Writers in the Storm

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March 8, 2021

5 Dialogue Quick Tips for Page-Turning Fiction

by Kris Maze 

Editing a manuscript can be a daunting task, but it becomes easier when using time-tested dialogue suggestions. While I tip-toed through my first chapters, I discovered how to use this handy writers’ multipurpose tool. Slogging through stalled and unproductive scenes, the simple act of allowing my characters to speak had many purposes, and solved my writerly problems. 

With proper use of dialog, I could:

  • Keep an active plot moving during slower scenes
  • Break up sticky sentences
  • Tackle info-dumps
  • Intensify the tension
  • Incite reader curiosity

Dialogue is an essential part of a well-crafted story, but what does an author include and avoid?

Adding dialogue can move the plot forward and develop the characters, but too many words can bog down your tale. By sprinkling in dialogue, I improved the readability of my manuscript and built confidence in the work I will send to beta readers and editors.

But what are the basic rules to follow? Here are a few resources for editing this important part of fiction.

Keep the Plot Moving

 Sprinkling in dialogue is a spark plug to keeping a reader engaged. The long chunks of backstory and scene description can use the vehicle of dialogue to take the reader along on your literary ride.

Consider whether your story with description (in bold) of a bucolic countryside, complete with rolling hills and picturesque farmsteads, could be enhanced by the characters bringing these details to the reader instead:

              “We’ve been driving for like, forever!” Sam put her foot against the side window as she glanced at fields of spotted cows. “When are going to get there?”

              “You’re being dramatic, Sammie. Someday you’ll appreciate going to Grammie’s farm.” Her dad feathered the brakes when he spotted a deer and its fawn grazing too near the road’s graveled shoulder. “She’s not getting any younger.”

              “Me neither.” Sam slurped the dregs of a Biggie Drink purchased at the last tiny town’s gas station. “I had plans.”

              “I know it’s hard on you, but it’s my weekend with you and I didn’t have to work.” The pickup crossed a one-lane wooden bridge over a babbling brook, bouncing them around the cab. “I’m sorry you’re missing the big gig of your friend’s band. I’m going to make it up to you.”

              “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

He dialed the radio to one of two available stations. “See? I’ll let you choose. Classic rock or country.”

              “No, thanks. Listen to what you want, I brought my own.” Sam placed the headphones over her ears and opened her sketchbook. She started to replicate a circled design painted on a faded red barn.

Break up Info-Dumps

For the clunky parts in my chapters, I focused on the long paragraphs that would slow down the reader. These sections of backstory could be delivered better through the voices of my characters.

In the example above, we not only see that we are driving on a country road to Grammie’s house, but we get information about Sam and her dad, too.

We can tell that Dad has part-time custody, and he tries to use their time together in meaningful ways. Sam is a teen and acts with typical indignant behavior, as kids do when they lack control over where they are going and with whom. She likes a certain band and is being forced to skip their concert to visit her relatives. Dad has a sense of humor and jokes about the radio station, which Sam shuts out with her headphones and snarky comments.

We set the stage for a relationship reconciliation for Dad, and a potential coming of age experience for Sam. All through dialogue.

Show Don’t Tell

The writer’s mantra we all love to hate when we see segments of lengthy exposition all over our work. (Just me? Okay. We all start somewhere!)

I found that my areas without conversation were filled with showing the reader what was happening instead of letting the characters' conversation weave the drama.

Showing the reader how the characters feel and revealing their motivations is the most effective use for dialogue. Consider it a shovel when unearthing a tough, rocky passage in your work. 

In the example above, we see how the father is excited about spending time with his daughter and is exercising patience despite her angst. Sam is angry for potentially many reasons: not seeing her friend’s band, having to spend the weekend on a boring farm, her drink is empty, her music choices are limited, and her parents are divorced.

Dialogue can roll down the window and let the reader peek into the world you are creating.

Tags? We don’t need no stinking tags!

I’m pretty sure I ripped that one off from a cheesy comedy, but editors often recommend that writers use their tags sparingly, or *gasp* not at all.

Tags are used to help the reader understand who is speaking, but there are other ways to show this and draw a reader into your story. Try to eliminate the following tempting tags problems common to many writers.

