Sunday, August 21, 2011

Writing Advice 10 — Dialog

Dialog is one of the big three tools a novelist uses to tell a story, the other two being description and reflection. Given that this is one of the three pillars, this will be a longer than normal post, and I will still be hard-pressed to cover everything.

Some folks find dialog easy to write, others have trouble. What that usually means is that a writer is having difficulty making the conversation sound real, but honestly that is advanced level dialog, and this is still a basics class. So we are going to be going over the basics, because it is surprising how often new writers don’t know them.

Dialog is when a character speaks. While this seems obvious, there are two kinds: External and Internal. External is the one most people think of. It is when a character opens their mouths and speaks. Before I get into the nuances, let’s go over the basic structure because I’ve found a lot of writers don’t know how to physically construct dialog on a page. This is something I’m often baffled by because it is demonstrated in just about every novel.

Dialog consists of two parts, the communication and the tag. The tag is the comment that designates who did the speaking like: Bill said.

Dialog starts with a (“) and ends with a (”) Okay so most people know that much, but what comes next they appear to have a huge problem with: Every time a new character begins to speak you create a new paragraph.

“I said no!” Bobby shouted.
“I don’t care!” Jane shouted back.


“I said no!” Bobby shouted. “I don’t care!” Jane shouted back.

I realize that there are some successful books that don’t follow this rule. The Road by Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use punctuation either. It is my opinion that both practices are wrong. (And if you’ve read my post on Grammar Nazis, you know that I think everything concerning the “rules” of writing and English, are opinions of someone. It doesn’t mean I’m right, and it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.) I considered these practices wrong because these techniques impede the clarity of the message, and as an author, anything that makes something harder for a reader to read, I’m against.

Even in the very simple case above, a lazy reader might think Bobby was the one who shouted “I don’t care.” But the problem becomes far more devastating as the writing grows more complex such as using action tags in place of dialog tags.

“I said no!” Bobby opened the door. “I don’t care!” Jane had had enough.

In this case you really have no idea who said what. Bobby could have said both lines, or neither. Look at how the meaning changes when broken differently.

“I said no!” Bobby opened the door.
“I don’t care!” Jane had had enough.

“I said no!” Bobby opened the door. “I don’t care!”
Jane had had enough.

“I said no!”
Bobby opened the door.
“I don’t care!” Jane had had enough.

Paragraph breaking in dialog is a huge tool in helping the reader understand what is going on.

Let’s take a  closer look at tags.  

He said, is a dialog tag. It is properly written: “I love you,” he said. Note the comma and the lower case H on he.

He laughed, is an action tag. Rather than directly stating the obvious, an action tag describes what immediately follows the dialog and so long as it is in the same paragraph, it indicates by association, who just spoke. “I know, I know.” Bobby laughed. Note the period at the end of the know and the capital H on he.  He laughed is a commonly misdiagnosed tag. New writers frequently think it is a dialog tag and write: “I know, I know,” he laughed. Only people can’t laugh words. And while you can spit, you can’t spit and talk at the same time. You can hiss words, but only if they end in an S. You can reply, joke, comment, explain, mumble, whisper, shout, and yell, but you can’t choke, laugh, smile, frown, or sigh a line of text. The difference is designated by the use of the period, verses the comma at the end of the speech.

Now while tags are necessary to know who is speaking, good writing limits the number of tags. Reading something like this is annoying:

“Who was that?” Bobby asked.
“Who was who?” Jane replied.
“At the door just now.” Bobby said. “Who was it?”
“Oh, that?” Jane said. “Nobody.”
“Really?” Bobby asked.

Not only is it annoying it is also unnecessary. It could just as easily have been written:

“Who was that?” Bobby asked.
“Who was who?” Jane replied.
“At the door just now. Who was it?”
“Oh, that? Nobody.”

Using only two tags in five lines of speech, how can a reader know who’s speaking? By using the new-paragraph-per-new-speaker technique. Can this be done if there are more than two people in the scene? Yes, so long as only two people are doing the talking. The reader assumes that the person speaking is the person who had spoken the last line of opposition. There is a limit however, because after about five lines readers tend to forget who’s who. So to remind them you need to drop in an indicator, either in the dialog itself, or an action tag, or a dialog tag.

