies the speaker with “said” or some other speech-related verb that indicates how the dialogue is delivered. Important: Make sure your dialogue tag is something a human being can actually do with the voice. Verbs like these are fine:
Verbs like these are physical actions and are not “said” words, so don’t use them as such:
- hissed (unless the dialogue has a lot of S’s)
3. Characters should converse, not speechify. Short, snappy paragraphs of dialogue help keep up the pace of your story, plus the white space is more inviting to readers. If one of your characters has a lot that must be said, break up the speech with bits of action, judicious (and relevant) use of description, or interjections from another character.
4. Punctuate dialogue correctly. When there is no attached dialogue tag, all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, as in the following examples:
- “Aren’t the autumn leaves beautiful this year?”
- “You’re driving me crazy!”
- “Meet me at the mall at four.”
When a tag follows the line of dialogue, exclamation points and question marks remain; however a period will be replaced by a comma.
- “Aren’t the autumn leaves beautiful this year?” Ruthy asked.
- “You’re driving me crazy!” Mary exploded.
- “Meet me at the mall at four,” Debby said.
When the tag precedes the dialogue, a comma follows the tag, like this:
- Pam said, “Let’s stop for ice cream on our way home.”
- Looking toward the mountains, Glynna murmured, “Aren’t they beautiful?”
When the tag interrupts the speech, it looks like this (notice comma placement):
- “If you ask me,” Sandra stated, “we have a good chance of winning the pickleball match.”
- “I’d like to watch,” Julie said with a sigh, “but I won’t be in town that weekend.”
A beat is a bit of physical action that can be used in addition to or (preferably) in place of the dialogue tag. Keep in mind that a beat is not a “said” word (see note above concerning shrugged, nodded, etc.). The beat not only identifies the speaker but can show the character in action much more vividly than one more boring “she said.” Here are some examples of dialogue with beats.
- Audra snapped her fingers. “Rats! I forgot my billfold.”
- “Do you like my new haircut?” Smiling, Cara patted her curls.
Notice that the beat is a separate sentence from the line of dialogue. DO NOT combine the dialogue and an action beat with a comma!
INCORRECT: “It’s late. I’m going home,” Janet put on her coat.
FIX: “It’s late. I’m going home.” Janet put on her coat. [replace comma with period]
INCORRECT: “Would you mind,” Pam raised a brow, “if we postponed until tomorrow?”
FIX: “Would you mind,” Pam asked, raising a brow, “if we postponed until tomorrow?” [added a “said” word and comma; changed raised to raising]
ALTERNATE FIX: “Would you mind”—Pam raised a brow—“if we postponed until tomorrow?” [the dashes set off the action beat; exact placement of quotation marks and dashes may vary among publishers’ style sheets, but this format seems the most common]
Comments are closed today so we can spend more time writing and reading! Join us tomorrow for another news-packed Weekend Edition!
And . . . look for my newest release, A Rose So Fair, Flowers of Eden book 3, available now in both ebook and paperback!
Caleb Wieland, Rose’s best friend, isn’t the farmer his late father was, and he’s about to lose his cotton crop to boll weevils. He’d let the farm go and search for work he’s more suited to, except he can’t desert his widowed mother. Besides, he’s been quietly falling in love with Rose since they were in grammar school, and the thought of leaving her behind is too much to bear. He’d give anything to win her heart, but Rose’s stubborn independence is proving as thorny as the flower for which she’s named.
About Myra: Award-winning author Myra Johnson writes emotionally gripping stories about love, life, and faith. Myra is a two-time finalist for the prestigious ACFW Carol Awards and winner of Christian Retailing’s Best for historical fiction. Originally from Texas but now residing in the beautiful Carolinas, Myra and her husband love the climate and scenery, but they may never get used to the pulled pork Carolinians call “barbecue”! The Johnsons share their home with two very pampered doggies who don’t always understand the meaning of “Mom’s trying to write.” They’re also currently harboring their younger daughter and family (six in all plus a kitty!) as they transition toward their next missionary calling. With grandkids underfoot ranging in age from 14 down to 3, there’s never a dull moment!
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