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How to Write Effective Dialog

Updated on December 6, 2011

“How can you say that?”

This short one line of dialog provides an ideal starting point for learning how to write effective dialog. In conversation, our tone and body language provide listeners with information that helps them understand what our words mean. To write effective dialog, writers need to carry these elements into their writing. Consider the above dialog. When it stands alone, it doesn’t give us much to go on. No tone, no action, and no setting.

Show Don't Tell Even with Dialog

As writers one of our many mantras is to show, not tell. Believe it or not this applies to dialog, too. While dialog is an active way of "showing," we cross into "telling territory" when we tack on speech tags in the form of verbs that explain meaning or tone. For instance if you write, "How can you say that?" she shouted, the word shouted explains the tone. It tells rather than shows how the words are said. Using this type of "speaker attribution" is considered amateurish.

Avoid Telling Verbs to Explain Dialog

Using verbs that tell the reader what to think in your speech tags explains rather than shows. The rule of thumb to follow: Avoid describing emotion the dialog should carry. Instead, let the reader feel it.

Let's consider the example mentioned above: “How can you say that?” she shouted.

One reason writers turn to using verbs that modify the dialog is an effort to avoid the overuse of the word said. However, this is a catch 22, because verbs other than “said” tend to break up the flow of your story. These modifying verbs aren't part of the natural exchange because they stop the flow and tell the reader what to think.

To avoid this, the goal should be to show readers what’s going on. Dialog is part of this and should speak for itself. If you show the emotion, you don't need to explain it. If you do, it is a form of redundancy because you are repeating what the reader already knows.

In an effort to avoid these telling verbs that modify your dialog, be careful not to resort to weaving explanations into your dialog. Explanations added to dialog stick out to the reader. They don't flow like natural conversation and are distracting. Let your readers enjoy the plot without wondering why atypical information has been added. For instance, you wouldn't want Nancy to say, "Don't make me shout at you! How can you say that." That's not the way people talk.

Here are a number of ways to help avoid these pitfalls when writing dialog.

Body Language

One way to avoid verbs that modify dialog is to show action associated with the dialog.

Example:

“How can you say that?” Nancy stomped her foot.

Or

Nancy's fists clenched at her sides. “How can you say that?”

Actions suffuse emotion into the dialog. If you do this, speech tags are often unnecessary as long as it is clear who is speaking. Actions communicate what the reader needs to know within the flow of the story. Using actions limit redundant tags using the word said and also remove the need for descriptive verbs that explain the dialog.

Character Thoughts

How often have you gone to a move based on a book you've read and found it didn't measure up to the book? Aside from the rewriting done by scriptwriters, one reason books are better is that they let us into characters' heads. We know what they are thinking. This is another useful tool writers use to show emotion. Thoughts put the reader into the POV character's shoes. Personal thoughts give the reader limited but personal information that connects them to the story on an emotional level.

Thoughts are usually written in first person and formatted using italics. Quotes are not used to show thoughts, unless you're writing something like fantasy that includes the ability to mind speak. Because thoughts are internal and not spoken, using quotation marks is grammatically incorrect.

Example: Nancy stomped her foot. “How can you say that?” I can't take this! If he doesn’t come tell me the truth, I’m leaving.

The action before the dialog shows Nancy is the speaker. It shows she’s upset. Her thoughts lets us feel her despair. Thoughts are an effective way to "show" but should not be overused. Too much italics is hard to read and editors look at overuse of this technique as weak writing.

How to Handle Three or More Characters

When writing dialog for two characters it's easy to manage who says what. Between two characters speech tags are used for just one of the characters. However, when the scene has three or more characters things get a little trickier. Tags using the word "said" are a necessity. Don't fall to the temptation of using synonyms like “replied” or "explained." They are still considered distracting.

Example:

Nancy stomped her foot. “How can you sat that!?” If he doesn’t come tell me the truth, I’m leaving!

Bob stared at the floor and shook his head.

“Answer me!”

“I don’t have an excuse.”

“Mommy.” Three-year-old Jenny shuffled into the bedroom crying. “Mommy, what’s wrong?”

“It’s okay, Honey,” Nancy said. “Mommy and daddy are just talking.”

“I don’t like it when you shout.”

“Come on Sweetheart, Daddy will tuck you in.” Bob swept his daughter off her feet and cradled her in his arms. “You’re Daddy’s little girl and always will be.” His eyes met Nancy's and a smirk played across his lips.

When writing a scene that includes multiple characters, formatting plays a role in keeping it clear who is speaking. Dialog for each character starts a new line.

Dialog when written effectively let's the story flow naturally. It moves the story along and provides intimate information. Writing effective dialog takes practice, but it is well worth the effort.

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    • Donna Sundblad profile image
      Author

      Donna Sundblad 5 years ago from Georgia

      Glad you enjoyed the hub, KD. Making it a real conversation is the trick.

    • profile image

      KDuBarry03 5 years ago

      Thank you very much for this Hub, Donna! Yes, dialogue is definitely much more than words and tags, it is basically recording a real conversation in words (in which definitely includes body language). Thanks for sharing!

    • Donna Sundblad profile image
      Author

      Donna Sundblad 5 years ago from Georgia

      I can totally relate to what you're saying. The thing I find is that once an author get's to be a best-seller, it seems that the writing quality often goes down. I think it is the push to get the next book out. The stories are often good but the writing quality is less.

      When I was a book editor, authors would often get impatient with the editing process, but I reminded them we needed to keep the reader in mind. They pay for the book and should get the best we have to offer.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      That is really good. I have always been a book critic. I owned and ran book stores for years and I had to keep hidden my dislike for certain authors who were my best sellers but I did not like. Danielle Steele for one; I always felt embarrassed for her she was so obvious, lol. Looking in the mirror at her beautiful self...nothing made me throw a book down faster. You know what I mean? Oh, and I know I wish I had made her bucks, but Lavyrle Spencer is a much better writer in my book. I never feel embarrassed for her, lol.

    • Donna Sundblad profile image
      Author

      Donna Sundblad 5 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks ithabise!

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Good stuff. Very helpful.