June 3rd, 2016

Fine-Tune Your Dialogue To Serve Your Story (And Your Reader)

by Amy Sue Nathan

Writing dialog

Dialogue adds color to your story.

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.

Reduce repetitiveness

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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About Amy

Amy Sue NathanAmy 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.

Blog: www.womensfictionwriters.com
Twitter @AmySueNathan
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Website: www.amysuenathan.com

25 comments to Fine-Tune Your Dialogue To Serve Your Story (And Your Reader)

  • I love dialogue. Often I write only the dialogue parts–no tags, beats, or anything else, just the words. Then I go back and layer in what’s necessary to meet the basic goal of “the reader needs to know who’s talking.” And, as you said, it needs to move the story forward, I print out each chapter as I finish it and read it in bed at night. By then, it’s not quite so familiar, and I can tell when the dialogue isn’t clear. It also has to sound like the character, not me.

    Pet peeve? “As you know Bob” or “Maid-Butler” speech. It can be hard to convey information to the reader realistically when 2 characters are already ‘in the know’ about the subject. That and those ‘clever’ dialogue tags, which my editor calls ‘saidisms.’ they yank me out of the flow.

    • Terry, I love the saying “maid-butler” speak! I usually call it “having tea” where the characters rehash everything they know, and it’s usually over a cup of tea! I’ll admit, when editing my own book last night my editor pointed out a “she corrected.” Alas, in my drafts I am not immune to a few redundancies. But you know how fast I deleted that! 🙂

  • I’m okay at dialog (read: not stellar). I hate, hate, hate dialog tags!!!! They say they’re invisible, but they’re like drops of water in Chinese water torture for me.

    Thanks for blogging with us, Amy!

    • I’m more sensitive to the stage direction than “plain tags” when reading. I always think I must have a memory problem since after a few lines of it, I don’t even remember what the conversation was about. That’s the cue that it has to go—and one of the biggest issues I deal with when editing others. Luckily I think once you see it, you always see it. Now, if you disagree, that’s another story… 😉

  • I don’t hate dialogue tags completely – I think they work in moderation – but I prefer body language cues. It makes me feel so much more in tune with a story to know what everyone is up to.

    I love the post. Thank you again for blogging with us here at WITS. Now, hopefully all the busy Friday people will take a minute to get on over here and comment. 🙂

    • Everything in moderation, right Jenny? I’m editing now and taking note of my tags and stage direction. I think if they’re balanced and the exception rather than the rule, they can work. It was good timing for me to write this post! I have a lot of dialogue in my novels. Thanks again for all your help! 🙂

  • Beverly Turner

    Amy…Good to meet up with you somewhere other than your blog. 🙂 I have to admit I love writing dialogue and have been told that is one of my strong points as a writer. I will put in tags when I am writing and when I review what I’ve written the next day, will go in and take out the ones that seem intrusive. I have to be on alert for ‘stage direction’. If I see it, I want the reader to see it, too. But when I am weeding out the stage direction, I have to make sure I don’t take out TOO much. Don’t want the reader to feel the character has magically appeared somewhere like a genie out of the bottle.

  • I had a writing prof who insisted on dialogue tags throughout. No one could speak without one…. maddening. And completely unnecessary to have them for every line in a two-person conversation. If you can’t follow without ubiquitous dialogue tags/stage direction, then there’s either a deeper issue with the writing (or the readers’ comprehension skills). Thanks for the great post, Amy! I’ll keep all of this in mind as I jump into edits!

    • I can understand the use of dialogue tags in learning to write—like in elementary school. Obviously you were way beyond that when you encountered your professor. AND WHO’S THE PUBLISHED NOVELIST NOW, HMMM? xo

  • I completely agree about dialogue tags. If you enjoy listening to books, as I do, excessive dialogue tags become intrusive (and irritating.) The problem arises when there is more than one person involved in the scene. Ideally, the characters voices, or opinions, are so diverse it’s evident who is speaking, and the occasional tag will make certain your reader isn’t lost. Otherwise, I consider alternative ways to let the reader know who is talking.

  • carrienichols

    I love writing dialogue and much of my first draft contains pages of untagged dialogue. I go back and fill in some of those spots as necessary but I find that tagging or adding anything else as I write sometimes ends up making the dialogue less realistic. I also let the characters have free reign but clean their speech up later.

    One of my CPs has an editor who insists on tagging ALL dialogue and when my CP tries to get me to do it too, I tell her that’s one area where we need to agree to disagree. 🙂

  • Linda Lee

    Excellent tips! Pinned & shared. 🙂

  • christopherlentzauthor

    I’m with you … dialogue flows easier out of my head. Definitely faster! Plus it adds much-needed white space to the page/screen so our readers’ eyes don’t get so tired. However, there are times when it feels like I’m writing a script rather than a novel!

    • My novels have a lot of dialogue, so I know how you feel, Christoper. But I find it such a great way to not only share with the reader but to change up the pace and cadence of the story. Two (or more) characters have different voices and that always makes it interesting. My novels thus far have been from one POV, so for me it allows me to have my other characters “heard.”

  • I enjoy writing dialogue. But my challenge is having each character sound unique. In order to accomplish this goal, I find it helpful to try and get into each of my characters’ and explore their background.

  • This is excellent advice, Amy. Thank you so much for sharing this with your readers. I LOVE writing dialogue. Sometimes I think I should have been a screenwriter instead of a novelist or memoirist. My problem in story writing dialogue? Making it all matter to the reader and story plot as a whole. I tell myself I’m defining the characters through dialogue, but as you said, I need to remember that the dialogue needs to matter to the reader and plot more than to the characters and me the writer.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Late to the party. Great post, Amy.

    My pet peeve is reading dialogue that sounds stilted. I recently started a book where two best friends were having a discussion in a very formal tone (it was contemporary, not historical) and reminding each other about previous discussions and how they feel about people/things/etc … It felt so forced that I couldn’t continue reading.

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