A Dozen Tips on Writing Dialogue
Over the years as a book editor, I’ve seen dialogue punctuated incorrectly,
dialects overused, stilted speech, fiction in which every character speaks the same way; the list goes on. To avoid these pitfalls, here are pointers on writing dialogue like the pros. Nothing makes your prose “sing” like natural-sounding dialogue.
Read your dialogue aloud.
When something sounds unrealistic or stilted, you’ll hear it when you read it out loud.
Avoid overusing adverbs in your tags. (Show rather than tell.)
No: “I absolutely adore this necklace,” she said excitedly.
Yes: “I adore this necklace!” she said, grabbing it and twirling around the store.
Tags aren't always needed. (He said, she said.)
“He’s coming tomorrow, Jim,” Tammy said.
“Are you going to pick him up?”
“Of course. I always do.”
Use contractions often.
People today use a lot of contractions when they speak (unless they’re old-fashioned and quite formal). Note that in the following sentences, three contractions are used:
“I’m sure of it. I’ve had enough experience to believe they’ll give in.”
“Mother, all my friends get to stay out till—”
“Allison, I’m not discussing this now!”
People use faltering speech.
“I loved him . . . I really . . . I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel now.”
Not everyone sounds alike.
Make sure that your characters don’t all speak in the same way. A young teenager will
likely use slang. A grandmother may sound formal. An uneducated person may make grammar errors. Some people have speech habits (like saying “you know?” at the end of their declarative
Don't get too cute with dialects. Also, avoid overusing them.
Speech written using heavy dialects is hard to read. Just weave in a few things to give the idea of the character’s dialect. And make sure to stick with the same speech traits. If the person says "ain't" on page two, he'd better not say "isn't" on page ten.
Author Robert Morgan’s novels set in Appalachia are great models for authors who want to “pepper in” just the right amount of dialect. In Gap Creek, his best-selling Oprah pick, he gives the “flavor” of his mountain characters’ speech patterns, but he doesn’t overdo it.
Don't use italics for thoughts.
Use quotes or no quotes, but be consistent. Chicago Manual of Style says that either is fine. I prefer no quotes because it differentiates thoughts from dialogue.
I'll never get this right, Ann thought. I’m such a klutz.
A case where you don't need quotes for something said: When she asked her father, he said no.
Don’t overuse alternatives to he said/she said.
You can never overuse the simple tags “he said” or “she asked.” The reader doesn’t even notice them. It’s intrusive when writers try to be clever by constantly using alternatives like exclaimed, announced, pronounced, interjected, etc. Of course, it’s fine to say “he shouted” or “she snapped” to convey the speaker’s emotion.
Try this exercise for fun:
Go to a public place and eavesdrop on others’ conversations (a coffee shop, restaurant, bar, nail salon . . .). Listen to how they speak more than to what they’re saying. Notice how people often interrupt each other, how sometimes one speaker dominates the conversation, how a person might start to say something but trail off. Take notes if you can do so subtly. Or just pay attention and make mental notes of speech patterns you overhear. I tried this in the library when I was writing a fictional story about a librarian and it really helped give a voice to my character!