Advice for Setting Up Meaningful Story Dialogue
by Deborah Owen
Dialogue tags are the short insertions that identify the speakers in a written conversation. Without them, the reader would be lost.
Dialogue tags are quick signposts that keep the reader on the right path. When you change paths to another speaker, it is not always necessary to place a tag. Sometimes you can use characters’ speech patterns and the natural flow of conversation to identify a change in speakers.
Modern style dictates that all dialogue tags identify the speaker first, and then the action. In other words you should write, “Jason said” rather than “said Jason”. If you are selling your work, little things like this show you are up on the latest writing trends.
Don’t use tags such as, “Jack said mysteriously,” or “Crystal said wryly.” Avoid the use of adverbs that end in –ly. Stick to the same ole, same ole, mundane, “Jack said.” The reader’s subconscious mind will pass over this without realizing they have read it.
Readers expect to see tags. They flow with the story and don’t distract from the action.
When you introduce conversations into your stories, narration and exposition will become dialogue. And with that change will come an exchange of emotion, pace, conflict, and the actions of the characters as they progress through the theme.
Challenge yourself to give life and energy to speech. If you want to know what natural dialogue sounds like, quit talking and listen. Eavesdropping will become your best friend. Eavesdrop everywhere you go. Restaurant talk is fabulous. That is conversation at its best!
Can you hear what your character would say in your mind? If you can’t, you don’t know them well enough. Make a list of 50 things about your character, and you will know him/her inside out. When you can hear them speaking in your mind and can view them as real people, it will be easier to hear their normal conversation.
Always address the following questions:
- Does the dialogue reflect the speech of real people?
- Does it bring the reader into the emotion of the scene?
- Does it flow naturally?
The most common failing of authors is to write meaningless, or too much dialogue. The reader’s mind requires frequent rests to absorb the action and for that reason, you need to break the dialogue into groups and sprinkle short scenes of settings throughout. You can do this with just about anything.
Avoid conversations that are one or two-liners, like this:
“How are you?” Jane asked.
“I’m doing good,” Jack said.
“So, what’s new?”
This kind of conversation is boring and has no purpose. Dialogue should provide backstory, add to the character, reveal a clue, further the plot, or introduce new material. If your dialogue is there just to make conversation, edit it into something useful.
What is your favorite way to use dialogue? Let us know in the comments below!
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