Story & Characters · Writing Insight

Writing Insights – The Dirt on Dialogue

There should always be a balance between dialogue and description in any story. Stories that are dialogue-heavy tend to suffer from “talking heads,” which are scenes where characters speak without any clear physical placement. In contrast, stories that are description-heavy cause characters to fall into the background with the focus being more on the “where” of the story and not so much the “who.”

The trick is to have a good balance: Use description to relay information or set the scene and use dialogue to demonstrate character interaction and engagement. Description actually deserves its own post, so this post is just going to focus on dialogue.

Relaying Information
Sharing information that is important to the story occurs as exposition but it must be used with a light hand. A good way to do this is to have one character, over time and in segments, explain things another character doesn’t know. For example, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Albus Dumbledore shares what he knows to Harry regarding Lord Voldemort’s past throughout the course of several chapters, which usually aren’t back-to-back. The in-between chapters are tempered with action or character development scenes so Dumbledore’s information isn’t dumped on Harry (or the reader) all at once.

Ineffective exposition is actually called an info dump. This occurs when too much information is shared all at once. To return to the previous example, an info dump in this case would be akin to Dumbledore telling Harry everything regarding Voldemort’s past all in one, massive chapter. Doing so overwhelms the reader, hence why information needs to be revealed slowly over time.

Likewise, avoid sharing details you learned as part of your research but have no impact on or importance to the story. For instance, in a story about two lovebirds who honeymoon in Alaska, the following would probably be an unnecessary: “Jane and Jack were going to climb Mount Denali, which is the highest mountain in North America and rises 20,320 feet.” Unless such information serves as a vital plot point, leave it out.

Placing Dialogue
Dialogue requires a scene to place it in so readers can see where characters are talking. Likewise, setting can actually influence what characters say.

Let’s say, for example, the adult character Susan says, “I’m scared!” Envision this line of dialogue spoken in…
An abandoned house
A tropical rainforest
A dark street behind a seedy bar
A stuck elevator
A chapel where she’s walking down the aisle
A hospital bed
A courtroom
A classroom full of rowdy preschoolers

As you can imagine, the emotional impact differs in each of these settings. So keep in mind your physical settings and surroundings and let them come into play with characters’ dialogue. What might be appropriate to say in one setting may not be fitting in another.

Likewise, dialogue cannot simply “hang” in a sentence. It needs to be associated with the character speaking it so readers know who is talking. Dialogue tags eliminate this confusion when more than one character talks in any given scene. (We’ll get more into dialogue tags in a moment.)

As a rule, when a character speaks for the first time in a scene, indicate who is talking. The same holds true for the second character speaking and so on. Once a dialogue trail has been established, it isn’t necessary to tag the dialogue UNLESS portions of description fall in between so the reader remembers who is speaking to whom.

Types of Dialogue Tags
The tags you use depend on how the person is talking. Common dialogue tags include said, asked, repliedanswered, told, spoke, remarked, retorted,  and explained. It’s okay if these words get repeated since they become “blind” to readers’ eyes, especially said, asked, and replied, which are the most commonly-used tags. Just be mindful exactly how to use given tags since they’re not created equal. So as a rule…

Said is a catch-all tag and applies to most situations.
Example: “I plan to go to the picnic today,” Sally said.

Asked is used when a character makes an interrogatory statement.
Example: “Will you come with me?” Sally asked.

Replied and answered are used in response to a question.
Example: “Sure! I’d love to come,” Charlie replied (or) Charlie answered.

Told is a generalized term but is often used when a character is relating information.
Example: “The Smiths bought a house that was built in 1958,” Dan told Erica.

Spoke is also a generalized term but is often used to emphasize when a character speaks, such as to break a moment of silence.
Example: At last, Erica spoke. “I don’t want to spend the night in such an old home!”

Remarked is another generalized term but is typically used in casual situations. It can also be used when a character asks a question as well.
Example: “What’s the matter?” Don remarked, smirking. “You’re scared?”

Retorted is used when a character is speaking saucily or is irritated.
Example: “Yes, I’m scared!” Erica retorted. “I’ve heard that house is haunted.”

Explained is used when a character relates information to another character.
Example: “We can’t walk to the park. It’s too far away,” Sally explained. “We’ll have to ride our bikes.”

Dialogue sample
Let’s test your knowledge and see if you can spot what’s wrong with the following dialogue exchange:

“What’s new with you?”
“Well, Polly’s taken up piano lessons.”
“Really? I thought she was tone deaf.”
“She is, but that still won’t stop her.”
“How much is this setting you back?”
“For her to master ‘Chopsticks’? That cost her fifty bucks.”

As you can immediately tell, this series of dialogue is not placed in any particular environment nor does it have tags to indicate who is speaking. The overall tone here is clearly sarcastic but it’s essentially “talking heads.”

Let’s rewrite this scene with a setting, characters, and dialogue tags:

Frank and Ted occupied a miniscule booth in the smoky café. Fred curled his hands around his coffee mug, trying to warm his fingers from the dismal chill outside.

“What’s new with you?” Frank asked.

Ted smirked after swallowing a bite of sandwich.

“Well, Polly’s taken up piano lessons.”

“Really? I thought she was tone deaf.”

“She is,” Ted replied. “But that still won’t stop her.”

“How much is this setting you back?” Frank asked.

“For her to master ‘Chopsticks’?” Ted replied. “That cost her fifty bucks.”

This is much better! We can see where the characters are, know who they are, and who is talking and when.

In the end, dialogue can be easy master, particularly when it comes to its technical aspects. Once you can achieve that, you can work on crafting uniquely voiced characters and putting them in compelling worlds.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Insights – The Dirt on Dialogue

  1. Thanks, interesting article. I agree that dialogue is important but can be over- or under-used. Tags are important, but again can be over-used. I like to use them as little as possible – only as much as needed to tell and remind the reader who’s talking. Personally, I think in the example you give, at least one in the latter part of the dialogue is probably unnecessary – but I guess that’s a matter of opinion. In dialogue involving more than two characters, they probably need to be used more.

    Another thing re tags – what do you think of ‘unusual’, non-speech tags? By that I mean things like: ‘I love you,’ he breathed; ‘No you don’t,’ she laughed, ‘How do you know?’ he sighed. Some people say using tags like this is poor style. Personally I think using unusual tags is OK in moderation, but I’ve read some things that way over use them. As you say, readers can be largely blind to the common ones, especially ‘said’, but less so to others and so they can be distracting. And often redundant – like ‘Bad luck,’ he commiserated – the ‘commiserated’ is unnecessary because it’s surely obviously from what the character says that he’s commiserating.

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    1. I do think using “unusual” tags is okay in moderation. A personal rule I follow is that if the reader absolutely must envision the character speaking a line of dialogue in a very particular way, I’ll employ a more unorthodox tag. But in most cases, emotional intent is fairly implied. One area where new writers struggle is in telling the reader how dialogue should be spoken, much like a screenwriter indicating in a script how an actor should deliver his or her lines. Some tags are just too obvious to use. For example, “I’m so sleepy!” he yawned might work in a story for younger readers, but in a work for adults the fact the character actually says he’s tired, at least in my mind, is good enough. The “yawned” tag isn’t really needed. Of course, every writer will have a different stance on this. But I think the general rule is to call more attention to what is being said and who is saying it as opposed to how it’s spoken in your mind while you’re writing (if that makes sense). 🙂

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