Here’s something the Muses don’t know about me: Ten years ago, I got my first lesson in writing dialogue from a friend in high school. She wasn’t a writer, but she seemed to know more about the whole tagging business than I did. I never could get the commas in the right places or use the right tags, and she’d return my manuscripts covered in red ink. If I ever had a “first” editor, she was it. But she was essential. She got me to ask an important question: How should I write dialogue?
Finding the answer wasn’t easy. I got it wrong again and again and again. I probably still get it wrong. I went through a lot of stages, a lot of trial and error. But in the intermittent years, I’ve learned how to avoid some of the common mistakes I see when I’m editing. Below I’ve amassed some tips to consider when writing your own dialogue.
Know the difference between an action and a dialogue tag
Dialogue tags show who is speaking. That is really the only reason to use them. Secondarily, they can show how the spoken dialogue is expressed (said, asked, whispered), but their primary function is to provide clarity.
Dialogue tags are most commonly separated from the quoted speech with a comma.
“I love you,” he said.
Action tags show an action done by a character (smiled, huffed, yawned, shrugged). They do not influence the words spoken by the character. To remember this, ask yourself, can a character smile his words? Can he yawn them? (The answer is no.) But action tags have their uses. They can provide beats between quoted speech to vary the rhythm and also show who is speaking.
Action tags are separated from quoted speech with a period.
She smiled. “I love you.”
Use “said” and “ask” and forget the rest
Several years ago, I went through a stage where I was determined to use every word in the English language as a tag. You know . . . for variety. My characters were “acquiescing” and “acceding” and “concurring” and “soliciting” and “inquiring.” Let’s just say I was making the most out of Shift + F7.
But dialogue tags aren’t supposed to call attention to themselves. The strength of your dialogue should be in the quoted speech, not in the tag. If the reader notices it, you’ve thrown them out of the story, and we all know that’s bad bad bad.
I’m not saying you can’t use a different tag if the situation calls for it, but it’s worth noting that in the majority of cases, the tags “said” and “ask” will suffice.
Kill the adverbs
We’ve all probably written or read a novel where the characters are yelling angrily or murmuring helplessly or . . . you get my point.
To be honest, I love adverbs in moderation. In the right place, they can add entire dimensions to a text, but if they’re a part of your tag, you’ve got a problem. Why? Because adverbs in dialogue or action tags have a tendency to be a) redundant and b) telling.
For instance, a reader will know a character is angry if they are yelling at someone. Ideally, a reader should get a sense of the character’s anger from the actual dialogue itself (always aim for this!), which would render even the “yelling” part a distraction.
Your prose should show me what the adverb is telling me. Rich dialogue should illustrate the thoughts, the feelings, or the state of mind of a character. The best dialogue tag is simple. Rely instead on the strength of your voice.
As always, thanks for taking the time to share these insights with us. I really appreciate this one. I don’t write dialog often, but when I do, I struggle with this.
Dialog is tough. It’s hard to find just the right words to convey what we’re trying to get our characters to express. I’m always learning. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
“Your prose should show me what the adverb is telling me. Rich dialogue should illustrate the thoughts, the feelings, or the state of mind of a character. The best dialogue tag is simple. Rely instead on the strength of your voice.”
A wonderful distillation of how to approach dialogue (and can I add that I like the crisp, punchy prose in which you delivered that advice?). I’d love to hear your thoughts sometime on what makes the language between the ” ” effective.
Excellent advice – harder to put into practice than I care to admit, but then ‘practice’ should be my key, eh?
Thanks for teaching me something new, Michelle! #HUGSSS
Learned something new today! Thank you!
A strong piece and good advice, it serves me well. Thank you.
Will you also share your expertise on expressing character’s thoughts? I find that letting the narrator tell them can be weak and that quoting and tagging them can be confusing. What am I overlooking?
A Hui Hou (until next time),
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