The Anatomy of Dialogue

I love writing dialogue. If I’m honest, it’s always my favorite part of a scene—both to read and write. Dialogue offers the clearest glimpse into your characters’ personalities. You can show their spunk, their humour, their sorrow, their overbearing mother-hen tendencies.

Dialogue can be a lot of fun and extremely effective, but it can also sink you in a second if you get it wrong. Like every other part of writing, your dialogue needs to be dynamic. It needs to follow the same rules as everything else (with some exceptions, which I’ll get into)—clean, concise, engaging.

It doesn’t have to be hard, though. Just remember that your characters are having a conversation—just like you do. It shouldn’t sound that much different.

Characters

I can’t break down the anatomy of dialogue without including the characters themselves. They are as important to the flow as the words. Dialogue is where their wit can shine, their personality bleeding into everything they say. Whatever your character’s voice may be—sarcastic, smarmy, somber, prickly—dialogue is where you’ll bring that to life.

It is vital that your characters each bring their own voice to what they say. As funny as your sense of humour may be, don’t give each character the same love for puns. Make them different and memorable, and the dialogue alone will add another layer of richness to their development. If they all sound the same though, as entertaining as that sound may be, they will start to blend into each other, and that’s the last thing you want.

Speech

You can’t write dialogue without… well… dialogue. Important as it is, there are a lot of pitfalls you can fall victim to if you aren’t careful.

Try to remember how people speak. Which, let me tell you, is not with perfect grammar. Don’t forget contractions, or it will sound too formal. Don’t drag one speaker on too long, or it will sound too much like a speech—unless that lecturing, pedagogue sound is what you’re going for, in which case, knock yourself out. People tend to speak in short exchanges, reacting as the other person talks rather than after, with nods and agreements, or flat out interruptions.

If you find yourself struggling to make dialogue feel natural, head to a coffee shop for an evening of people watching. Consciously listen to how they interact and watch their body language. It’s a great place to start.

Also, as natural as it feels to start at the beginning of a conversation, don’t, unless event flow requires it. And even then, skip the boring stuff and get to what’s important. Ultimately, you want your dialogue to serve a purpose, and the “hey, how’s it going?” prelude is boring as hell. Even if it’s real.

That being said, some of these exchanges are necessary, especially when a new speaker joins the conversation. Its absence can feel more jarring than its inclusion is slow. But be careful that it doesn’t drag.

Try to keep your dialogue to communication of information and development of character. Everything else is small talk. And small talk sucks…

…unless it’s supposed to feel dragged out to the characters, in which case, once again, knock yourself out. Just remember that you’re trying to bore your characters—not your readers.

Dialogue Tags

This is an interesting one. There has been a long-term war waged on this point, and I guess I’m about to pick my side.

Please just use ‘said’ and ‘asked’. Anything else draws the reader from the immersion. Barring the occasional descriptive tag (when you WANT it to stand out and make the reader pause), there is no need for anything more than ‘said’ or ‘asked’.

Remember the function of dialogue tags. They aren’t there to further your scene. That’s what the dialogue itself is doing. They are there to orient the reader to the speaker. That’s it.

In truth, readers don’t even really READ the dialogue tags. They take the information from them, but they don’t include them in their mental narrative. If you doubt me, try reading some dialogue in your favorite novel and pay attention to where your focus falls. You might be surprised. The fancier you make your dialogue tags, the more they stick out and interrupt the narrative you’re trying to create.

Even better than using dialogue tags correctly is to not use them at all. Most of your exchanges can pass without any tags for direction. I’ve said before that readers are pretty smart people. They can keep track of who is saying what for a while before they need a reminder. Wherever you can leave the tags out without creating confusion, do it.

Dialogue tags have their place, of course. Sometimes the pace is too fast to tuck in the extra description of an action beat, but your dialogue is long enough to need a marker. But try to keep them infrequent.

Action Beats

In most places where you plop a dialogue tag, an action beat is a stronger option. They are basically short narratives to add richness to the scene while serving the function of highlighting the speaker.

For example:

“Take the front door, you think?” David frowned at the map.

She grimaced. “If you want to get shot, sure.”

“Fine. Fire escape?”

“Better. We’ll need to deal with the lock.”

“Not a problem.” He grinned, eyeing his well-loved bolt cutters.

See what I did there? No ‘said’ or ‘asked’ in sight, but the speaker was clear through the exchange, and some scene setting description was thrown in for good measure.

What Isn’t Said

People never say exactly what they think. They say part of it. Layers of thought processes take place beneath what actually comes out of our mouths, so don’t try to say it all in your dialogue, either.

If your character doesn’t need to explain something, don’t have them say it—especially for the sake of exposition. It’s blatantly unrealistic and will always feel out of character. Mary went to school with David, so why did David just remind her what school they went to? Find a better way to tell the reader they went to Yale.

Also, leaving something unsaid makes the dialogue far more compelling. If the reader always has something, even something small, that’s been hinted at but not explained, they will be that much more eager to keep reading.

A talented writer expresses as much with what isn’t said as they do with what is, layering compelling subtext into their exchanges. As you write your dialogue, remember that a whopping 93% of communication is non-verbal. As a writer, your job is to capture that in words. Fun, right?

93% of communication is non-verbal

Dialogue sounds so smooth and simple when you read it, but it’s a powerful tool that should not be underestimated. Use it to its full advantage: make it funny, heartfelt, genuine, emotional and captivating. Let it shape your characters into their full selves with multi-faceted personalities and responses. Surround it with the right dressings and it should speak for itself. Literally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s