Writing

Writing Dialogue in Fiction – Everything You Need to Know

This post was suggested by Melanie Rachel on Facebook. Thanks so much!


Gosh, it’s been a while since my last full post, huh? I just couldn’t come up with any good material. So I did the best thing any blogger can do: I consulted Facebook. And it delivered!

(Okay, so that’s definitely not my standard solution to writer’s block. Though I was inspired by Facebook comments to write this post, and possibly even some upcoming, my typical cure is to simply write it out. So, in short: yes, social media can cure writer’s block. But it won’t always be there, so learning how to cure it on your own is much healthier and more efficient; especially if you’re trying to develop writing habits. All right, my random italicized rant is over.)

So here is a post so simple I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner: everything you need to know to write dialogue in fiction. Because, believe it or not, it’s different from real-life dialogue!

Let’s hop to it, shall we?

Writing Dialogue in Fiction

Do we want our dialogue to look believable? Of course. There’s nothing quite like reading a line of dialogue so stiff and fake that we can hardly imagine anyone actually saying it. But despite what some will tell you: you need to maintain a balance between realistic dialogue and fictitious dialogue.

Here’s what I mean:

Real-world dialogue is a mess. Seriously! Just listen to some conversations amongst your family, in the Publix checkout, with your best friend on the phone. We stutter, trail off, and forget words; we mess up punch lines and say things that are completely irrelevant to conversation; bilingual people fail to remember words or entire phrases even in their native language.

Yeah, part of that can be put into fiction – some real-world dialogue mess-ups can be used in characterization. But in most cases, using any of that is irrelevant.

Sure, go ahead and make a character unable to tell his joke properly because he’s laughing too hard. But only if it’s in his character, and please use it sparingly.

Filler words like “so,” “okay,” “hey,” “oh,” clog up the dialogue and make it boring to read, so use these with caution. Additionally, don’t overuse names: in real-world dialogue, names are rarely brought up. See what I meant by balancing realistic and fictitious dialogue?

Examples:

Original: “Okay . . . I d-don’t get it,” sputtered Nick. “Sarah, please help me understand.”

Fixed: “I don’t understand,” said Nick after a pause.

So what should your dialogue look like? It should be natural and easy to read, it should fit the character’s personality, and it should be relevant.

  • Natural – You don’t want your dialogue to seem forced. He shouldn’t say, “Your brother, Liam, is outside”; he should say “Liam’s outside,” or “Your brother is outside.” Dialogue is not a tool for dumping information.
  • Easy to read – Dialogue, in most genres, should be quick. Snippy, I suppose. Yes, of course it’s all right to have characters who ramble: those are the best! Just don’t let them all do it, or your dialogue becomes unbearable.
  • Fit the character’s personality – Your characters shouldn’t all sound the same. Look at it this way: your grandma doesn’t talk the same way as your teenage neighbor from New York. To really make your dialogue pop, give each character his or her own unique phrases and manner of speaking.
  • Relevant – Dialogue should do at least one of these two things:
    1. Reveal or develop something about the character
    2. Advance the plot
    If it does neither of these, it probably is not worth keeping. But sometimes it’s hard to tell, right? So just look at your scene without that dialogue. Does it still work? Are all the elements of the scene still there? That may be a surefire sign that you can cut it.

What about all the other dialogue stuff that I haven’t mentioned? What about accents and the whole “said is not dead” issue? Oh, it has its place! I’ve put all of that into 4 basic tips, just for organization’s sake. . . .

1: Dialogue tags

“Said is dead!” the Internet says, shoving infographics in your face. “Don’t use ‘said’! Use these verbs instead! They’re better!”

Everyone has a different opinion on the whole “said is dead” thing. Here’s my two cents’ worth: “said” is better. (I wrote an article about it last year!) If you can use “said” in place of whatever other verb you wanted, and it still looks good, it’s a sign of good writing.

Basically, your dialogue should speak for itself (does that count as a pun?). You shouldn’t need extra verbs to get the point across.

Example: go back to the first line of this point. Did you notice that I wrote “the Internet says,” rather than “chants” or “cries”? But you still understood how it was said based on the italics and punctuation of the dialogue. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Now, I’m not saying you should totally remove verbs like “muttered,” “whispered,” “growled,” and “shouted” from your vocabulary. They have their place. But, in my absolute opinion: said is not only a sign of good writing, it’s much easier to read. Those other words trip up the reader!

You could attach words to it, like “he said hopelessly” or “she said with certainty.” Simplicity is key.

2: Writin’ accents

Technically, everyone has an accent. It’s based on where you’re from and with whom you grew up; both of which you should keep in mind when giving your character accents.

It’s also important to be mindful of stereotypes. I live in the south, but most of my friends here don’t have southern accents at all – even I don’t have an overly southern ring, and I’ve lived in Tennessee all my life. But if I see a book in which someone is stereotyping an accent from the south, I will be mad.

Same goes for other places all over the world. So please, do your research before writing an accent you’ve never actually heard.

In addition: don’t overuse the apostrophe. A character might drop letters off their words, but over-punctuation makes it confusing and difficult to read. I’ve actually closed books and put them back on the shelf because there were characters with overly-emphasized accents and I couldn’t follow along.

