Dialogue can be a powerful tool: it can provide indirect characterization, create tension, develop a plot point, or serve a variety of different functions in your writing. Dialogue can bring your characters to life for your reader. The way that they interact with other characters, major or minor, reveals how they see themselves, other characters, and the world around them.
Dialogue can be a powerful tool. If done well, it can do all of these things I mentioned. If done poorly, it can slow down the pace of your story or, worse, jolt your reader out of your story entirely. There are a few points that I’d like to share, some that I’ve noticed as a reader and some that I’ve learned from others.
First, a word about realism: you should know your characters well enough to know their level of vocabulary and background. An uneducated character, for example, would be less likely to use “reciprocate” when talking to another character. I say “less likely,” because there could be an excellent reason that your character would do so. Perhaps your character is self-educated and learned more complex words from reading books and keeping a dictionary handy. This is completely fine. Whatever that reason is, make sure that your reader knows this reason already or that you explain it shortly thereafter. Otherwise, as a reader, I won’t believe your assertion that your character is uneducated, and then I’m unlikely to believe other things about your characters. [As a side note, this is something that can be addressed in your rewrite stage. I don’t want you to be paralyzed by deciding whether or not your character would use a given word. Don’t agonize over whether or not your character would use “reciprocate” in everyday language. Calm down. Use the word, mark it or highlight it, and come back to it when you are more certain.]
On the topic of dialogue tags, be careful with the frequency that you replace the word “said” with a word such as “announced” or “uttered.” No doubt many of us had English teachers who drilled into us the idea that there should be as few repeated words as possible. As a result, many of us notice the number of times that we use “said” in dialogue sequences and feel that we’re committing some grave error. The fact is that “said” is the best word you can use. As Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz says in this guest post on dialogue with Writer’s Digest: “…the word said is just like a punctuation mark—it doesn’t even register in the readers’ minds (unless used incorrectly, and it would be hard to do that).” Words such as “announced” or “uttered” tend to draw attention to themselves. As a writer, you want the reader to be immersed in your story, and using a word other than “said” can cause the reader’s mind to jump, ever so slightly, out of the story. Your word choice should move your reader from sentence to sentence with little interruption.
Your dialogue, in addition, should convey the speaker’s mood and tone through word choice without over-burdening your dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are the words that identify the speaker, such as “he/she said.” As Monica Wood says in her book Description, “Avoid adding single adverbs to dialogue tags (‘he said, angrily’; ‘she said, sadly’); the state of mind should be implied in the dialogue itself or in the ensuing action. You shouldn’t have to explain the meaning of a line by adding crossly/avidly/sadly/happily.” Choose your words with care and let your reader fill in the rest with their imagination. One of the joys of reading is picturing the scenes in one’s mind without the writer forcing an interpretation on the words of his characters.
In light of these thoughts on dialogue, let’s do a dialogue exercise!
Write a scene of dialogue between two characters using “said” only sparingly and no other dialogue tags. If you need an idea, write a scene in which an employee is giving two weeks’ notice to his boss, who is also his/her father.
If you ready for an additional challenge, write a scene of dialogue between two characters without using any dialogue tags at all. Give each character a distinctive voice so that it is easy to tell which character is speaking. If you need an idea, imagine that a third grader is explaining to his teacher that he/she didn’t turn in his/her homework because the dog ate it—but the child is in fact telling the truth.
If you feel brave, put your dialogue in the comments below! We’d love to see it.