If you’ve ever been tasked to write dialogue, you’ll likely stumble at first. But once you know the rules, your dialogue will excite and rouse readers. If you’re a student, I can’t stress enough how writing frees the soul. Writing can cause you to self-publish, position yourself as an expert, and make some extra cash.
And, mostly, writing can unveil the story burning inside of you. You’ve journeyed this far in life. It’s time you faced it: your contribution to the bigger reality is much more significant than you could imagine. Your story is a universe unto itself, precious and meaningful. How generous of you to let us peek inside.
Here are simple tricks to hasten your journey into dialogue writing:
Questions make tension, which makes your story sizzle. Author Rayne Hall says, “Questions rouse the reader’s interest, so simply turn some statements into questions …. ‘I’m looking for my wallet.’ ‘Have you seen my wallet?’ ‘You haven’t gone to church for a long time.’ ‘When was the last time you went to church?’” (3%). Notice the tension when framed as a question?
You can also “build tension by withholding answers” (5%), or have your characters Ping-Pong questions, neither character answering one another (Hall, Rayne).
Peter: What’s for dinner? Tomato slop, I mean soup—again?
Jane: You spent the night with Tammy?
Peter: Did you pick up my dry cleaning—the suit I dropped off not one, but two weeks ago?
Jane: You like trash?
Peter: Did you hang over John’s cubicle today? Ooh, John is heading for VP.
And so on.
Why do questions outshine statements? They make you second-guess. And, in stories, questions lay out a promise of an answer.
Say it with a short sentence. According to Rayne Hall, “The shorter the sentences, the more ‘real’ they feel to the reader. Simply take any dialogue sentence that’s longer than twelve words and split it into two or more short ones, perhaps shaving off unneeded words at the same time” (12%).
A shorter, leaner sentence is simple to create:
Before: “I’m okay with the criticism from my tutor as I know he’s seen hundreds of papers. I’ll learn from it quickly and move on just like ambitious people do.
After: “I’m okay with the criticisms from my tutor. I’ll learn from it quickly and move on.”
Find the spirit in shortened and shaven sentences.
Fewer tags look good in writing. Rayne Hall advises, “To make it easier for the reader to understand who says what, writers add tags: ‘he said’, ‘she asked’, ‘I grumbled’ …. My advice is simple. Use as many tags as needed, and as few as possible” (26%). In other words, toss the tags.
Here is an example of cutting out tags:
Before: “The light is streaking your hair with gold,” Jenn said shyly, darting a stare into Brett’s eyes. “Matches your heart.”
After: “The light is streaking your hair with gold.” Jenn darted a shy stare into Brett’s eyes. “Matches your heart.”
Wrap your words with fewer tags
Speak with actions, not tags. Rayne Hall claims, “Actions make tags unnecessary. When a character acts and speaks, the action is enough to attribute the dialogue, so you don’t need a tag. By deleting the tag, you can make your writing tighter and more exciting” (27%).
Note the following examples where I show a “before” with tags and an “after” without them:
Before: Lynn realized she was lost and shouted, “God, give me a sign.” A cone dropped from a pine within arms reach and a butterfly fluttered forth. Lynn fixed her gaze on the autumn colored butterfly and whispered, “Lead me to the river.”
After: Lynn realized she was lost. “God, give me a sign.” A cone dropped from a pine within arms reach and a butterfly fluttered forth. Lynn fixed her gaze on the autumn colored butterfly. “Lead me to the river.”
Before: Amy looked at her grade and moaned, “Ms. Dickles, you put me in a pickle.”
After: Amy looked at her grade. “Ms. Dickles, you put me in a pickle.”
Splash the actions; snub the tags.
Talking heads are your foes. Rayne Hall says, “’Talking heads’ means pure dialogue. The characters don’t do anything besides conversing. In fiction, this feels stilted and dull. The solution is simple: give the characters something to do besides talking. The obvious choice is to let them have a meal. Then you can use the motions of eating and drinking as beats.” (32%).
Here is an example: “What would you prefer, Gramps?” Lynn poured thick gravy on Gramps’s mashed potatoes. The gravy trickled under his corn and sourdough bun and sparkled with bubbles. “A tombstone of an angel or of a book?”
No talking heads mean no headaches.
Life gets grounded with no white space. As stated by Rayne Hall, “’White space’ refers to scenes which don’t seem to have a clear location and could be taking place anywhere …. Inexperienced writers dump a lot of location description at the beginning of the scene, and then don’t mention the setting again.” (33%).
Readers skip over lengthy dialogue, says Rayne Hall. During the winter I picked up a Lee Child’s action book and got lost in the description—so lost I never looked at another of his books. Now then, how could he (and you and I) tighten description, making it more inviting?
Rayne Hall answers, “Here are two suggested solutions: 1. Take that chunk of setting description, split it into several small parts, and sprinkle those throughout the scene. 2. Create dialogue beats in which the characters interact with their environment, perhaps touching an item of furniture.
Mary tapped her talons on the desk. “Get to the point.”” (33%).
Here’s another example of weaving setting into dialogue:
Jane closed her eyes, the sunlight lacing its soft arm inside her right eyelid. The birds gushed their cedar-loving songs in her left ear. “You are closest to God.” She felt Jake’s coarse hair feather against her cheek as he turned a page of his Bible.
White space is for heaven, not dialogue, but the spiritual is meant for my readers.
You’ve now earned your wings in dialogue writing. I encourage you to bring a journal wherever you go. Write down things people say, and type them up with the above tips in mind.
When you begin your story, you’ll tap into a headspace only you have ever known. Set your story free, and lead us to the river.