Dialogue is the language of your novel. More specifically, it is the language of your characters. Dialogue is one of the most important elements in writing. What might be explained in four pages of prose, can be effectively explained in under one page of well-written dialogue. In this particular article, I hope to show you how to take your dialogue from okay, to amazing!
Dialogue is the most revealing thing about you as a writer. Not only does it reveal an author's skill level like no other element of writing, but it truly separates the good writers from the great. Dialogue is personal, as it reveals things about an author's personality, opinions, and even unique speech patterns.
When writing this article, I wanted to break down dialogue into digestible chunks by starting with dialogue basics, like formatting and punctuation, then giving general dialogue tips and tricks, and finishing with a couple advanced dialogue techniques, which I think even the most seasoned writers should hear.
I've also included a downloadable list of over 500 words to use instead of "said," in alphabetical order. If you are one of my subscribers at the time this article is published, this document has already been sent to you, just check your email!
Throughout this article, the examples I'll be using will be taken directly from my book, Echoes of Ashes: Ember. If you want to read the first three chapters, you can subscribe to my website, and I'll email the file directly to you!
And, with that, let's dive in!
Formatting dialogue can be confusing, especially if you struggle with grammar, as a lot of writers do! In fact, many famous authors broke tons of well-established grammar rules, and did it with style. Here, however, we're going to stick with the traditional, general rules, because formatting dialogue comes first.
When writing a conversation, there should be a paragraph break each time a person switches talking (or, each time the focus switches from one person to the next.)
“I hate rain,” he muttered, lifting his leg and stepping over a fallen tree. “Especially cold rain in the spring.”
“Quiet,” shushed Midiga, ears swiveling in every direction, listening.
“I mean, isn’t spring rain supposed to be kind of warm?” he mused, marching through the mud. It squelched loudly beneath his boots. A branch snapped up when he lifted his foot and, like a whip, sliced clean through his pants, cutting his leg. He cursed, frustrated.
“I said quiet!” snarled Midiga. Laderic looked at her, taken aback. She was standing completely still, on high alert. Her muzzle was raised, teeth bared. Her nostrils were flared, ears aimed directly ahead. “I hear something.”
Here, my two characters are conversing. Notice how I don't insert a paragraph break until the other character starts their sentence, keeping the focus on each one as long as possible as I describe them and their actions.
This can be confusing, but doesn't have to be. Remember just to capitalize your dialogue when a character starts a new sentence, and not when they are simply continuing it.
Laderic looked up at his friend. “Ask yourself; why is she being hunted?” he demanded. Midiga froze with her mouth open. “Renegade elves are never hunted for deserting—that is, unless they’ve committed some sort of crime. She killed three bloodhungry canids pretty easily.” He looked back down at the girl. “And why are they tracking an elf anyway? I've never heard of even one bloodhungry seeking elf blood, let alone a whole pack of them. Where did they even taste elf blood in the first place?”
This is a good example of capitalization throughout, as each time he begins talking again, he is starting a new sentence.
"I only mean to say," Laderic explained, "you don't know you're an elf?"
Here, Laderic is continuing his sentence. Notice how the 'you' in the second sentence is not capitalized. That's because it is still part of his original thought.
We'll also use that same example in this next section.
This is where I think people run into the most problems. The placing of commas in dialogue can be confusing, and I'll do my best to explain it here.
A dialogue tag is used to clarify to the reader who is speaking. These are phrases like "he said" or "she yelled." If a dialogue tag is used, the end of the sentence in quotation marks should be capped with a comma. If an action is used instead of a dialogue tag, then the sentence should end in a period.
This rule can be broken, however, if the phrase is a question or an exclamation, in which case you should always use a question mark or exclamation point.
If the dialogue tag falls between a conjoined sentence, like the most recent example, then not only will the original sentence in quotes end in a comma, but the dialogue tag itself will also end in a comma, followed by the rest of the quote.
Let's look at some examples of each:
“He helped,” Midiga interjected before Laderic could protest.
Here, Midiga has completed her thought, followed by the dialogue tag "Midiga interjected." The phrase "He helped" ends in a comma, leading into the tag.
“I wish I knew… I left before I thought to ask those questions. How she knew what she did… where I came from… and who my real parents were.” She stifled a sob, feeling her throat tightening.
Here, Alleria's sentence is followed by an action, not a dialogue tag. The sentence therefore ends in a period.
“An alamorphic elf? She’s a freak!” he exploded. “No wonder she is being hunted!”
Here, Laderic's sentence is an exclamation, so even though there is a dialogue tag (he exploded,) the sentence does not end in a comma.
"I only mean to say," Laderic explained, "you don't know you're an elf?"
This is the example we looked at before. "Laderic explained" is a dialogue tag, however, since he is continuing an incomplete sentence, the dialogue tag also is capped with a comma, before leading into the rest of the sentence.
Bonus! Punctuation Pro Tip
If a character is telling a long story, it should be broken up with paragraph breaks to make it easier to read. In this case, the quotation marks are the part that is tricky. You should leave off the end quotes at the end of each paragraph, but begin each new paragraph with opening quotes. Only include end quotes once the character is done speaking.