“Who was that?” Bobby asked.
“Who was who?” Jane replied.
“At the door just now. Who was it?”
“Oh, that? Nobody.”
Jane’s heart was racing. “Just forget about it, okay?”

Instead of using the action tag: “Jane’s heart was racing,” You could also designate the speaker via the dialog by writing:

“Are you jealous because he’s a man and you’re afraid I might run off with him?”

Now assuming Jane has been established as a heterosexual female, this line of dialog can replace the need for a tag because the reader knows Bobby wouldn’t say this.

Eliminating tags makes for a cleaner read, but sometimes when dealing with three or more characters all talking, you can only get so far with alternating lines, and using action tags can interrupt the flow of a conversation and kill a rising tension, or slow an exciting moment. Then it is best to just drop in a dialog tag to keep things understandable. When this happens, using said, replied, and asked, are your best bets. Anything flashier tends to stick out in a bad way and will stop the reader. I do tend to throw in an explained or commented from time to time just because I’ve used the others already and don’t want to repeat the same words in close proximity, but keeping tags as simple as possible is important. And try never to use an adverb as part of a dialog tag. 

“I don’t like you,” she said furiously.

Adverbs like this are just another form of Telling. This line is telling the reader that the speaker is upset. But the same can be shown by just improving the dialog to:

“I hate you!”

This doesn’t need an adverb to explain how the speaker feels.

Another aspect of dialog that people frequently get confused about are the uses of em dashes and ellipses. Em Dashes are used to indicate an abrupt pause in dialog while ellipses indicate a trailing off.

“You know what you are? I’ll tell you what you are! You’re so—so…oh I don’t know what, but you are!”

Here the em dash indicates that brief pause created by a stutter in speech, whereas the ellipse indicates that a character is taking a few seconds to think, to trail off in thought. Em dashs at the end of a sentence indicate a person has either been interrupted or has self-edited, while an ellipse shows they just never bothered to finish their thought

“I think—”
“We don’t care what you think!”

“I think…”
“Well? What do you think?”

All this is done without having to say:

“I think—” he was interrupted.
“We don’t care what you think!”

“I think…” he trailed off.
“Well? What do you think?”

These tags are redundant.

Now getting back to the Internal dialog, this is when a character uses direct thought—usually indicated by italics and a shift to First Person, if writing in Third. If you’re already in First then everything is in direct thought already so no italic is needed.

He walked to the door and closed it. Why do I keep putting myself through this?

In this way the writer jumps directly into the character’s head and we hear his thoughts written as dialog. This is not contained in quotes so it needs italics to set it off as different from the rest of the story.

Usually it is considered bad grammar to use contractions outside of dialog as contraction’s only purpose is to mimic speech patterns. Therefore it is improper usage to write:

Bobby came home that night and made himself dinner because he didn’t think anyone else would.

The word didn’t in this sentence should not be contracted because no one is speaking it.

The only other time contractions can be properly used outside of spoken dialog is in direct thought. Since direct thought is an internal dialog, the character is actually speaking to themselves in their head, and when people do this, they use contractions. So the line can be written:

Bobby came home that night and thought,  I’ll have to make myself dinner because no one’s gonna make it for me.

Now if a book is written in first person, the whole thing is direct thought, so contractions are used all over the place. Once again, this is one of those rule-things, and in art, rules are there to be broken, and novel writing is as much art as it is craft. Zadie Smith is one of those writers who breaks most of the rules. She writes in third person with a shifting PoV and a prose style that is very conversational—as such she feels the need to use contractions to form the tone of her style. This is her Voice (something I will talk about later.) But again, rather than trying to sprint for the gold in the Olympics one ought to start by getting the hang of crawling first. So you might want to master playing by the rules before breaking them, because the rules were invented for a purpose—they make it easier for the reader to understand what it is you are trying to tell them.

There is also indirect thought, which is what happens in Third Person Close. This is sort of a false internal dialog:

This was not just some fight—not a fight at all. She planned this. That whole thing about her parents cornering her for a surprise talk about college was a lie. She was the one who plotted the ambush, a clever bushwhack at a friendly pizzeria where she could walk out when it got uncomfortable. He wondered if her parents were even involved. The whole story might have been an excuse.

This isn’t direct thought, it is simply the narrator describing up close and personal what is going on in the character’s head without actually becoming that character. The result is reflective thought that is heavily colored by what could be an unreliable narrator, or at least one who is only presenting a narrow viewpoint at that moment. So it isn’t really dialog and shouldn’t be handled as such. 

Now that we’ve covered the mechanics let’s look at another common problem with dialog. This is another of those diseases that stem from Telling rather than Showing. The problem arises when a writer wants to give information to the reader and to avoid exposition in narrative, they think they can get away with it if they disguise it as dialog.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“Oh it’s Barbara. You know, my friend that I’ve known since high school, who lives next door and is always over here? The one with the dark hair and emerald green eyes, who is more attractive than I am so that I am always jealous of her whenever you look her way?”

“Oh, yeah. What about her?”

I am over emphasizing, but you get the idea. The problem can also be as simple as having one character speak to another using their name. This is a cheating way to avoid tagging the dialog and is a form of Telling that should be avoided.

“I don’t know, Bob, this isn’t coming out so good.”
“You know what, Jane, I think you’re right.”

No one speaks this way except slick sales people who were taught in sales school that if you repeat someone’s name to them, they subconsciously think you are friendlier.

When you think about it even the, he said, tag is outright Telling, but it is a more accepted form of Telling, but also the reason dialog tags should be avoided when possible.

I was recently re-reading an old manuscript of mine and noticed how often my dialog was being used to tell the story rather than present what the characters would actually say. Two scientists would meet to discuss theories that they both already knew, with lines like: “As you know professor Bill…” which is absurd, because if he knew why would you reminded him of what he knows. So it is important to restrict dialog to only what a person would actually say in a given situation. Even something as simple as: “Bill, look out for that falling rock!” is wrong. No one would say all that. Rather, they would just say: “Look out!”

Another problem to avoid is to realize that inside quotes you can do anything. There are no rules of grammar or spelling. Inside quotes anything goes. This is because inside quotes, thanks to Mark Twain, we are now free to mimic how people actually speak, rather than how they should speak. So not only can you use contractions, you should. And you should rarely allow characters to speak in complete sentences, because few people ever do.

If you want to learn how people really talk, try going to a coffee shop with a laptop. Sit down and type exactly what you overhear from neighboring tables. You’ll get a lot of: “Ah…and—ah. You know?” These are probably the most used words in the English language. While this is accurate to real speech, as a writer you don’t really want to write this because it is just as irritating to read as it is to listen to. So as a writer writing dialog you want to present the concept of realism, without actually writing the way people actually talk. This is done with broken sentences: “I can’t—I don’t know—I just can’t come out and just say it like that. Damn. Okay maybe.” Most of the sentences in the dialog above are grammatically incomplete, and yet they present the haphazard sense of genuine dialog.

Dialog also can be a huge tool in characterization. How a person speaks will indicate who is speaking even before the reader reaches a tag. The obvious way is to use slang, or phonetic dialects: “Ya’ll gunna, be thar?” The problem with this is that it makes the reader have to stop and decipher the language, and as I’ve said, I hate anything that makes reading harder for the reader. You can do the same sort of thing without the phonetics and just dropping words. Instead of “Is everyone going to be there?” you can still write, “Everyone gonna come?” and it doesn’t stop you like the phonetics, but still gives that same change in tone.

One of the tricks I used in the Riyria Revelations was to utilize contractions in speech with the lower classes and rarely use it with the nobility—particularly when they were speaking publically or trying to intimidate someone. Not using contractions in speech causes the dialog to sound stiff and formal—just the way I wanted my nobility to sound. The lower the class, the lower the education level, the more contractions and dropped words.

Then of course there are just favorite words or phrases. Saldur always uses the phrase “my dear” when speaking to women. Captain Seward had a propensity to curse deities with phrases like: “Good god!”, and “Good Maribor!” as he was a bombastic character. Some use large vocabularies, and others very small ones. Some swear, others never do. In this way you can Show characterization rather than Telling it to the reader. You don’t have to write that a character is sophisticated and refined, just have them speak that way. After a while you will notice that each of your characters have specific dialog idiosyncrasies that are part of their their make up. Edith Mon never used the word “your.” Mince constantly uses the phrase, “By Mar!”

Dialog is an extremely powerful tool, and one of the best because it speeds up the pace, and if done correctly, can solve all kinds of problems with characterization, and description, without resorting to Telling.

Next week I’ll touch on the second primary tool of writing—Description, which will pretty much conclude the Basics of Writing. That’s the bell, and remember, no running in the halls.


  1. "Only people can’t laugh words."

    You have no idea how much work you have just created for us. None! lol

    And while I love my ellipses, I hate dashes. There's (oof, contraction) another pile of editing work right there.

    I see the mistakes that you point out in many, many books. The post is very much appreciated. The fixes that require additional work, however...



  2. Great post and reminders to those of us who have taken the dialog basics for granted. I actually appreciated the detail surrounding dialog tags, punctuation, and paragraph breaks. Knowing why these conventions exists is just as useful as knowing how to apply them.


  3. Ha! I just noticed that I made a mistake of assumption. The following presupposes that Bobby is not gay, a bad assumption.

    “Are you jealous because he’s a man and you’re afraid I might run off with him?”

    Now assuming Jane has been established as a heterosexual female, this line of dialog can replace the need for a tag because the reader knows Bobby wouldn’t say this.

  4. I'm months late to the party, I know. I dropped in because I am just getting started with my career in writing/self-publishing and I have been reading over the writing articles (back to front, you know, because that makes sense) and I felt compelled to comment on this one.

    Where you note that utilizing contractions in thoughts is bad, I personally believe it's a style choice. When I think to myself I am using contractions. I truly believe that when readers read a book they are most concerned with "can I tell this is a thought bubble," and not "did he just say didn't?"

    I actually just finished a book by an author who prefers to not format his ebooks heavily to save file size. I've explained my take on the matter (file size is worth almost nothing when compared to clean, readable text) to him and pointed out that he really should use italics for his characters' thoughts. He actually said I was the first person to mention anything in years since the book's release. Funny stuff, huh? *shrug*

    In any case I am enjoying reading the series. I've picked up one or two new ideas. Your thoughts on when and how much to edit were very helpful, actually, as I'd been seeking a balance for myself.

    So thanks a ton for writing these articles. Much of the content has been stuff I already knew about, but it's always *very* nice to hear someone who has had some success agree with a premise I've been operating under!

    Notice my liberal used of contractions, this being an informal comment to a blog and all. ;)

    -Harper (of

  5. Unknown,

    Thanks for posting, it's always nice to know people read these.

    I can see your reading in reverse order has caused you some unnecessary confusion, but more importantly, you've confused me with your statement: "you note that utilizing contractions in thoughts is bad..."

    I think if you re-read, you'll see I said that the two places where contractions can "properly" be used is in dialog AND thoughts. As in where I wrote above: "The only other time contractions can be properly used outside of spoken dialog is in direct thought. Since direct thought is an internal dialog, the character is actually speaking to themselves in their head, and when people do this, they use contractions." And this is just English, not me. It wasn't until I worked with editors that I discovered this rule.

    However, if you read these posts in order, you would have (and may still discover) that I prefaced all these posts with the warning that all rules in writing, as in any art form, can be broken for effect or style, but if you are just learning, it is best to stick with the rules until you master them. For even in the case of contractions, taking the time to write a sentence without them causes extra effort to be applied. This almost always makes the text better.

    I have often written a sentence and thought, wow, that sounds stiff without a contraction. After a little study and rewriting, I've uncovered the fact that the sentence was bloated, and didn't even need the offending words, contracted or not. These are the kinds of things that force you to be a better writer.

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