Monday, January 11, 2021

Dialgoue - what works, what to avoid

 What the heck can we say about dialogue?

 Exert from "Tools Not Rules" what to write and how to write it. Information and workbook for beginning writers. Coming November 2020

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie. It is the conversation between your characters, the discourse by officials, and arguments when characters disagree. This is sometimes referred to as “external dialogue.”

         Dialogue can accomplish almost anything for your story and often with greater immediacy and freshness than narration.

         It can crate mood, describe setting, fill in background, reveal motivation and plot, heighten emotion, and add characterization.

         Dialogue is comprised of words, and the tags and actions that identify the speaker and is harder to write than narration.

         Dialogue must have a purpose in the plot or story. If it doesn’t add something new, it isn’t needed.

Dialogue in Your Book


These are used to correctly identify speakers. Simple is always better. Use only sufficient dialogue tags to clearly indicate who is speaking. Remember these tips when using dialogue tags.

  1. Keep them unobtrusive. The dialogue itself is what's important. The only function of a tag is to let the reader know who is speaking.
  2. Therefore, use a tag whenever it's unclear who's speaking.
  3. Vary the position of your dialogue tags.
  4. Simple is always better. Said, Asked, answered are often all you need for a tag. They tend to be almost invisible to the reader.
  5. When using said, asked, answered, put the character’s name before the tag, not after


NOT – “I invited four people to Saturday dinner,” said Susan.

BUT - “I invited four people to Saturday dinner,” Susan said.

OR – Susan said, “I invited four people to Saturday dinner.


“A beat is usually a minor action that breaks up dialogue when a pause is needed to keep the scene visual.”  Sol Stein, How to Grow a Novel, p131


Beats can also be used to identify speakers.

Here you put the dialogue beside a sentence or phrase in which the speaker is mentioned. The phrase or sentence is the ‘beat.’

“Oh no.” Jade glanced over her shoulder. “Are you sure they are following us?”

Gestures, body language and character action can all be used as beats. But don’t get carried away. Limited use is recommended. And watch out for redundancies. In the two examples below, the action and the words do the same job. Use one or the other.

She shook her head. “No.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Beats me.”

Beats and tags are used to break up exchanges that might otherwise cause confusion. Having a character ask two questions and then the other person answer them both muddles the information. Break them up.

NOT John rushed into the room “What is he doing with the medal? Where did he put it?”

BUT John rushed into the room. “What is he doing with the medal?” He glared at her and she shrugged. “And where did he put it?”

A new paragraph is used when there is a new speaker. This is especially important when you are omitting dialogue tags and writing several lines of conversation. Make a new paragraph even if the speaker has had only one line.

In this example it’s easy to know it was Sam who asked the question and Edie who answered it.

Edie turned to greet Sam. “Thought you might want food.”

“That smells delicious. What is it?”

“Beef stew, fresh rolls, and rice crispy squares for dessert.”

Know when to summarize dialogue:

When the exact words don’t matter to the story.

Jane waved her hand at the kitchen. “That darn expresso maker is terrible to use.” (no need to explain what it does to make it terrible.)

When dialogue is mundane.

“Boy, it rained all day and I got wet.”

When a character says something routine – like ordering in a restaurant. Just say “they ordered salads.” Don’t have them actually say all the needed words.

Summarize when one character tells another one what the reader already heard elsewhere.

“As gently as he could Jake told Sarah what the doctor had said.”