"This is a character saying a lot of stuff.
"He keeps saying stuff, telling a detailed story.
"The story continues, until finally it comes to a conclusion."
Okay, now that we've covered the basics of punctuation, we can get into the real stuff!
Dialogue Tips and Advice
In no particular order, I'm about to lay down a list of basic dialogue tips that can help set your novel apart from the rest. Keep in mind that these tips are suggestions, and don't need to be followed as strictly as the rules above. The most important thing about writing is maintaining your own style and your own voice!
1. Break Up Dialogue with Action
Sometimes, your character has a lot to say. But giant walls of text, while sometimes stylistically necessary (i.e. if a character is telling a story), often times can pull the reader out of the story. Including actions or small details (blinking, crossing arms, inhaling deeply) can really add flavor to your text and make it stand out.
“Ask yourself; why is she being hunted?” he demanded. Midiga froze with her mouth open. “Renegade elves are never hunted for deserting; that is, unless they’ve committed some sort of crime. She killed three bloodhungry canids pretty easily.” He looked back down at the girl. “And why are they tracking an elf anyway? I've never heard of even one bloodhungry seeking elf blood, let alone a whole pack of them. Where did they even taste elf blood in the first place?” He narrowed his eyes, filled with mistrust. “She must be dangerous, if someone wants her dead that bad. Those canids weren't hunting her at random; she is being tracked. What if she kills us in our sleep? I would rather not take that chance.”
Here, I break up Laderic's mini speech with some action that lets the reader know how he feels about the situation through his body language. Coupled with the words themselves, it's clear that he is very mistrustful of Alleria when he first encounters her.
2. Omit No and Yes
This is one of the easiest ways to make your dialogue seem more fluid and realistic. Think about how often you actually answer someone (that you know well) with a "no" or "yes," instead of just getting straight to the point? Not very often. Confused? Look at this example:
“We’ll get to that later,” Laderic said, waving his hand in dismissal. “You can use magic… and your eyes do some weird, color-change thingy?”
She nodded. “I must be careful to control my emotions in the rare occasions that I come in contact with others.”
“And, you can kill canids just by flicking your wrist?”
“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. They’ve been following me for months now. I’m usually able to throw them off my track, but that time was too close.”
In this passage, Alleria answers his first question with a nod, and the second question by just getting straight to her point. But you, the reader, inferred from the rest of the dialogue that she was affirming his assumption.
3. Avoid Stating the Obvious
I don't have an example from my book ready for this one, since it's hard to find an example of something you shouldn't do. But you should avoid the characters saying things that are obvious or repetitive. This can really make your dialogue sound like a robot.
John walked through the door. "Hello Wendy, nice day outside that door I just came through."
"Oh John, I'm glad you've come through the door. I'm sure it does feel nice outside today. I'd love to go out there with you sometime."
"Okay Wendy, we should go out there today where it is nice outside."
Now this example is a little extreme, but you get the idea.
4. Avoid Using Profanity and Slang (Unless it Adds to the Story!)
By slang, I don't mean slang that is utilized in your world. I mean modern slang that you might use on the internet, or with your non-writer friends. Especially avoid this if you're from an area with very particular specific slang, like Boston or Liverpool. It can sometimes be hard to separate your dialect from your writing, but that's what editors are for!
As far as profanity, it really depends on the situation. It's one thing for a character to have a dirty mouth. If that's part of their characterization, then go for it. But if every character is throwing out unnecessary profanities... it can be very disengaging for the reader.
5. Use of Said
Now this one I hear arguments about all the time, back and forth, and all I can do is offer my opinion. Some people say never use said, it's the devil, it should be avoided at all costs, and you can always always replace it with another word. Other people say the exact opposite, and that you should avoid said replacement dialogue tags (like exclaimed, roared, screeched, etc.) like the plague, replacing them instead with actions.
While the second piece of advice sounds more professional, it isn't always applicable, and can sometimes feel very forced and unnatural. That's why I like to write somewhere inbetween those two. Using said over and over can feel quite boring, but you also shouldn't rely on fancy dialogue tags as a crutch. A good writer can do both!
If you struggle with coming up with said alternatives, I have included a link to over 500 said replacements, in alphabetical order!
“Then we will handle them as we did earlier.” Her voice felt colder than ice.
Here, I could have used "whispered" or "hissed," but I felt the descriptor was more powerful than a dialogue tag.
“Agh!” shrieked Laderic. “I forgot about that part!”
Here, I could have tried to replace "shrieked" with an action, but it would have felt quite unnatural.
Now that we've covered some of the basic writing tips, I wanted to include one of my own favorite tips before getting into the advanced stuff: I write dialogue to cure writer's block.
This method I've found is foolproof when writing a scene that involves dialogue. Do not write any descriptions, any dialogue tags, any actions. Just write dialogue. Write as much of it, as fast as you can, and as much as you can. Bonus points if