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7 Secrets of Writing Effective Dialogue

Witty dialogue conveys more than narration and action can show alone. It's worth taking the time to get it right.

By
Erik Deckers, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #823
The Quick And Dirty

These seven tips are essential for making your characters come to life.

Whether you're writing fiction or creative nonfiction, there are three primary elements to a story: action, narration, and dialogue.

Or to put it another way, what they DID, what they SAW, and what they SAID.

Dialogue lets you illustrate themes and convey ideas through a character's spoken response to the situations and people they encounter. Your characters can express deep emotions with what they say, sometimes more than they can with unspoken actions and unvoiced feelings.

Without dialogue, you don't have a story, you have an essay.

But writing dialogue can be tricky, and it's an art unto itself. You want your written dialogue to sound natural, not clunky or forced. You want to share just enough information with your reader, without oversharing or having your characters act as the narrator.

So here are seven dialogue writing secrets to help you master this art.

1. Show, don't tell

Every writer has heard this advice, but it's worth repeating because too many people fall into what you might call the Radio Theater Trap.

Often, old-time radio theater would rely on the actors to narrate what was happening in the story, only they did it badly. For example, you might hear an actor say, "Why do you have a gun in your right hand?"

This immediately tells the listener what's going on, but it's clunky and unrealistic. No one would actually say that in real life, which is what your dialogue is supposed to reflect. Avoid the temptation to have your characters tell us what the narration or action should explain.

To better convey the same image, you might say: "Jan heard an unmistakable click behind her. 'Watch where you point that thing,' she said."

The phrase "unmistakable click," and Jan's statement "Watch where you point that thing!" gives us enough context about what's going on without having it spelled out through clunky dialogue.

2. Write the way people talk

Unless you're writing a story set in late-18th century England, no one sounds like Mr. Darcy from “Pride & Prejudice”: "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

Yes, it sounds beautiful, but people aren't so stuffy and formal in real life these days. Here's another example:

"I cannot think of a single reason on earth why people would make the decision to sound unnatural when they speak," said Diane.

Compare that to "Why would anyone would talk like that?" said Diane.

You may have to write in a formal way for work, but it doesn't work for dialogue.

3. Get your English teacher out of your head

Similarly, don't follow the grammar rules we learned in school if it doesn't make sense. As Elmore Leonard once said in his “10 Rules of Writing," "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

That means if you're writing about cowboys, gangsters, or teenagers in a dystopian future, they won't speak properly, so don't make them sound like your seventh grade English teacher.

These quick tips may be helpful:

  1. Use contractions (“can’t” instead of “cannot,” for example).
  2. Probably avoid the word "whom."
  3. End sentences with prepositions when it sounds most natural. (“What did you step on?” not "On what did you step?”
  4. Splitting infinitives is also fine.
  5. Writing dialogue with sentence fragments is also fine.

4. ‘Said’ is NOT dead

It's a common mistake among new writers to avoid using "said" because it seems boring and unimaginative.

Please don’t fall into this trap. It's not a good way to build drama and emotion into your story. That should come from the dialogue itself, as well as the characters' actions.

We use dialogue tags — like "Aardvark said" or "Squiggly asked" — to break up the dialogue and to show who is speaking. And reading dialogue should be a smooth experience, with the readers barely registering the dialogue tags.

If you use something other than "said" or "asked," that smooth experience becomes marred with bumps and potholes that jar the reader out of the rhythm of the dialogue.

So avoid tags like "cried," "shouted," "exclaimed," "screamed," "hinted," and so on.

(By the way, this is actually one of Elmore Leonard's 10 rules.)

5. Don't use adverbs to modify ‘said’

Not using adverbs to modify "said" is another of Elmore Leonard's 10 rules, one he called a mortal sin. Don't try to add drama and emotion to your dialogue by sticking an adverb onto your dialogue tags. 

Phrases like “achingly said," “loudly said," “proudly said," and “shyly said," create the same problems as using something other than “said" alone. Plus, you could end up creating something called a Tom Swifty.

Tom Swift was a children's adventure series first published in 1910. The author was noted for frequently using other dialogue tags besides "said" or adding adverbs to the tags. Soon, other authors parodied the style and came up with the Tom Swifties as a joke by using adverbs that created puns.

For example, 

  • "The doctor had to remove my left ventricle," said Tom half-heartedly.
  • "I manufacture tabletops for shops," said Tom counterproductively.
  • "There is an online database with more than 400 Tom Swifties," Tom said searchingly.

If you want to avoid this kind of silliness, don't use adverbs on your dialogue tags and stick with "said" and "asked."

6. Put actions on dialogue lines

Dialogue is really part of an action. If a character enters a room, that's an action. If she says something, that's a different type of action, but it's still an action. So, if a character enters a room and then says something, it's all part of the same action, and it should all go on the same paragraph.

Here's an example from the humor novel, “Mackinac Island Nation.” When I read it, just visualize this as one paragraph.

Simmons stared at Gordon in stone silence. "I'm going to have to call you back, Mom." He stabbed his phone with a finger, the one he could kill you with before you even knew he did it. He was sitting in the room's only easy chair, feet propped up, with a drink in his other hand. "What are you talking about, Holt? What are you doing here, and what are you talking about?"

In this case, we had an action sentence, a dialogue sentence, two more action sentences, and two more dialogue sentences, and they were all in the same paragraph.

While we're on the subject, be sure to create a new paragraph every time a different person speaks or takes a new action.

7. Don’t use a dialogue tag on every sentence

Finally, if you have a long string of dialogue, it's not necessary to use a tag on every character's line. For example, if Squiggly and Aardvark have an exchange that lasts 10 or 12 lines, it's not necessary to put "Aardvark said" or "Squiggly said" after every line.

Instead, you should use tags for the first few lines, and then skip a few lines and drop in another tag. This way, your readers won't lose track of where they are in the dialogue chain.

Good stories rely on tight, realistic-sounding dialogue that doesn't distract readers with its clunkiness or overuse of adverbs and unusual dialogue tags. If you can master these dialogue basics, you'll have sparkling, witty dialogue that conveys much more than narration and action can show alone.

About the Author

Erik Deckers, Writing for Grammar Girl

Erik Deckers is a professional writer and the co-author of four social media books, including "Branding Yourself." He recently published his first humor novel, "Mackinac Island Nation," and celebrated his 25th anniversary as a newspaper humor columnist. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida.