Mastering the mechanics of dialogue
It’s harder than it looks to write dialogue that sounds natural. Writers can't just transcribe speech, with all its ums and ahs, false starts, unfinished thoughts, clichés, and often banal and boring sentiments. If you have a good grasp of dialogue mechanics, you'll be better equipped to avoid these pitfalls and write dialogue that reveals character, conveys feeling, and moves the story along. For tips and tricks on dialogue mechanics, read on.
Dialogue mechanics are a set of conventions that writers have developed over the decades to make realistic-sounding dialogue easier to write. Some of the “tricks” I’m sharing with you are from Renni Browne and Dave King’s chapter on dialogue mechanics in their excellent book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. These tips are just as relevant for writers of creative nonfiction.
For speaker attributions, use the verb “said.” A speaker attribution is the character's name or a pronoun, and a verb. The verb “said” is preferred because it’s invisible; it doesn’t draw attention to itself. There is no need to add variety by substituting verbs like “responded,” “replied,” “inquired,” “answered,” or “offered.” Save your creativity for elements of narrative that really matter. Said is also more accurate than speaker attributions like “he snapped,” “she growled,” “he grimaced,” or “she snorted,” because it’s not possible to snap or snort a sentence.
The order is "David said" (think "he said") not "said David" (“said he” sounds as if the speaker hails from Victorian England).
Use speaker attributions only when necessary. If there are only two speakers, and it is clear who is speaking, the attribution is not needed.
Start a new paragraph for each new speaker.
Don’t begin a paragraph with the speaker attribution, because doing so draws attention to the mechanics. Place the speaker attribution at a natural pause, or at the end. (“Grandma called,” Sandra said. “She had a bad fall.”)
Use a comma to join the speaker attribution to the line of dialogue.
The occasional comma splice in dialogue is okay, as this “error” replicates the rhythms of speech. For example, “The show was sold out, I got the last two tickets.” A comma splice occurs when a comma is used to join two complete sentences. A comma, in standard written English, is considered too “weak” to perform that function.
Use a dash to show interrupted speech, and ellipses (three dots) for a sentence that trails off.
Avoid adding -ly adverbs to speaker attributions (“We lost the game,” he said glumly. "No way," she said sympathetically.) As Stephen King famously writes in his book On Writing, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Instead, try to convey the tone through the line of dialogue itself.
Don’t be tempted to prop up your dialogue with descriptions of emotion. ("We won the lottery!" he said in astonishment.) As Browne and King put it, RUE – resist the urge to explain. Let the dialogue speak for itself.
Instead of a speaker attribution, use the occasional beat. A beat is a physical action or gesture that reveals character and emotion, or helps readers to visualize the scene. A beat can also be a short passage of inner thought. Beats are like pauses that make the dialogue more leisurely. So if you want to increase the tension, “pare the beats down to a bare minimum” (Browne and King 149). Beats are also very useful in signalling a change in the character’s emotion.
Don’t turn dialogue into exposition in disguise; that is, avoid using dialogue to convey information to readers that the characters will already know. Put the necessary background information in the narrative, rather than in the dialogue.
Use contractions to mimic real speech. People say “I’ll see you later,” not “I will see you later" (although the absence of contractions can convey tone and character).
These dialogue tricks are not the end goal in writing; they are merely “tools of the trade.” As you master the craft, these techniques will become automatic, and you’ll be able to concentrate on what really matters—telling your true story. Do you have any dialogue tricks or tips you'd like to add?