Writing clear dialog isn’t hard to do, but many new writers—and some old ones—make simple mistakes. Here are a few things to watch out for.
- Never hide the identity of a speaker. Many new writers will start a story like this:
“Don’t leave me. I couldn’t bear it.”
Now, it might be a perfectly good hook for a story, but I’ve read dialog where the protagonist isn’t named for a dozen pages, even though she’s engaged in a conversation. She’s referred to by “She.” One problem that arises is that if there is another “she” in the room, we soon get confused as to which she is she.
The writer may feel that by withholding such vital information, he or she is creating added stress in the story. They hope that the reader will be sitting on the edge of their seat, biting their nails, as they wait to discover who is talking. Do you see how lame that is?
This is what I call “false tension.” Sure, withholding information can add tension to the story, but only by cheating the reader, by hiding information the reader needs for enjoyment.
If you want real tension, put a likeable character into a dire conflict.
Recently a friend spoke with one bestselling writer who had a rule. He said, “Once you name your protagonist, never repeat that name in the chapter.” This is a foolish rule. I don’t care if the advice did come from a bestselling thriller writer. Names are pretty much invisible and they’re necessary to keep our dialog straight, if nothing else. Coincidentally, I’d tried to read a couple of this author’s novels and had thrown them aside after a few pages. Now I understand why I found him unreadable.
So, let us know who is speaking. Use real names frequently. You don’t have to worry about overusing them, unless you’re using the name in every single sentence.
- If you have more than three people in a conversation, it’s easy to confuse your readers about who is speaking. You probably need to signal who the speaker is by name with just about every line of dialog.
Let’s say that you have two men and two women eating dinner. If Karla says, “I want to go home now.” You can’t then just write “she said,” because with two women at the table, we don’t know which she you’re referring to. Nor can you avoid dialog tags altogether. To avoid confusion, you almost have to tag the bit of dialog with some version of “Karla said.”
- There are three places to give dialog tags. You can put them in the front of the dialog, in the middle, or at the end.
Try not to place the tags in the same place in every single line of dialog. I’ve seen writers who habitually tag their dialog at the front of a line or at the end of a line for page after page, and it can be boring.
This is double troublesome with end tags. If you have a long line of dialog and end it with “Derrick argued,” you’ve got a couple of problems. The first is that the reader may have been thinking that Roger was speaking, so now the reader has to reinterpret the dialog. Oh, “Derrick” said that. That’s interesting?
By doing this, you’ve disrupted the natural flow of the story. You’ve pulled the reader out.
Even worse, if you put dialog tags on the end of every line, you’re probably habitually giving late attributions, so that you’re doing this for page after page.
- Given that you have to tell the reader who is speaking, try to signal who the speaker is early in your dialog. I have a general rule: If my reader doesn’t know who is speaking within six words, then my attribution is coming too late.
Examples of ways to tag dialog
Front tags. Suppose that Karla wants to leave the dinner party. We could simply tag her words:
Karla said, “I want to go home now.”
Or you can use some action without a dialog tag, but put it in the same paragraph, like this:
Karla slowly rose from her seat, folded her dinner napkin, and placed it over her plate of glazed salmon. “I want to go home now.”
Just remember to keep the action with the dialog, in the same paragraph, and it will be clear to the reader who is speaking.
You can also put the attribution in the middle of the dialog. Notice how to punctuate the dialog if you do this.
“I want to go home,” Karla said, “Now!”
In the above example, “I want to go home,” is treated as a complete sentence, and “Now!” is treated as another sentence.
We can even do it without using “said” by giving description.
“I want to go home.” Karla rose from her seat, slung her heavy purse over her shoulder, and glared down at Rob, who hunched in his chair as if caught in a bad dream. “Now!”
It’s perfectly all right with short utterances to put your attribution on the end.
“I want to go home now,” Karla said.
“I want to go home now.” Karla rose from the table, dabbed her napkin at the corner of her eyes, folded it and quietly laid it over the glazed salmon as Rob wordlessly stared in surprise.
But notice what happens when we have a long utterance. Let’s say Karla is sitting talking with Rob, Joy, and Devon. Devon has been talking about how his mother passed away suddenly the week before and he feels guilty because he hadn’t spoken to her for six months. His situation mirrors Karla’s.
“I want to go home now. I feel so scared all of a sudden. I know this is weird, walking out in the middle of a party like this, but I need to go home. Right. Now!” Karla said.
Do you see how in this case, that little attribution comes far too late? We could be reading it in Rob’s Texas drawl, or imagine that Joy has been speaking in her own high-pitched simpering voice, and now all of the sudden, Karla, who never says anything, suddenly decides to walk out in the middle of a dinner party, without dessert? That’s unheard of!
- When possible, use the character’s voice to signal who is speaking. Let’s say that Karla is a polite woman from the South. She calls her husband Sweet Pea twice earlier in the conversation. We can give an attribution by simply having her say, “Sweet Pea, I want to go home now.”
There are a lot of ways to weave your attribution into your dialog. For example, bestseller John Green will often have well-known characters talk without description, just giving a name before the dialog. He might say,
John: Feeling okay?
Sara: The meds are making me sick.
This works fine if you just have two established characters.
What you can’t do is refuse to let your reader know who is speaking entirely. If you do, you run the risk that your reader will walk out on you!