Dialogue is one of the most important aspects of your book to get right. Not only does it need to be realistic, but it also has the responsibility of advancing your plot and shaping your characters. With that in mind, here are a few don’ts to remember when crafting your dialogue.
Don’t Forget the Proper Punctuation
Dialogue needs to go within quote marks, and if your dialogue is followed by “said” (or “whispered”, “hissed” etc.) punctuate it with a comma. If it’s followed by an action (“moved”, “stood”, “closed the door”), use a full stop:
“Let’s just go,” she said.
“Let’s just go.” She rose from her seat.
Don’t Let It Turn Into a Monologue
Outside of specifically listening to someone giving a speech, when was the last time you had a conversation that was just totally one-sided? When people talk in real life, they get disrupted, either by something or by someone. Very rarely do you get the chance to talk on and on and on.
If your dialogue needs to get a lot of points across, consider how you can work it into the narrative instead, or turn it into a realistic back and forth conversation between characters. After all, it might be fun for the villain to reveal the genius of his plan in a well-rehearsed, page-long speech, but it’s much more fun for the hero—and reader—when that dialogue gets argued with or is cut short by action.
Don’t Forget to Read It Out Loud
Reading your dialogue out loud will give you the chance to assess if it sounds natural, where any pauses might need to be, and if it’s too wordy or awkward sounding. If it doesn’t sound like a conversation you’d overhear at a cafe, consider reworking, and if you know the best way to look as if you’re not listening to public conversations—when in fact you totally are—let me know. I’m asking for a friend.
Don’t Make It Too Natural
Just as you don’t want to make dialogue too formal, you also don’t want it to be too natural. By too natural I mean a conversation that is full of “Umms” and “Ahhs”. That might be as realistic as the speaker going off topic or forgetting what they were saying, but that doesn’t mean you have to write about it. Dialogue that is too true to life is frustrating to read. Hesitation and fumbles have their place when you’re giving the impression of a bumbling or lying character, but simply peppering every word that comes out of a character’s mouth as a stumble is laying it on too thick.
Don’t Dismiss Simple Tags
While it’s more exciting to write “she exclaimed” than “she said”, or “he gasped” instead of “he said”, cramming in as many different dialogue tags as you can is more amateurish than artistic. There’s nothing wrong with using the tried and true “said” to make it clear who is speaking, or “whispered”, “muttered”, “asked”, “replied” or “answered” on occasion. Using a different dialogue tag every chance you get, though, creates less impact than if you were to use one really great tag at the perfect point.
Don’t Drop Dialogue Tags All Together
On the other hand, if you’ve decided that instead of using “said”, you’ll just go without dialogue tags—you might want to rethink it. Trying to follow a conversation where there are no dialogue tags is annoying and can be confusing for the reader. Keep it to a minimum if you must, but make sure to have a tag in there somewhere, especially if the conversation is between more than two characters, it’s a long conversation, or there’s a lot of action happening in the scene.
Don’t Forget the Interaction
Not between characters, as this should be happening through the dialogue, but interaction with the world around them. If your characters are failing to acknowledge where they are or what they’re doing then you’re making it harder for your reader to picture what’s going on. Take the following examples…
Dialogue without setting interaction:
“The reservation was for eight,” Julia said.
“I had to make a stop,” Jack replied.
Without knowing the setting, this dialogue comes across as an angry Julia and a thoughtless Jack. Are they at a restaurant? Are they at home? Are they in the car coming home? Who knows?! Now for the same dialogue with a setting added…
Dialogue with setting interaction:
“The reservation was for eight,” Julia said, shifting in the cushioned chair as he slipped into the seat across from her.
“I had to make a stop,” Jack replied, putting the red box down on the wooden table and being careful not to disturb the expertly placed ribbon strapped on top.
Now we can clearly establish that they are in a restaurant, Jack is late, and that he comes across as sympathetic and not full of excuses when he places his wrapped gift down on the table. Setting interaction with your dialogue—it makes a difference.
Don’t Skimp On Making it Unique
Once your reader knows your characters, they should be able to tell who is speaking simply by looking at the dialogue. You achieve this by making the dialogue unique to each character. That doesn’t mean giving everyone a different accent (unless your plot calls for it) but rather something more subtle, such as a specific character always greeting others with a “Hey.” Or another being the only one in the story to use the word “Awesome.” Giving each character a dialogue quirk specific to them will go a long way to making sure that none of your characters sound the same.
If you have any of your own dialogue don’ts, be sure to leave them in the comments.
— K.M. Allan