How to write dialogue that doesn’t drag

Writing convincing dialogue is one of the trickiest things to do as a writer. This is known. Figuring out how to write dialogue that conveys your meaning and propels the action of your work is hard, but not impossible. From using the right dialogue tags to accurately depicting emotions and dialects, this article will help you navigate the crucial conversations within your writing.

Dialogue that doesn’t drag

Listen, we’ve all been party to boring conversations. We know they happen! But do you really want to bring that level of real life to your book? While an intentionally mundane conversation can serve a purpose, those accidental meanderings are more likely to remind the reader they have something better to do than read your work. So how do you make sure you’re not falling into this literary trap?

  1. Is the scene necessary? Sometimes we want to explain things to the reader. Really lay it out for them. The easiest way to do that is to control both sides of the conversation, right? Well . . . not always. While I’m not necessarily one to say you should “show, not tell” (that’s a whole nother conversation about narrative style and cultural lens), consider carefully if what you’re depicting is best served in the conversation you created. Can you break it up, use the setting or scenery to help the idea along, turn it into action, or perhaps let the lack of dialogue speak for itself?
  2. Who does the majority of the speaking? Often we have one main character (MC) and it’s important they have the lion’s share of talking points. But if they’re prone to monologuing, that might be a good indication that you’re lacking significant challenges or foils to this character. In other words, you’re creating a predictable and potentially boring MC. Your reader will come to understand that nothing important happens in the story unless it happens to or is processed by the MC. Unless you’re purposely making this a theme for your book, now’s the time to address what your dialogue is telling you about the state of characters in your work.
  3. Should I use my inside voice? We’re focusing mostly on external dialogue, but internal dialogue has a big role to play in some stories as well. Here, you can get away with fewer dialogue tags and operate as your own devil’s advocate with more freedom. However, paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition-as-inner-monologue isn’t going to win you lots of reader friends . . . unless maybe you have some Dostoyevsky-esque themes in play. Done purposefully, a bit of internal musings go a long way to creating tension or showing conflict.

The necessity of accuracy in dialogue

If you’ve done your research, you might already have an idea of your audience. If your goal is to reach a wide or international audience, you need to be aware of the different perspectives your book will be seen from. There is no better time than the present to think about how your work will be viewed and the way you’re representing the characters within it than now, through dialogue. You may even want to consider getting an accuracy reader to help you with authenticity in dialect, pronunciation, and idioms—particularly if you’re speaking outside of your culture or experience.

Keep in mind that you know your life best. You know how the people in your life speak, what the culture is like at your home or work, and you know the turns of phrases your community uses most frequently. If you’re writing anything outside of your best-known paths, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss some nuance.

Take a step back and remember that an author is meant to be an authority on their subject. Are you an authority on yours? Consider the following questions:

  • Have you done research on the dialect you’re employing? Is that dialect best imitated in the dialogue or explained in the surrounding text via accent or other descriptors?
  • Do you have any anachronisms in your text (do the words you’re using match the era you’re writing in)?
  • Is your character knowledgeable about their cultural background and do they use appropriate idioms, cliches, parables, and other references readers who share that background would recognize?
  • Are you reflecting any speech impediments accurately and faithfully, whether chronic or temporary?
  • Do each of your characters have their own voice and identity, or are you writing the same person over and over again?

Which dialogue tags should you use?

There’s a lot more to dialogue tags than the age-old “he said, she said” routine. Said is an awesome and useful dialogue tag, but writers—especially new authors—have an aversion to using this ‘boring’ convention. Would it shock you to know that most readers skip right past the dialogue tag “said” when engaged in the text? That they’re more likely to be pulled out of your narrative by the awkward phrasing caused by the linguistic gymnastics you’re forced to do to avoid saying said when there isn’t much else to add to the conversation?

Dialogue tags are useful for helping clue a reader into the feel of a scene. When the dialogue stands for itself, you want those intrusions to be as small or unnoticed as possible. Using the right words plays into this, as does using the words readers are least likely to notice. But if you have a couple of characters arguing and they’re all just “saying” stuff to each other, you’re not likely reflecting the mood of the scene. True! Enter the whole slew of other dialogue tags that exist, such as shout, cry, yell, wheeze, tease, cajole, intimate, etc.

When setting up your dialogue, you’re homing in on the mood of the scene, the intention of the speaker(s) and their emotional state, and the perception of the reader. You know the backstory; the reader doesn’t. Everything the reader needs to know should happen in that scene, from cueing the feelings you want to evoke or invoke to sharing pertinent information. Choosing the right dialogue tag is important, and remember you can vary up not just the words you’re using but when you use them. This will also keep your dialogue feeling fresh as readers don’t get hung up on the pattern of tags.

Ultimately, working on your dialogue tag game is going to improve your storytelling abilities. Keep notes on appealing dialogue as you read other authors or go back to your favourite stories and review the conversations that most spoke to you. Count how many “saids” if you want! Did you notice them when you read the book the first time? And, conversely, when you stumble across poorly-executed dialogue, take note of that too! What pulled you out of the story?

Was that really an action beat?

Not every dialogue tag is strictly about dialogue. Some are action beats—but not all action beats are dialogue tags! And that differentiation is important. So what is an action beat? An action beat is when a writer uses a verb like “nodded” to show the action of the individual. These get misappropriated to dialogue at times, such as the construction: Looking out the window, Juliette grimaced, “Great, thanks,” before she took her medication.

You can’t really “grimace” a spoken answer. Sure you can grimace while you answer, but the act of grimacing isn’t a vocalization. If your mouth and throat can’t make the sound and the words happen at the same time, you likely have an action beat and not a dialogue tag. There’s nothing wrong with using carefully crafted action beats to help break up your dialogue, as long as they make sense. Try it out loud when you’re reviewing your work. Could you make the sounds convincingly and naturally? Or do you find you’re separating your sigh from your response?

You can usually skip the awkward phrasing by introducing a period, thereby separating action beats and dialogue, or by reworking slightly and inserting an inocuous “said.” To keep with the example above, it could be something like this: Looking out the window, Juilette grimaced and said, “Great, thanks,” before taking her medication.

As an editor, the only action beats I’ll let slide for dialogue tags are things like “laughed” or potentially “sighed” and “gasped.” I have certainly laughed while speaking (and not always comprehensibly!) or groan-sighed into a talking point. But use these sparingly. If your character is constantly sighing out their responses, they’re going to sound like someone from a Jane Austen novel—and you can decide if that’s a compliment or not to your writing.

Have a favourite dialogue tip you don’t see in this article? Share it below!

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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