  • He said. She said.  - According to online editing software, ProWritingAid, published authors use “said” as a dialog tag 60%, with “asked” at a distant second at 10%. These authors use nonstandard dialogue tags only occasionally. For these reasons, they recommend not using tags other than “said” and “asked” over 20% of the time.
  • Adverbs with Dialogue tags - Writers may want to describe how a character says something, but it distracts the reader and takes away from the words they say. Try not to upstage your characters. Using actions instead allows readers to make inferences and imagine more fully developed characters. ProWritingAid suggests that authors keep adverbs to under 12% of their total in one work.
  • Use the right words -If you still want to use unique dialog tags and you have over 12%, consider taking a hard look at the content of your conversation. Can you strengthen the wording to convey the emotion instead?
  • No laughing matter - According to Writer’s Digest, some common dialog tags shouldn’t be used because they don’t make sense. Words cannot be “smiled, giggled, laughed, or sighed.” Use “said” and save these actions for use as intended.
  • Hemming and Hawing - In real life, we pause and add filler to conversation. Eliminate those fillers when writing to keep the reader engaged. Try to avoid phrases such as “um, so, well” that slow down the dialog.

Using fewer tags takes a little practice and critical reading to find examples to model. I am thrilled to say my example above contains exactly zero tags in it. *air high fives for everyone*

Don’t be intimidated by the minutia of punctuation that typically gives me hives, try using dialogue to fix sticky parts of a manuscript.

5 Dialogue Constructions

Here are 5 constructions of dialogue to use in your writing. Experience the following benefits to your dialogue:

  • Use these to increase the variety in your writing.
  • Write with confidence! Let those curly or straight quotes take a seat to your clever character’s words instead.
  • Improve the readability of your work.

I’m using American English Rules to compile this list, but punctuation standards may differ by region and country. Always check with the editor or submission guidelines to see what style, or dictionary they prefer.

My examples below come from The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, in a scene where Holden is arguing with his roommate:

Dialogue Formatting Demystified:

  1. Single Line Quote - These have a line of dialogue within quotation marks and no tag. The sentence punctuation occurs within the quotes.
  2. Single Line Quote with Tag - A quotation with a tag, either before or after the quote. Note the punctuation differences for each location.
  3. Dialogue Tags within a Quote - add a natural pause with this strategic tag placement.
  4. Quotes with body language or actions within the dialogue - adding body language and small actions can control pacing and add depth to the words spoken.

Then, when he was taking off his tie, he asked me if I’d written his goddam composition for him. I told him it was over on his goddam bed. […]

              All of the sudden, he said, “For Chrissake, Holden. This is about a goddam baseball glove.”

              “So what?” I said. Cold as hell.

              “Wuddaya mean so what? I told ya it had to be about a goddam room or a house or something.”

              “You said it had to be descriptive. What the hell’s the difference if it’s about a baseball glove?”

              “God damn it.” He was sore as hell.  He was really furious. “You always do everything backasswards.” He looked at me. “No wonder you’re flunking the hell out of here,” he said. “You don’t do one damn thing the way you’re supposed to.  I mean it. Not one damn thing.”

If you want more of a deep-dive into the mechanics of using quotations, this article explains why we place punctuation in specific parts of the sentence. It also explains more scenarios than I dig into here, with several simple examples to clarify these guidelines.

Hopefully, these writing tips will help to nail down the details of your newly renovated dialogue and help pick up the pace of your story.

What tools do you recommend we add to the writing dialogue toolbelt? Is there a grammar point you struggle with as a writer? Add some writer encouragement for better editing and share your thoughts with us today!

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About Kris

Kris Maze author pic

Kris Maze is an author, freelance writer, and teacher. She enjoys writing twisty, speculative fiction with character-driven plots. After years of reading classic literature, mysteries, and thrillers, she began to write and publish her own books. She also writes for various publications including a regular post at the award-winning Writers in the  Storm Blog. 

