Wednesday, February 17, 2010

PART ONE: The One With All the Dialogue Tips. (Ten, to be exact.)

Because awesome dialogue makes me do a happy dance, and I love a good happy dance, here are ten things I consider when writing or revising dialogue:

In no particular order...

1. Speaker
Each speaker has a unique personality and background. They come from a certain income and education level. All of this affects how they speak. When they greet people, do they say "Hey," "Hi," or "What's up?" How about "Yo," or even just a curt head nod? Or the even more abrasive "What?" What does this say about them?
Jordan Catalano is famous for being a guy of few words.

2. Audience
You wouldn't speak to your grandmother the way you'd speak to your best friend, or to your best friend the way you'd speak to your worst enemy. Your audience affects how you tell a story, what parts you exaggerate, and how honest you are.

If your grandmom asked you what you did last night, your answer would probably be, "I went out with some friends," whereas you'd tell your BFF, "I finally hooked up with [Insert Superhot Crush's Name Here]!"
Answers to "How are you?"
To Polite Stranger: "I'm fine, thanks."
To Worst Enemy: "My life is excellent."
To Doctor: "I have a problem with excessive flatulence."
To Patrick Verona: "Sweating like a pig, actually, and yourself?"
Because every post can use a little 10 Things I Hate About You.

3. Subtext
Anything unspoken that occurs below the surface of the conversation. Meaning, what are they REALLY saying? Is your character sobbing but claims, "I'm fine"? Tone can be used to convey this well. Or how about the parallel conversation that's not about what it's actually about.

And because subtext can be strongest in one-sided romance, here's an example from my own unrequited adolescent crush from the 90s:
Me: Hi, John! That's a really cool trick you did on your skateboard.
Subtext: I'm madly in love with you. You're the hottest guy ever. Please don't reject me. Oh my God, I can't believe I'm talking to you. This is it. I know it. You'll tell me you like me too. We're so meant to be.
John: Thanks.
Subtext: ...
4. Tags
"Said." That's it. And maybe "asked." But be aware that a question mark doesn't always indicate a question. Sometimes it's still a statement.
** Clarification from my brilliant commenters: Sometimes "said" isn't the absolute strongest choice. But use sparingly. Keep the non-"said"s to 1% of your tags. Maybe 2%. And oftentimes, you don't need a tag at all. I've spent a good chunk of my latest round of novel revisions on REMOVING my tags altogether -- and I can't believe I forgot to say that in the first place. Thanks guys!

5. Action
Here's the reason you don't need anything but "said." The actions you slip in between dialogue will SHOW what's going on and how people are speaking. This is a delicate balance. Don't try to describe everything you'd see in a TV show. If you note every. single. movement. it slows down your dialogue and ruins the flow of conversation. And don't OD on the sighing, shrugging, hand gestures, swallowing, eye rolling, turning, and lip biting. But inserting just the right amount of action allows a reader to envision the scene and adds depth to the conversation.

SCENE: Rachel panics after locking herself and Ross out of their apartment while their baby is sleeping inside.
How would you write this scene to keep the pacing and the humor while showing some of it?

Linkovich Chomofsky's Actual Relevant Links from Smart People:
If you actually got this Encino Man reference, I applaud you.
- Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.
- Barry Lyga's 5 amazing posts on dialogue advice: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

That's all for part one! Check out PART TWO -- featuring Dawson's Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV show and movie), Clueless, Harry Potter, and Mean Girls!


  1. Don't tax my gig so hard core cru-uster.

    LOVE that friends clip. Could watch it all day. Might just do that :)

  2. LOL #5 eeeek! Also...To Patrick Verona: For the win!

  3. Love this post, and not just for the great advice, but also for the even more awesome references. I mean Friends, 10 Things I Hate About You, Encino Man?!!

  4. Awesome advice + funny references = best post ever!!!

  5. Sara - hahahaha that's the best line to read first thing in the morning.

    Frankie - We're both guilty, my lady!

    MeganRebekah - I'm a sucker for pop culture references -- glad you enjoy!

    Mariah - Thank you!!! Stay tuned for part two!

  6. See, everyone says "said" is the perfect dialogue tag. I actually prefer leaving the tags off altogether. Though, if pressed, I think a different verb can actually tighten the prose:

    "Kiss me," she panted. <- Urgency and desire shown with one word.

    "Kiss me," she said, her breath coming short and fast. <- Getting bloated.

    "Kiss me." She was having trouble breathing. <- Meh.

    If you're going to us one, choose the dialogue tag that carries the most weight, I say. And yes, most of the time that's "said."

    I'm done now. Buuuuud-dy.

  7. The subtext example was freaking hee-larious! LOL Thank you for such an entertaining slash educational post (that's right, I actually typed the word "slash"). Can't wait for part two!

  8. I have to agree with Simon of the 'said'. It REALLY just depends on what's actually going on. I enjoyed the post.

  9. Great post! There's nothing better than tight, rocking dialogue. :)

  10. Simon - Great point! I updated the post.

    Gina - Yes, hilarious now, but crushing back then! Glad you liked it!

    Melanie - Thanks! I agree with you and Simon and added a little asterisk to that part of the post.

    Anissa - I'm mired in dialogue revisions right now. This is all I'm thinking about! Hopefully my notes will help others.

  11. Thanks for this! I'm terrible at dialogue :/ Can't wait for part 2!

    But most of all, thanks for saying that it's OK to just write "said" (or, better yet, to use no tags at all). I HATE when people write things like,

    "I think you're cute," she smiled.

    YOU CAN'T SMILE A WORD!!!! You can say something, with a smile, or you can "said, smiling." But a smile doesn't make a sound, much less one that sounds like words. That is something I've held onto dearly from journalism school and haven't let go of.

  12. I believe I'm still at a point in my writing where I'm not sure if I'm writing good dialogue or not. Although I'm sure I go overboard with the single speaker sometimes. I blame

  13. Oh, excellent tips. It's very similar to what I would teach in my writing classes. Nicely organized! Loved your take on "said."

    Sadly, I did not get the Encino Man reference. I don't think I've ever seen it. But Friends...oh yes, love that show. Still.

  14. We ALWAYS read our dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds authentic--well, at least, we hope it sounds authentic. Great tips ladies!

  15. Heather - YES! Also, you can just change the comma to a period and it's correct. ("I think you're cute." She smiled.) Voila!

    Ryan - It's always a work-in-progress. Keep at it, and read it aloud.

    Carolina - I always imagine myself one day teaching a creative writing course. And Encino Man is an experience, let me tell you.

    LiLa - Reading aloud! Excellent tip!!!! (I'm adding it to part 2.) I haven't done that yet, but I'll soon be reading my whole novel aloud.

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