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5 Essential Rules of Writing Powerful Dialogue

Posted by Kristen Hamilton on November 2, 2017 at 4:20 PM


Dialogue tags! These little monsters can sometimes be tricky, but you can't avoid them: Dialogue should make up about 20% of your novel. When approaching the subject of dialogue and dialogue tags, there are a few things that should be kept in mind in order to create powerful scenes.


First, let’s define dialogue tags so we’re all on the same page. Take a look at the sentence below:


“Let’s order pizza for dinner,” said Mike.


In this example, “said Mike” is a dialogue tag—it identifies who is speaking. It's a critical part of your characters' conversation and interactions with each other.


As a book editor, there are five things I consider when working with dialogue tags.




1. Don’t use dialogue tags every time someone speaks.

This is especially true when there are only two characters speaking. For example, look at how the following excerpt can get repetitive and redundant with the overuse of dialogue tags:


“Let’s go out to eat instead,” said Janice.

“I need to stop by the bank first,” said Mike.

“The bank is across the street from that new Italian restaurant,” said Janice.

“Italian sounds delicious,” said Mike.


The constant back-and-forth of “said Janice” and “said Mike” gets repetitive and redundant. When only two characters are speaking, there's no need to mark each line with a dialogue tag. Because of the basic structure of conversations (one person speaks, the other responds), it becomes necessary only to include a dialogue tag once every few lines to keep readers oriented to who's speaking.



2. Use action tags instead of dialogue tags.

Action tags show the reader who’s talking as well as what the character is doing:


“I need to stop by the bank first.” Mike opened his wallet, revealing only two dollars.


You can use action tags before, after, or in between what is being said. However, don’t use a dialogue tag and an action tag in the same paragraph—it’s unnecessary. If I see both, I always delete the dialogue tag. For example:


“Let’s go out to eat instead.” Janice sat up, excited at the prospect of dining out. “We can go to that new Italian restaurant,” she said.


In this case, I would delete the “she said” at the end, as it serves no purpose. Janice has already been established as the speaker with the action tag (“Janice sat up…dining out'') so there’s no need to include a dialogue tag as well.




3. It’s best to alternate between dialogue tags, action tags, and no tags.

Now we're moving into expert-level dialogue construction. When writing dialogue, try to switch it up—it keeps your writing exciting. Check out this masterful example of dilaogue from Lou Paduano's The Medusa Coin, which I edited earlier this year:


Reaching beneath the bar, the man retrieved his own glass of water and held it up. “To new beginnings.”

“Cheers.” Loren took a long sip, every drop satisfying him.

“Can I get a table set for you?” the man asked, looking around for space. “How many are joining you?”

Loren hesitated, the satisfaction of the moment fleeting. He looked around at the strangers in the bar. Dozens of people he had never seen before tonight, would never see again. None were alone; all were with some companionship for the night. Laughing. Loving. Together.

“I’ll be fine.”

The bartender read his face, and knocked on the bar. “Congrats again.”

Loren held up the water. “And thanks again—”

“Dominic.” The man extended his hand. Loren took it and gave a hard shake. “Here every day.”

“Living the dream.”

Dominic smiled, heading to a group of waiting customers. “Aren’t we all?” 



4. Try to use the most common dialogue tags, like “said” and “asked.”

You can occasionally use dialogue tags that show tone in a character’s voice, such as “shouted,” “yelled,” or “whispered,” but don’t overdo it: Overusing these dialogue tags can distract your reader. Common dialogue tags like "said" and "asked" are invisible to the reader, allowing them to know which character is speaking but without drawing their attention away from what's happening on the page.




5. The following common verbs are not dialogue tags:

Smiled, laughed, smirked, frowned… These are considered actions and should only be used in action tags. For example:


INCORRECT: “I don’t have any money,” he frowned.

CORRECT: “I don’t have any money.” He frowned.


Stick with the basic dialogue tags ("said," "asked," "yelled," and so on) and you're golden.




BONUS! How to punctuate dialogue tags:

When using dialogue tags like “said” or “replied,” use a comma (not a period) inside the quotes. So it should read like this:


“Hi Lacey,” the principal said.


NOT like this:


“Hi Lacey.” The principal said.


What about when you're ending a line of dialogue with a question mark or an exclamation point? The dialogue tag needs to start with a lowercase letter, since it’s not the start of a new sentence.


"Come back, Lacey!" the students yelled.


Dialogue tags can be very confusing at times, and as an editor, the misuse of dialogue tags is one of the most common errors I see. Hopefully this list points you in the right direction of better writing. If in doubt, just send me an e-mail—I’m happy to help!



 

Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of Kristen Corrects,

Inc., where she provides manuscript editing services for traditionally and self-

publishing authors. Several authors whose books she has edited have won

awards and have topped Amazon's best sellers lists.


Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she can usually be

found curled up with a good book (alongside her three cats, Sophie, Charlie, and

Jack). She loves watching cat videos and scary movies, eating pizza, teaching

herself French, and traveling, and she is likely planning her next vacation. She

lives outside of Boise, Idaho.




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