The Writing Manual: Dialogue

We have seen in the previous chapter how you can use internal voice, external voice and actions to force your reader to engage in your novel. Since dialogue is now an essential part of the novel writing process, we will examine the subtler elements of using dialogue in more detail. 

In this chapter, we will go one step further and look at dialogue in more detail.

  • You will learn how to write dialogue that is crisp and realistic.
  • You will also discover how to control your dialogue so the reader remains engaged, whilst fleshing out your character’s personality.
  • We will discover new techniques that will help you to stay on the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology straight and narrow, learning tricks that will force you to kill TELL at conception.
  • We will delve into the basic grammar of dialogue.
  • Finally, we will consider thoughts and their role, if any, in the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology.

Tagging Dialogue

When considering dialogue many writers will glaze over, or panic as memories of incomprehensible school lessons come flooding back. To help ease the pain we will start with one of the simplest, yet most powerful aspects of dialogue – tagging.

Tagging, or attribution, is the process of telling a writer who is speaking. For example:

‘Hello,’ John said.

The John said is the tag. This is also known as attribution.

The best way to consider tagging is with this one simple principle.

Tagging is about showing the reader who is speaking and that is all. It is not about telling the reader HOW the person is speaking. This is a simple principle, but incredibly powerful.

Let’s look at another example. In this example we are doing it wrong. We are not only SHOWING the reader who is speaking, but also TELLING them how:

‘Hello,’ John growled.

In this example, John didn’t say anything, he growled it.

So, why is it so wrong to tag speech in this way?

The simplest answer is that it looks amateurish. It’s the kind of dialogue you see in a school kid’s textbook or from a two-bit creative writing class. If you use this type of tagging you will be flagging yourself up as a writer with little confidence in your ability to SHOW emotion.

There is a more complex reason…

When you write, “John growled”, you are TELLING the writer the way in which John is speaking. As we know TELLING is bad. It pushes the reader onto the back foot and forces them into a passive frame of mind.

The alternative is to show them how the speaker is speaking. Rather then relying on tagging to TELL the reader, the writer must use the context and texture of the scene to SHOW the story. The words and actions that have come before the dialogue, will SHOW the reader John’s frame of mind and will allow them to adjust the dialogue within their mind’s eye.

So… what’s the best practice when tagging dialogue?

The answer is use SAID.

Said is a magic word. Readers are so used to seeing it that they start to ignore the word. It becomes a punctuation mark.

There is a side effect to this approach. When tagging dialogue with said, you can get a lot of said Ping-Pong. Take this example:

‘Hi,’ John said.

‘Hi,’ Peter said.

‘How are you doing?’ John said.

‘Good,’ Peter said, ‘you?’

‘Good. Thanks for asking,’ John said.

As you see we have lots of “John said” and “Peter said”. There’s actually a very simple solution. Just don’t tag.

Readers aren’t stupid. If there are just two people speaking in a scene, they don’t need to be told time and again who is speaking. This means you can just ignore the attribution.

Here’s the example from above, written with a bit of common sense:

‘Hi,’ John said.

‘Hi,’ Peter said.

‘How you doing?’

‘Good, you?’

‘Good. Thanks for asking.’

This is the basics of writing dialogue and is the foundation from which you should build. There are also a couple of additional writing habits that will bring sparkle to your writing.

The first is to consider where to add the tag. The best place is at the end of the dialogue. 

For example:

‘Good. Thanks for asking,’ John said.

Occasionally, you might want to spice it up, or simply produce a different tempo in a long section of dialogue. In this case, put the tag were it fits naturally. 

For example:

‘Good,’ John said. ‘Thanks for asking.’

However, there’s one word of warning. When moving tagging from the end of the dialogue, don’t put it at the start. It looks messy and marks you out as an amateur. 

This example is just plain WRONG:

John said, ‘Good. Thanks for asking.’

Clarity in your writing should always be your goal and with this in mind you should always stick with the attribution you set up in the first instance. If you start the scene saying “the boy said” don’t switch half way through. The “boy” should not suddenly become “Peter.” The thinking here is that in a real life conversation, you would not change the way to referred to a person mid-conversation, so why do it in your novel?

However, once you are out of a scene you can change, just not within a scene.