When she isn’t spending time with her favorite people and pets, Kris Maze is taking pictures, hiking, or pondering the wisdom of Bob Ross. You can follow her author journey at her website at KrisMazeAuthor.com

19 comments on “5 Dialogue Quick Tips for Page-Turning Fiction”

  1. Great catalogue, Kris! I would add to your excellent list—since I write in close third—that I often put an interior reflection after a line of dialogue. However, I've learned not to do that TOO much. I had a bad habit of having my POV character have an interior response or reflection after nearly every sentence, and it got too purple, so I try to use them sparingly now to be more effective. Visceral reactions (wincing, tensing, etc.), reflections, gestures, interruptions, bits of scenery, etc. also help to differentiate the characters and show their relationships. Wow, just writing this makes me realize how much dialogue can accomplish! It's not discussed nearly as much as other elements, so thank you so much for your post!

    1. I like your suggestion on visceral reactions as a way to add depth to conversation. Thanks, Barbara! I'm glad you enjoyed the deep dive on dialogue.

  2. Thanks for this. I have a manuscript that's dialogue heavy and I'm struggling with how to refine it. My beta readers say the like it, that it helps them really feel and hear the characters, be in their world. They say they don't feel bogged down in it. But it does hike up the word count. How can you balance it?

    1. My $0.02 on this, Maria...make that dialogue do double-duty. Like give setting AND backstory. Or warnings AND conflict. That way you're taking that information away from other long internal thinky passages.

      I heard an interesting tidbit about Nora Roberts' process that might shed light on this. It's said that she does her books in three drafts:

      1st - all the dialogue she knows at the time
      2nd - layering of emotions and refining of dialogue
      3rd - final edit for errors

      I found it interesting that a New York Times bestselling author writes an entire book in dialogue first.

      1. Thanks Kris and Jenny! Much appreciated. I'm doing just that. I just worry an agent will get stuck on the m/s being over 100k words. Stay well!

    2. I didn't realize that it increases the word count, Maria, but when thinking about my current editing project, adding dialogue can do that. I need more words in my current project and it has helped me bolster my word count.

      I believe because it adds movement to the pace of the reading, a few extra words is fine.

      Find other places to refine and cut out fluff or tighten up the quotes themselves as needed. If your beta readers can feel the world of your characters, it's worth it.

  3. A thorough and enjoyable read about dialogue--I love the data you added, too. Thanks. I'll suggest one addition: indirect dialogue. A writer in my writers' group uses this technique quite skillfully. The two or three individuals in dialogue avoid saying what's really on their minds; they tiptoe around an issue. This technique adds tension. The readers knows there will be a reckoning, even as the characters try to avoid it.

  4. In her novel Larry's Party Carol Shields pulls off a tour de force of dialog without tags and without identifying any of the characters whose conversations the reader "over hears." The last chapter is the "Party" of the title. By the time I reached it, I could identify each and everyone one of the characters by what they were saying and how they were saying it. An amazing feat I still remember years after reading the book and reading it only once. I think I'll search my shelves and read it again.

    1. It's amazing to find and read these examples. I love it when an author spins a web and I get caught up in great dialogue. I'll have to check this book out.

  5. I've often had my critique partner jot in my margin, "Why not put this in dialogue?" There's so much richness you can do with dialogue and mixing in all the good stuff with it. Thanks for the great tips and examples!

    1. It can be utilized more. And when working on my draft I was floored with how much fun it was to make the characters take over!

  6. Dialogue is the best tool ever and yet, as a baby writer, I spent so much more time in my characters' heads and agonized over how slow and boring my stories were. Dialogue makes a story MOVE and keeps us engaged with those characters.

    I probably go a bit far the other way now, with so much dialogue and not enough body language, etc. Margie Lawson's EDITS system helps with this. When I use my trusted highlighters, dialogue is blue. So when I highlight those sections and there is no other color (ex: green for setting, red for non-verbal communications), I know immediately where to put my editing time. I lurve Margie's EDITS system!

    1. The EDITS is great for kinesthetic writing, too. It helps mix up the process to see your work through a different lens.

  7. Oh! This is a great technique to make us predict through misdirection. I enjoy this type of suspense. Thanks, Rick, for the suggestion.

  8. I love dialogue, long tracts of it, complex and interesting. In fact I love books that are almost completely dialogue, Thomas Harris for example; The dialogue holding the tale together, William Peter Blatty of course. Yet I have to agree with most of the comments and the article, unless "done well" it can be miserable. II do take a slight exception, however to exposition.

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