Write Better Dialogue

“Write Better Dialogue!” she shouted, losing her patience.

So, you want to write better dialogue, eh? Well, I’m going to give you a few pointers on how to make your dialogue come to life. Together, we’re going to create a dialogue scene. Our character goes by Anderson and he’s stuck at a filling station in Florida. The year is 1949.

Attributing Dialogue

First off, forget adverbs exist. Do it now. I don’t want to see them in your dialogue tags ever. Not ever stealthily.

Attributing dialogue can be and usually is done with the standard dialogue tag:

“Hey, uh, have any maps?” Anderson said.

This can also be done with a few other words:

“Hey, uh, have any maps?” Anderson asked.

Steer clear of silly thesaurus derived words like: queried, admonished, barked, bellowed, chastised, commanded, complained, confessed, countered, crabbed, cried, demanded, disagreed, exclaimed, etc. It doesn’t make you sound smart. It makes you sound silly. You know why? Because they’re redundant. And all redundancies do is take up space. What’s more is that most editors find this to be a sign of young writing, and it won’t win you points if your story finds itself in the slushpile.

Dialogue tags can also be in the middle of a sentence:

“Sorry son,” the attendant said, “fresh out. Aren’t lost, are ya?”

Or in the front:

Anderson leaned against the hood of his pickup. “This place is all oaks and stray mailboxes. Where are the road signs?”

See what I did there? Not a said word in sight. Having an action instead of the dialogue tag can give the scene context and texture that are absent otherwise. Attributing dialogue in this way takes your characters out of the void and puts them in the world you’ve created, now visible in the mind of the reader.

*And as you’ll see demonstrated farther down, you needn’t attribute every bit of dialogue. Just attribute often enough so your reader knows what’s going on.

And I’ll also quote myself from a previous article with:
“Some writers tag dialogue differently, such as in Fight Club, where the narrator’s speech isn’t always in quotes. Dialogue in Cold Mountain is set off by dashes. And she said: it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce dialogue with a colon. Heck, be creative with it, just make sure your reader knows what’s going on.”

Fragments, Captain

Park yourself in a park or a coffee shop and really listen to how people talk. that’s right, I’m giving you permission to eavesdrop.

One thing you’ll learn is that no one speaks perfect English, not even English professors. Even they use fragments sometimes.

“Wish I wasn’t.” Anderson looked up the road, through the dust kicked up by the coming storm. “My sister’s wedding’s tonight.”

Many people chop off the pronoun I when it comes at the beginning of a sentence.

“Yeah? Where at?” The attendant folded his newspaper, and looked at Anderson over the rims of his glasses. “Ain’t a local, I take it.”

The same can go for the pronoun “you”.

Also, many people do not use proper grammar, but this doesn’t immediately imply they’re uneducated. Many grammatical issues are regionally colloquial, such as “ain’t” or ending a sentence with a preposition.

“Nah, from Philly.” Anderson extended his hand. “Name’s James Anderson.”

Everyone uses conjunctions, from the Queen of England to Barry the Walmart greeter. Use them, befriend them, know them. (Just don’t go apostrophe happy. Be sure your dialogue is readable.)

Character Through Dialogue (or the absence thereof)

This doesn’t mean the attendant would say something like:

“Damn yankee, I’ll give you directions!”

Instead:

The attendant unfolded his paper and returned to reading it. “Not sure I can help ya if it’s much farther south than here.”

“Oh.” Anderson let his hand fall to his side. “It’s in DeBary.” He turned back to his car, but stayed undercover of the station. “She’s marrying some McGinley character.”

Anderson heard a crumple of paper.

“McGinley who?

We can obviously see the attendant’s attitude change twice: once when Anderson says where he’s from, and another when he says the name of the groom. Use this sort of subtlety, especially in combination with actions, to convey character.

Using @#$% Profanity

Many stories call for the use of profanity. Let’s face it, people swear. In this instance I’m going to use:

“Tom McGinley, know him?”

The attendant swore under his breath. “I know him.”

“Yeah?”*

“Bastard’s my son.”

It’s important to know your target audience when it comes to profanity. No f-bombs in children’s books, kiddies. Likewise, rugged cowboys don’t say “Oh, poo.”

Slang ten, bro

So, this part doesn’t particularly fit into our little story, but I think it needs to be covered anyway.

People use slang, whether it’s as simple as different names of things per region or country or as complex as telling someone to stop butt-dialing you, people use it. However, slang can really date a piece. By all means, use it, because it makes the dialogue seem more realistic, but for gosh sakes do your research. For example, I wouldn’t call soda “pop” unless I was making fun of someone. It’s more of a northern colloquialism.

Dapper, square-rigged, sharp, and gussied up all mean pretty much the same thing, but they’re from different eras. When using a historical setting, dating your work is a good thing. Because Victorians don’t say: “Hey, bro, pass the ketsup!”