Another sign of amateur writing is the old ‘said John’ approach. This is considered by many in the know to be old fashioned and out dated. Therefore, ‘John said’ is the way forward. After all you would write ‘he said’, but would you write ‘said he’?

Beats in Dialogue

When applying the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology, which demands that writers stop using narrative summary to pass backstory and plot, you will find themselves naturally gravitating to dialogue. You will write more dialogue than ever before, and you will try to use this dialogue to divulge key plot elements and back-story.

This is natural.

Dialogue is the most powerful tool in the writer’s tool kit. A well-written section of dialogue will push the plot forward and develop characters, whilst dragging the reader deeper into the novel.

However, this can create problems. The renewed reliance on dialogue means that writers will find themselves writing scenes, which contain much more dialogue than they would have in the past.

Long sections of dialogue, especially between two people can become daunting for a reader. The back-and-to creates an almost hypnotic rhythm and the reader can begin to miss the nuances of your writing. This can be further exaggerated when applying the ‘only-use-said’ technique.

He said – she said – he said – she said – can soon become tiresome.

That’s where beats come into play. ‘What’s a beat?’ I hear you shout. Here’s a section of dialogue, which contains a beat:

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?”

John looked about in an exaggerated motion before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek.

“You’d better open it quick, it’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

Now here’s the same example without the beat:

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you? You’d better open it quick, it’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

See?

A beat is a section of action within dialogue. In the example above, John looks about and kisses his sister.

A beat dissects a section of dialogue, momentarily lifting the reader from the sequence. If used correctly, they will force the reader renew their attention to the conversation, as the dialogue is stopped and started.

Beats can be used for three distinct purposes:

  1. To control pace.
  2. A vehicle to add descriptions of people and places.
  3. Place for characterization.

Let’s look at these in order.

Controlling pace is pretty straight foreword. Sections of dialogue can skip along at a right old pace. If two characters are exchanging short sentences, pages can whip by as the reader absorbs what is being said. The problem here is that you don’t always want the pace to be fast. Perhaps you just want the reader to pay more attention, or you are trying to balance the wider pace of a scene. It might even be that you are separating two sections of action with a section of dialogue. For the action to have true impact it needs to be sandwiched with slower sections, the light and dark, so to speak. In these situations, beats are your friend.

The second reason for using beats is to add descriptions. Whenever a reader comes across a new location or character you should be adding descriptions. The problem is that you don’t want to dump long paragraphs of flowery prose. Instead, you want just enough for them to paint a picture in their mind’s eye. However, if you are dealing with a complex location or a major character, you will want to layer in additional description, a line or two at a time. This is where beats can be extremely useful. We will look at using beats for description in more detail in the next chapter.

The final reason is characterization. If you have developed a complex character profile you will be well aware of a character’s internal influences. You will know in any given situation how the internal voice will influence the external words and actions. Beats are a great way to show this.

Look at the example below. We have seen this before, but let’s look at it with new eyes:

John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the car park and made a circuit before coming to a stop in front of John.

The driver let the window down, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights.

‘You order a taxi?’ His voice was tinged with an oriental accent.

‘No,’ John said, shuffling back slightly from the car.

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again. ‘You sure mate?’

‘Yeah,’ John said. ‘I am sure.’

‘Ahh…’ the driver said. ‘Do you want a lift anyway?’

‘Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?’ There was a pause. ‘It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister, she’ll be here any moment.’

‘Ok,’ the driver said and pulled out of the car park. John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the number plate.

Here’s the same example, with the beats highlighted and explained:

John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the car park and made a circuit before coming to a stop in front of John. [This is description delivered via narrative summary]

The driver let the window down, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights. [BEAT: This is a description prior to dialogue. The dark skin SHOWING the reader the driver is not white.] ‘You order a taxi?’ His voice was tinged with an oriental accent.

‘No,’ said John shuffling back slightly from the car. [BEAT: Internal voice says he mistrusts Chinese people, this is reflected in his actions.]

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again. [BEAT: This is really a section of narrative summary, but since is dissects dialogue it is, technically, a beat] ‘You sure mate?’

‘Yeah,’ John said. ‘I am sure.’

‘Ahh,’ the driver said. ‘Do you want a lift anyway?’

‘Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?’ There was a pause. [BEAT:Slows the pace. Also suggest John is considering his next actions. It is up to the reader to decide what John is thinking.] ‘It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister, she’ll be here any moment.’