Example:

NO: “Heya Shirley, what’s cookin’? You goin’ to the sto’? Cool, me too! I’ll see ya’ there, righ’?”

SURE: “Heya Shirley, what’s cooking? You going to the store? Cool, me too! I’ll see ya there, right?”

The character’s word choice should tell you their accent; not the words they abbreviate. Sometimes I will let my characters drop Gs, but only on occasion. I think it’s implied other times, based on her word choice.

Also take Kathryn Stockett’s The Help for example. The characters are quite southern, and their accents show it; but to avoid clogging the dialogue with apostrophes, Stockett make the daring grammar-choice to drop them entirely:

“By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley following me around everwhere I go. Five o’clock would come round and she’d be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren’t never coming back. Miss Leefolt, she’d narrow up her eyes at me like I done something wrong, unhitch that crying baby off my foot. I reckon that’s the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns.”

– The Help, by Kathrin Stockett.

3. Action and dialogue

“Say, Tommy?” Luke said. “What ever happened to Helga?”

“Can’t say,” said Tommy. “Not allowed. Top-secret, you know how it is.”

“No, I really don’t,” said Luke.

“Gosh,” said Tommy irritably. “I can’t talk about it, okay? Just drop it.”

“Fine,” Luke snapped.

What’s wrong with this conversation? Read over it again. Did you catch it?

It’s all dialogue! You have no sense of where they are or what they’re doing. For all we know, Luke and Tommy could have been tied to a bomb.

Additionally, there are clearly only two characters in this conversation. So I didn’t need to use dialogue tags (e.g. “he said”) in every single line. In fact, if you have enough activity, you don’t need the tags at all!

Here’s how I would have written it better:

“Say, Tommy?” Luke leaned over the table to speak in low tones. “What ever happened to Helga?”

Tommy stirred his Coke with a straw until the ice clinked against the glass. “Can’t say. Not allowed.” He rested his chin on his other hand. “Top-secret, you know how it is.”

“No,” said Luke, “I really don’t.”

Tommy puffed, but didn’t meet Luke’s gaze. “Gosh,” he said shortly. “I can’t talk about it, okay? Just drop it.”

“Fine.”

See how much better that looks? How much smoother it flows?

Don’t be afraid of mixing dialogue and action; in fact, please do! It makes your writing clearer and more intriguing, giving you room to include your character’s mannerisms while they talk. It’s so simple, yet so effective.

I’ve found that, in writing an emotional scene: less is always more. If two characters are in a heated argument, use as little words around the dialogue as possible (but still be sure your reader understands what’s happening). And if your main character is in the middle of an emotional breakdown, she isn’t going to think or talk about all these completely irrelevant things. Just keep it simple and to the point, favoring the emotion of the scene over all.

4: Censored

I’m going to be plain here: don’t make it a habit of using inappropriate words in your dialogue, even if it’s in your character’s personality.

Now, I don’t write with “bad words.” So I’m speaking from the perspective of a reader: I don’t want to read a ton of swear words throughout the book. If you really want, maybe put one swear into the book – that wouldn’t bother me, as a reader. Plus it would pack extra punch, if you’re going for that.

Of course, I may not be your ideal reader. That’s cool. I’m just speaking my view on the matter. 🙂


To sum up this article in a few words – 70, to be exact:

  • We need to maintain a balance between realistic and fictitious dialogue.
  • Our dialogue should fit the character, flow naturally, be easy to read, and be relevant to either the character or the storyline.
  • Said is most decidedly not dead, and is actually a sign of good writing.
  • Research accents before writing them.
  • Mix dialogue and action for a clearer and more interesting prose.
  • Use swear words as sparingly as possible.

Phew, we made it to the end! Hopefully this has inspired you to write some dialogue today; I’m inspired, and I’m the author. 😉

About yesterday’s post – I’ve started a new series called Wordless Wednesday. (Please don’t credit me for the title – a lot of bloggers do it, so I didn’t come up with the idea!) Every Wednesday – or every other Wednesday, as I am forgetful – I’ll post nothing but a photo with a title. Fun, right?

Yesterday’s photo is one that’s about to celebrate its six month anniversary, in which I’m marveling at my freshly-printed manuscript for The Girl Who Frosts the Cakes. Stay tuned for the next Wordless Wednesday photo, and future posts to come! Hopefully my blogger’s block is coming to an end. All that’s left to cure is my plain ol’ writer’s block. . . .

2 thoughts on “Writing Dialogue in Fiction – Everything You Need to Know

  1. Hey, Sam! This is a good post. I completely agree with you with the swearing. It’s so frustrating when people use bad words instead of just saying something like, he swore, or cursed. It’s hard to want to read the rest of the book when you know something else might pop up. I hope you find the answer to the end of your bloggers block because I’ve missed your posts! Can’t wait for another one!

    1. Yes, I totally agree. I’d much prefer that an author writes “he swore”/”he cursed”; if the author used a few swears in the first chapter, but never again throughout the rest of the book, how would I know to keep reading? So, yes, I absolutely get what you’re saying. 😉 Thanks for commenting!

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