There are lots of different ways to start sketching in the empty page of a new scene. Dialogue. Setting. Action. Internal thought. But for me, the easiest way to get words on the page is to use dialogue—what I want my characters to say to each other—as the blueprint of my scene.
What Dialog is Not
It’s important to note that dialogue is not a conversation your character is having with himself inside his head. That’s called internal thought. True dialogue is spoken out loud and must be set off inside quotation marks.
People can and do talk to themselves. But remember, if they’re not speaking out loud to themselves, their words should not be set off in quotes. It seems obvious, but I see this mistake a lot, especially with new writers.
They usually preface the internal thought like this—She thought to herself, “Lordy, the heat was gonna melt her arches right down to nothing.” But that’s really unspoken thought.
Not Dialogue (internal thought): Gilda made a run for it across the steamy asphalt paving the parking lot, glancing at her bare feet. Lordy, the heat was gonna melt her arches right down to nothing.
Dialogue (spoken out loud to herself): Gilda made a run for it across the steamy asphalt paving the parking lot, glancing at her bare feet. “Lordy, the heat’s gonna melt my arches right down to nothing.”
Check Your Work: Go back and mark places where you’ve used quotation marks where the words weren’t actually spoken out loud.
What Dialog Is
Dialogue is conversations between your characters that move the story along. If the words spoken between characters add nothing to the plot or the relationships or the character arcs, you don’t need them. Don’t write dialogue just to have dialogue.
Dialogue is real—minus the boring parts. If you’re stumbling with the way your characters talk to each other, put yourself in their place. What would you say to me if we were having a cup of coffee?
What Ruins Dialogue
Let’s clarify an area of confusion over dialogue.
Use a comma (or a question mark if you use asked) and a lowercase letter with a dialogue tag. A dialogue tag is the word “said” or anything you use in place of “said.” We’ll come back to that later.
“You’re awesome,” she said.
“Are you awesome?” she asked.
Use a period and an uppercase letter with a beat. A beat can be an action or the way someone says something.
“You’re awesome.” She smiled and leaned closer. (action)
“You’re awesome.” Her voice rose a note too high. (how someone said something)
Side Note: Punctuation always goes INSIDE the quotation marks. This is true not only when you’re using quotes in dialogue, but when you’re using quotes to set off the importance of a word. The book was “awesome.”
Check Your Work: Look at a few pages of your scene. Are you punctuating correctly?
Think back to the last few interactions you’ve had with others. Unless you were trying to get someone’s attention, how many times did you say a person’s name in the middle of a conversation?
I’m going to guess none.
So why do we write conversations where our characters do? Constant name calling doesn’t add anything to our dialogue, and it tends to annoy your reader. Read this out loud. See what I mean?
“Lucy, what are you doing tonight?”
“I don’t know, Bob, how about you?”
“Well, Lucy, I was thinking about getting a drink.”
“Take me with you, Bob?”
“Sure thing, Lucy. I’ll pick you up at eight.”
Check Your Work: Find a conversation in your scene and count how many times characters use each other’s names. Then cut them. Unless there’s a group of people talking, and you need clarity.
Listen to people speak. We almost always use contractions. When we don’t, it feels weird. This is true in narrative as well.
Dialogue: “I do not know.”/ “I don’t know.”
Narrative: I do not know why she ran off crying. / I don’t know why she ran off crying.
There are a few exceptions. One is when you’re trying to make a point. Imagine a father standing over his daughter after he’s picked her up from the police station at three am. “You won’t sneak out again or else . . .” carries less power than “You will not sneak out again or else . . .”
Another exception is when one of your characters is using English as a second language. People who are not native English speakers use more textbook grammar.
Check Your Work: Look for missing contractions. Search words like “will not, would not, cannot, did not, I am, you (or they) are” and then change them. Also, read a few pages out loud. You’ll hear when you’ve forgotten to use contractions.
Dialogue should sound natural, like the way we speak in real life. Don’t have your character speak like a scholar unless she is a scholar.
Jean leaned across the kitchen table and studied me. “Might you be repressing your emotions when it comes to your marriage breaking down?”
I turned away and set my coffee cup into the sink. “That is a possibility.”
Jean leaned across the kitchen table and studied me. “So, denial’s your best option?”
I turned away and tossed my coffee cup into the sink, not even cringing when it shattered. “Yep.”
Be real. Honor your character’s emotions and uniqueness in the way they speak to each other. Make their reactions authentic. Ask yourself if you would use the words your characters use—if not, try again.
Our goal as writers is to paint a clear picture for our readers so they never have to guess or look back to know what’s going on. Or in this case, who’s speaking.