‘Ok,’ the taxi said driver and pulled out of the car park. John watched making a mental note of the number plate. [BEAT: John watches the car and makes a note. This is his back-story at work, forcing John to think the worst of the driver, who may be Chinese.]

The final thing to say about beats is for them not to be overused. Long sections of dialogue are good. You do want to create a rhythm and allow the reader to become comfortable with your writing style. Yet, there’s a balance. Too many beats and the dialogue drags, not enough and it whips by. Ultimately, it is your choice.

Using Adverbs

Of all the principles and techniques that will improve your writing, how you deal with adverbs is, perhaps the most powerful. In short, the removal of adverbs will make you a better writer, forcing you to avoid ‘lazy writing’ and, instead, develop a writing style that will naturally engage your readers. In addition, the conscious removal of adverbs will force you to SHOW. You will find that adverbs are most commonly used in sections of TELL.

Let’s start with identifying an adverb. Adverbs are words that modify verbs. A verb is a doing word (run, walk, fly etc.). Most adverbs end in –ly, so they are easy to spot. This might sound complicated but don’t worry. Once you learn to spot an adverb, they’ll jump out the page at you like dirty little trolls.

Here’s an example:

He closed the door firmly.

Here “closed” is he verb and “firmly” is the adverb.

So what’s so bad? You have a nice clear picture of the door being closed, well… firmly.

The problem is that by using adverbs you are TELLING the reader how the door is being closed. The reader isn’t SHOWN and there’s no room for interpretation. Remember TELL is bad, SHOW is good.

Let’s now consider what happens if we remove the adverb:

He closed the door.

This doesn’t tell us anything about how he closed the door. Surely this is worse? Well, actually the opposite is the case. When reading this sentence, which has no context, it makes no sense, but reading/writing is all about context.

What is essential to consider is what comes before and after the adverb.

Looking back at our example of the closed door. If the paragraph before had described the door closer tiptoeing through a room, trying not to wake a baby, the closure of the door will mean one thing. However, if the paragraph before had described a moody teenager storming from a room after an argument, the closure is something else.

The power here is that the context and texture of your writing will SHOW the reader and allow them to fill in the gaps. The reader will decide HOW the door is closed. They will become part of the process. They will build a picture in their mind’s eye, engaging with your words and becoming part of the story. Now that’s powerful stuff.

Sorry, let me dwell on this a moment. What I am showing you here is a technique you can use that forces the reader to build the story in their own mind. It allows you to force the reader to fully engage with your work.

What’s more, by ruthlessly removing adverbs you are forcing yourself to write in a way that SHOWS not TELLS. Each time you kill an adverb you must look at your prose with new eyes. You must ask yourself, ‘Am I giving the reader enough for this to make sense?’

So far we have been talking about the use of adverbs in general prose. If you are able to eliminate as many of these as possible, and then ensuring the context is in place for your verbs to make sense, you will be a better writer.

We now turn our attention to adverbs and dialogue tagging (attribution).

The rule with dialogue is simple:

Under no circumstances should you be using adverbs in relation to dialogue.

Never.

NEVER ever.

NEVER EVER EVER.

Adverbs used in dialogue will, beyond any other bad habit, mark you out as an amateur.

They are evil and must be destroyed.

Writers lacking in confidence, often find themselves falling into the habit of explaining a character’s dialogue, and this makes sense. Consider the situation. You have written a complex scene, you have thought carefully about a character’s internal dialogue and how they will react. You want to make sure that this is not missed by the reader. So you explain your dialogue. Remember we talked about the temptation to show the reader how clever you’ve been? Well this is another example. 

For example, in this scene a mother asks her son about his homework. This is pretty simple. The son hates homework; the mother wants him to do it. It goes like this:

‘Have you got any homework Paul?’ Paul’s mother asked harshly.

‘Yeah, loads,’ said Paul sadly.

‘Well, you need to get it done before you can go out to play,’ said Paul’s mother firmly.

Welcome to amateur hour. It pains me just to write this prose. I think I need a shower.

The use of adverbs (harshly, sadly and firmly) marks the writer out as lacking in confidence. Worse still, they just don’t work. TELLING never works. The reader will just turn off. For this scene to work the reader must be given the room to fill in the gaps themselves.

