As an interning journalist, I’m learning a lot about the news-writing process. Interestingly, I’ve found that some of the tricks my editors have taught me can be carried over into the world of fiction writing as well. After all, a news article is a story, too. One of the most important components of an article is the quotes and dialogue from interviewees, and dialogue is an important aspect of fiction as well. Before I get into the 6 tips for today, let’s make sure we understand the purpose and importance of dialogue.
What’s the big deal with dialogue?
Dialogue can make or break a story. Flowing, unique dialogue makes ordinary characters memorable; quick-witted dialogue bits brighten any plot. At the most basic level, dialogue serves 3 purposes:
- To reveal character,
- To advance plot,
- And to show your writing voice.
As you write dialogue, keep in mind this holy trinity of purposes. Often, you’ll find that your dialogue is unnecessary and slowing the story down. So how do you craft dialogue that accomplishes all 3 tasks?
1. Write high-impact dialogue only.
This was my first mistake as a journalist. I embedded every half-decent quote from my interview, even if the interviewee was stating the obvious. As a fiction writer, it’s your job to cut to the chase. The fluff of salutations (“hi, how are you”) is often unnecessary and boring. When characters meet each other, they should immediately discuss things important to the plot and their characterization. Readers will snooze if exposed to too much low-impact dialogue. Getting back to my failures (oops), avoid stating the obvious. A fairy queen living in a garden palace spending a paragraph describing her love of flowers? Unnecessary. A tough mobster chick asserting her toughness? Show, don’t tell. Dialogue should only reveal what action can’t portray.
2. Use relevant action to improve dialogue.
“I think Fido wants to go for a walk,” Mary said, pouring herself a glass of coffee.
“I think Fido wants to go for a walk,” Mary said with a laugh.
The second example accomplishes much more than the first – and in fewer words. While the first example tells us little to nothing about Mary’s character, besides the fact that she likes coffee, the second example demonstrates that she’s good-natured and cheerful. Use action to break up dialogue, but be sure it’s the right action: does it accentuate the dialogue? Does it add to the characterization? Does it move the plot?
3. Don’t be scared of “said.”
Writing is not a contest to see who can find the most synonyms for “said.” Lately, that little dialogue tag has become something of a pariah in the writing world: a divisive topic that editors have strong opinions about. But writers are readers, too, and as readers, we don’t get tripped up examining dialogue tags. If we’re engrossed in a piece of fiction, too many prosaic dialogue tags – varying synonyms of “said” – can interrupt the flow of writing. So don’t be afraid to use “said”! Readers are comfortable with it, and they’re also comfortable with omitting dialogue tags. Not every quote has to be attributed to its speaker, as readers will be able to understand flowing dialogue.
4. Break up infodumps.
When relating information in a news article, it’s easy to quote an expert in block form. However, no one wants to read a paragraph-long quote. It’s the same with fiction. When a character rushes breathlessly back into the fortress with news about a battle, don’t put them on a soap box and have them describe an entire plot point in one quotation. When characters need to exchange information, break up the dialogue with action. Maybe when they get on their soap box, the enemies suddenly invade – or the court jester interrupts by mocking them. Always be wary of dumping information on your reader, especially in dialogue. Dialogue should be brief; avoid monologues. Instead, disrupt monologues with action that picks up the story’s pace and advances the plot.
5. Learn correct punctuation.
Nothing kills a story faster than bad punctuation. Misplaced commas, multiple speakers within a paragraph, and incorrect capitalization make readers close your book. It’s absolutely mandatory to learn punctuation rules. Readers don’t have time to trip through chaotically-punctuated dialogue. Take some time to review the basics, and always, always proofread dialogue before submitting to anyone.
What other dialogue tips have you learned? Share in the comments below!