You’ve probably heard the guideline—New Speaker = New Paragraph. It’s a good guideline.
Jerry slammed his hands on the table. “That girl just stole your Jag.”
“What?” Paul whirled around.
But let’s take that idea farther. What if we changed the guideline to—Change of focus = Change of Paragraph.
Try to keep a single character’s actions, thoughts, and words together unless they run too long, and you need to break them up for white space.
Side Note: White space is the part of the page not taken up by words. You could have the same number of words in one whole paragraph or broken into a few paragraphs and readers won’t read the first because they perceive it as “hard.” Have you noticed how much I’m paragraphing in this blog? Check your scenes and make sure lack of paragraphing doesn’t become a reason your reader puts down your book.
Going back to Paul and Jerry, our new guideline—Change of Focus = Change of Paragraph—says even if Paul doesn’t speak and only reacts, we still change the paragraph to show we’ve switched characters.
Jerry slammed his hands on the table. “That girl just stole your Jag.”
Paul whirled around.
This holds true for physical focus as well.
Jerry slammed his hands on the table. (focus is on Jerry)
Someone screamed outside the window. (focus is on what’s outside the window)
Note both Jerry and the reader are turning toward the window at this point.
Check Your Work: Read through your scene for change-of-focus paragraphing and mark places
that aren’t paragraphed for clarity.
Not Knowing Who's Speaking
Here’s where we get back to “tags” and “beats.” If more than two people are engaged in conversation, we need to be able to easily follow who’s speaking.
- Add Simple Tags (said)
- Add Beats (what people do or how they speak)
- Add Internal Thought (but just for what the POV character is thinking)
TAGS: Tags have one purpose—to let the reader know who’s talking. Said and asked are somewhat invisible. Readers skip right over them, and they don’t interrupt the pace of the story.
We only need them if we have no other identifier.
“I love your Jag,” Jerry said.
“Birthday present,” Paul said.
Limit or cut tags that aren’t said or asked. Read the examples below out loud, and you’ll hear why.
“I really wanted those earrings,” I whined.
“I know,” Ella cried.
“Maybe I’ll just steal them!” I exclaimed.
A little annoying, huh? Adding adverbs to tags is worse. Read these out loud too.
“I have to have that candy bar,” I whined loudly.
“Fine,” Ella angrily cried.
“Share with your sister,” I grunted meanly.
Check Your Work: Skim your pages for tags other than “said” or “asked.” Do a search for “ly” and find your adverbs. Take them out where you can.
BEATS: Instead of using tags, use what a person’s doing or how they’re speaking to identify who they are. Using beats gives you a chance to build your characters, your story, and your setting. Use it to your advantage.
“Do you want to say goodbye to Claire,” Dad asked. (tag)
“Do you want to say goodbye to Claire?” Dad stared at the casket and then looked away. (beat)
If you have a beat, you most likely will not need a tag. It’s liking hiring two people to do one job and can water down your dialogue.
“Kate?” Dad said, touching my shoulder, like maybe he’d called to me once or twice already, and I’d missed it. (tag and beat)
“Kate?” Dad touched my shoulder, like maybe he’d called to me once or twice already, and I’d missed it. (beat only is stronger)
Sometimes you need both for flow, but it should be the exception rather than the rule.
INTERNAL THOUGHT: What the POV character—the character telling the story in that scene if you have more than one—is thinking.
“Top one’s veggie for Claire.” Alek slid the first pizza box off the second. (beat)
“She went AWOL with Josh after sixth period.” After she promised she’d hang with me tonight. (POV’s internal thought)
Do you see that we don’t need the tag too?
“She went AWOL with Josh after sixth period,” I said. After she promised she’d hang with me tonight.
Side Note on POV: The reader can only experience the world through one person at a time. As the reader, we jump into and live the story through that POV character’s head. We can only see what he sees, hear what he hears, feel what he feels, know what he knows, and think the way he would think.
Just like there are many ways to start a scene, there are many ways to play with and strengthen dialogue. Once you dive in and nail the foundation and clarity, you’re ready to go deeper. But that’s another blog.
I hope this helps get you started. If you’re still stumbling, here’s what steers me in the right direction.
Ask yourself, am I being authentic? If the conversation between my characters were happening in real life, what would it actually sound like? This will usually help highlight whatever’s going wrong.
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Lori Freeland, author, editor, and writing coach holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She's written numerous blogs for writers and presented at multiple writing workshops. When she's not snuggled up with her husband or worrying about her kids, she spends her days dreaming up romance and messing with the lives of imaginary people. You can find her Young Adult and Contemporary Romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog at lafreeland.com.