Let’s look at the same example, but with the adverbs killed dead:

‘Have you got any homework Paul?’ asked Paul’s mother.

‘Yeah, loads,’ said Paul.

‘Well, you need to get it done before you can go out to play.’

No difference. The reader still gets the gist of the exchange. Also notice that the final attribution to Paul’s mother has been removed without the world exploding. It could be argued that in this example the reader is not aware that Paul’s mother is annoyed with Paul and the homework is a constant touchstone for arguments, and I agree. Using SHOW you can’t pass this type of information in a few words, but why would you want to?

Remember, context is everything. All the words that come before this fraction of dialogue will give the conversation context. If this is the third time Paul has had homework and the other two resulted in conflict, the reader will fill in the gaps. They will know what Paul and his mother feels (or think they know) and the reader will add weight to the words. This is engagement.

Still not convinced? Still think you need something extra? Ok, what about adding a beat?

‘Have you got any homework Paul?’ asked Paul’s mother.

‘Yeah, loads,’ said Paul. He turned to look at his mother, a frown spread across his face.

‘Well, you need to get it done before you can go out to play.’

Here, by adding “he turned to look at his mother, a frown spread across his face”, we’ve added some context, giving a clue about Paul’s internal voice. It’s all about context and not adverbs.

Finally… adverbs are your friends in only one way. In fact, adverbs can be invaluable.

The reason?

If you have put an adverb in your writing then you are almost certainly TELLING not SHOWING.

Adverbs are TELL flags. Hunt them out, kill them and turn the TELL to SHOW.

Formatting Dialogue

Since dialogue now plays an essential role in your writing it is important that you can use it with ease. Formatting dialogue correctly can trip up even the most talented writer. From the outside it can appear that formatting dialogue is a black box of contradictory rules. Many writers shy away from the nitty gritty of writing and feel the grammar of speech is something an editor or proofreader should be fixing. They are wrong. The grammar of dialogue is the basic building block of your writing, if you have pride in your work then you should be getting it right. You also need to remove any barriers that are stopping you from writing dialogue. 

On a pragmatic level, no one will care as much about your book as you. Yes, professional editors and proofreaders will fix errors, but the more errors there are the more chance a few of the pesky buggers will slip through the editing net.

The best way to explain the rules of formatting dialogue is to use an example. There, we will illustrate the steps required to format the following section of dialogue:

Hi have you seen my cat said Bob. No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is. If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad. Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.

The first rule is — new speaker, new line.

This is a pretty easy rule to apply. Each time a new speaker speaks you place the line of dialogue on a new line. This line should be indented.

We can see how this applies to our example:

Hi have you seen my cat said Bob.

No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is.

If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad.

Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.

Our next rule says that all speech should be placed in speech marks. These can be either single (‘) or double (“), it’s your choice. However, keep in mind that if you use, say single (‘), you need to be using the opposite, in this case double (“) when you are reporting speech inside speech.

‘Hi have you seen my cat’ said Bob.

‘No’ said Bill ‘I have no idea where your cat is.’

‘If you see my cat will you let me know’ questioned Bob looking sad.

‘Of course’ replied Bill with a tone of concern.

Now, it’s time for punctuation.

When writing dialogue you will often use ‘tags’. These are verbs that link the spoken words with the remainder of the sentence. Commonly used tags includes said, asked, replied and many more. Without going into the technical detail, to correctly punctuate spoken words and tags you must link them using a comma. If you use a full stop the sentences are broken and it no longer makes sense.

If we look at the second line of our example we see:

‘No’ said Bill

This is a single sentence and therefore must end with a full stop, giving us:

‘No’ said Bill.

The tag in this sentence is ‘said’ and this must be connected to the speech. If you added a full stop at the end of the spoken words, it would separate the tag and become incorrect:

‘No.’ Said Bill. [WRONG]

Instead, we must link the spoken word and the tag with a comma, this gives us:

‘No,’ said Bill. [CORRECT]

If we apply this to the full example we get:

‘Hi, have you seen my cat?’ said Bob.

‘No,’ said Bill. ‘I have no idea where your cat is.’

‘If you see my cat will you let me know?’ questioned Bob, looking sad.

‘Of course,’ replied Bill, with a tone of concern.

Please note that in the first and third lines we have used a ? instead of a , since it is a question.

Chapter 5: Description >>