Writing dialogue gets a character out of my head (and his or hers) and alive on the page in a conversation with other characters, and ostensibly, with the reader. It’s one of my favorite parts of novel writing.
To make sure I keep my dialogue realistic, serving my story and my reader (and not my ego), I keep a Post-It on my laptop monitor that says:
Let the dialogue do the work.
My little yellow note reminds of four things to do while I’m writing and editing dialogue. And while there’s creative license with everything we write in our stories and our books, these guidelines help me with the pace and the content of my dialogue.
Dump flowery dialogue tags
Our readers can hear and see the dialogue if it’s well-written. He or she can infer tone because the character is already real and engaging (it’s why I don’t start books with dialogue, because the reader doesn’t know who’s talking, or care, although it works for many, it’s just not for me).
So, no fancy dialogue tags needed. I subscribe to the tenet that all we need is said, asked, and the occasional whispered. No need for “he implored” when the words used show that your character is imploring. No need for “she cried” if the words used show that your character cried out.
Try it. If you don’t think it works, rework your dialogue until it does. You know, let the dialogue do the work.
The absence of flowery dialogue tags allows the reader to listen to the conversation without distraction. It allows the readers eyes to even skip over (gasp!) the he saids and she saids.
Which means, of course, we don’t need all of those either.
Think of basic dialogue tags as mile markers. Once we’ve set up who’s talking to whom, the occasional reminder to keep the reader on track is all that’s necessary. If it’s a short dialogue run, you may not need tags at all. Adding someone new to the banter? Add dialogue tags to make the journey clear. Your characters’ voices and positions in the story should also aid in identifying who’s talking so that constant tagging (the dialogue kind, not the internet kind) won’t be necessary.
The conversation will flow and the pages will turn.
Limit stage direction
I see in my head what I then write on the page, meaning, if my characters are having a conversation I see them sitting/standing/walking/running/biking. I see them eating/drinking/flailing/eye-rolling. It plays out in front of me on the small screen of my brain.
Does that mean that everything I see should be transcribed using the coveted show don’t tell? Doesn’t that mean the reader needs to know everything so he or she can picture exactly what’s going on? No.
Just as flowery dialogue tags do, stage direction slows the pace of the dialogue. It also makes it less like, well, dialogue, by inserting bumps in the road that break up the conversation. The flow is gone.
Sure, sometimes we need to share our characters’ actions. So make it mean something. Doesn’t someone say “talk to me” but cross her arms and lean back? Does someone selfish lean in? Your characters’ actions must add to the story, contradiction something, add something, share something new, just like the word he or she speaks.
Flailing arms need not apply.
Eliminate chit chat
Face it. Sometimes our characters like to hear themselves talk. Therefore, I ask myself these questions when I am revising dialogue. What does the reader need to know? What do I want to hear the characters say? And, are these things the same?
They might not be, so be honest with yourself. You don’t want characters talking just so they, and you, can hear their voices.
Everything your characters say must be important to the story you’re telling right now. The dialogue must move the story forward, reveal something new, or a revelation about something the reader already knows. Going in for a little backstory? A chat that includes remember when? It should have a tie to the present storyline, or reveal something about the characters the reader doesn’t already know and helps her understand what’s happening right now.
But, helping the reader understand what’s happening doesn’t mean beating her over the head. When writing dialogue, don’t repeat yourself. I mean it. Don’t repeat yourself. Really, don’t do it.
See? You don’t like it when a point is pushed at you when you got it the first time, do you? The same is true for your reader. You know that scene where your main character meets her sister for coffee and tells her what happened last night even though the reader was there when the protagonist danced on the table? We do that because we want the sister to know. The sister needs to know. But, no one likes hearing the same story twice. If we’re corned by Uncle Joe at a family dinner, we can’t always duck away. A reader can skim a book. Or close it.
Give your reader credit to know that your characters have had some conversations without them.
To insure that the dialogue I’m writing only has what the reader needs to know, I sometimes pretend I’m eavesdropping, but only have twenty seconds to spare. Maybe less. I hear only what I must in order to continue my day, to learn something new, to pique my curiosity, or in order to make a change in plans. I don’t have time to simply hear something that’s nice to know if it doesn’t do something for me, if it doesn’t serve any purpose. I just don’t have the time.
Neither does your reader.
Refining dialogue can be tricky, even counterintuitive at times, but it’s worth the time and effort. The payoff is engaging and meaningful conversations between your characters for the benefit of your story, and readers—who I bet will say thank you.
Do you like writing dialogue? What do you find most helpful or challenging? What is your biggest dialogue pet peeve?
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Amy Sue Nathan is a novelist, freelance editor, and blogger, but not always in that order. She is the author of The Good Neighbor and The Glass Wives, both published by St. Martin’s Griffin. She founded the Women’s Fiction Writers blog in 2011, and has been a freelance fiction editor and writer published in more than two dozen publications, including Writer’s Digest, the Chicago Tribune, and the Huffington Post. Amy teaches writing workshops online and in the real world, although the Internet is pretty real to her. You can find Amy online, often when she shouldn’t be, @AmySueNathan.