The following is an initial handout on the basics of dialogue structure created by Assistant Director Emily Lackey for her Dialogue Intensive workshop being held on April 20th. Join her in the Writers in Progress studio from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. to learn more about writing effective dialogue, including tips of how to create distinct characters through dialogue, how to determine when dialogue is really necessary, and how to infuse your dialogue with tension and subtext. Register today!
What is dialogue?
- Dialogue is not just about the words on the page. Dialogue signals the story moving in ‘real time.’ While narrative often slips into the past or future, dialogue signals that we are moving through the scene as the characters are. Because of this, dialogue can be both a relief to the reader and an important opportunity for revelation.
What does “good” dialogue do right?
- Good dialogue develops naturally. It is a distilled down to the essentials, not transcribed word for word, and includes nonverbal information, like the way the characters’ bodies are moving and gesturing. Dialogue should also reveal characters—their secrets, mannerism, emotions, and motivations—and move the plot forward by creating tension, putting the characters in a specific time, and moving them forward in the scene. Good dialogue includes interruptions, but is not bogged down by them, and, most importantly, is something that you can hear. When push comes to shove, read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it sound like something someone would say?
What does “bad” dialogue do wrong?
- Ineffective dialogue tends to do too much. Often times “bad” dialogue is a result of the writer worrying too much that the reader will misread the dialogue. Writers who insert emphasis with italics or micromanage the reading experience to make sure the reader is really getting it tend to lose the reader in the process. Trust the reader. When dialogue is not distilled down into essential speech, when it is too verbose or verbatim, or when there are too many meaningless stutters and starts, it feels unskilled, mainly because it reveals a writer who does not trust in their own ability to reach the reader.
Dialogue Writing Basics:
- When it comes to writing dialogue, each new line of dialogue from a new character should start on a new line. Also, all punctuation should go inside the end quotation mark, and a comma should be used instead of a period before a dialogue tag.
- Example (from This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff):
After a week or so I announced at dinner that I had decided not to go to Paris.
“The hell you aren’t,” Dwight said. “You’re going.”
“He gets to choose,” Pearl said, on my side for once. “Doesn’t he, Rosemary?”
My mother nodded. “That was the deal.”
What about dialogue tags?
- Dialogue tags should be used to convey who is speaking. Rarely should they convey emotion, movement, or the way a line of dialogue is delivered.
- Example of good dialogue tags (from Life After Life by Kate Atkinson):
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Glover asked as she came back inside. Ursula jumped, Mrs. Glover could move as quietly as a cat.
“Nothing,” Ursula said. “Looking to see if Bridget was coming yet.”
“Heavens,” Mrs. Glover said, “she’ll be back on the last train, not for hours yet. Now shift yourself, it’s long past your bedroom.”
- Example of overdone dialogue tags (from Tomcat in Love by Tim O’Brien):
“Irrelevant,” I said testily. “I have just handed you a surefire conviction. Take advantage of it.”
“Yes, sir,” the man said, “but if we could interview you—“
“Certainly not,” I snapped. “I am not a stool pigeon.
- Dialogue tags are not necessary for every line of dialogue, especially if there is a long stretch of dialogue between characters. Once the characters in the conversation have been established, it is okay to leave dialogue tags off. Coming back every three to four lines of dialogue with a tag will help to ground the reader a bit, but always read through the dialogue carefully to see where they’re necessary. Imagine your reader reading the scene for the first time to see if any dropped tags cause confusion.
- Types of dialogue tags: There are three different types of dialogue tags, and creating scenes with a variety of these can help to make your dialogue seem less predictable and list-like.
- Trailing tag: The dialogue tag comes after the dialogue.
- example: “This time, don’t be late to dinner,” he said.
- Leading tag: The dialogue tag comes before the dialogue.
- example: He said, “This time, don’t be late to dinner.”
- Inverted tag: The dialogue tag comes in the middle of the dialogue.
- example: “This time,” he said, “don’t be late to dinner.”
- Pro tip: Use inverted dialogue tags to create time and space in a scene instead of unnecessary physical descriptions. For example:
- Instead of: “Don’t you want a glass of water?” She paused. “I could get you one from the fridge.”
- Try: “Don’t you want a glass of water?” she asked. “I could get you one from the fridge.”
- Pro tip: You can also use inverted tags to help break up longer stretches of dialogue. This will make it feel less like a monologue and also give the reader a bit of a break.
- Trailing tag: The dialogue tag comes after the dialogue.
What is direct dialogue vs. indirect dialogue?
- Direct dialogue is dialogue that is spoken by the character.
- example: “I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said.
- Indirect dialogue is speech that is summarized or paraphrased by another character.
- example: She promised she would come back tomorrow, or, She promised me she would come back tomorrow.
- Pro tip: if you feel as though your scene is too dialogue-heavy, switching to indirect dialogue is a simple way to avoid making your dialogue appear too verbatim. It can also help to speed up a scene if too much information is being conveyed via dialogue.
What about dialect?
- Dialect is a touchy subject these days, so I’ll leave it up to the experts to explain why dialect can be problematic:
“The ambition to represent authentic kinds of speech on the page is a fascinating artistic project, but can lead to banality, unintelligibility, and even, arguably, a degree of condescension if taken too far, leading to stereotypical representations of character based simply on whether or not they drop their h’s. The character becomes defined by their ‘non-standard’ voice (of course, it needs to be emphasized that the very notion of a ‘standard’ language can be contentious), rather than by their deeper ipseity (or, if you like, ‘true self’). Another important, and complex, issue arising from this might be phrased as follows: there is a distancing effect which is created by the use of non-standard, deviant forms of language. By their very nature, these deviant forms imply a norm, a binary opposite, which is standard English, and/or the author’s own standard language. This implication of difference can also (too often) imply superiority, even chauvinism. Furthermore, it could be argued that highly deviant forms of spelling detract from the reader’s experience by drawing undue attention to themselves.”
-Jeremy Scott, Creating Writing and Stylistics
- There are certainly ways that you can incorporate different rhythms, cadences, and inflections into dialogue and narrative voice, but it’s something that should be done with a great degree of caution and awareness. If you would like more information on how to do this, I would recommend Jeremy Scott’s book quoted above.
What about everything else?
- These are only the basics, so there is a lot here that is still not covered, but a few last minute points:
- Em dashes should be used inside the end quotation mark to signal the speaker being interrupted.
- Ellipses should be used inside the end quotation mark to signal the speaker trailing off.
- Pro tip: Use interruptions and trailing off sparingly. These two things, along with italics, are the biggest indications of a micromanaging writer