The Basic Tools of Writing: Dialogue

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The art of dialogue is a difficult one to master. Conveying, in the character’s words, what kind of person they are is enough of a task for anyone trying to create a person with ink.

The hardest part of dialogue is making the reader believe that this is a real person they’re seeing on the page—that they could have a conversation with the characters of your story. That takes a keen ear for the way people interact with each other.

Good luck with that. That takes practice, practice, practice and really opening your eyes and ears to the people you interact with. This article is about dialogue structure. Because, even if you can capture people beautifully on the page, no reader will care if you’re writing dialogue incorrectly.

Basic Structure

This may be a little elementary, but many writers still get it wrong. Make sure you’re not one of them with these dialogue sentence structure guidelines:

“Hi,” she said. “How are you?”

When you break up dialogue with a dialogue tag, in this case ‘she said,’ use a comma after the first piece of dialogue and a period at the end of the second. When the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue, it will end with a period unless it interrupts one sentence:

“I’m fine,” she said, “but I have this weird foot thing.”

In this case, you use another comma to let the reader know that it is all one sentence.

Just in case you missed this day in class—the punctuation goes before the quotation mark in dialogue.

Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag shows who is speaking the words. “He said,’ and ‘she said’ are the most common forms of this. As writers and readers, we’ve seen these many, many times. They’re tried and true for a reason. They don’t take away from what the characters are saying and they help the reader understand who is saying the words.

Time for me to get on my soap box. Do not use adverbs. Please don’t use adverbs unless you absolutely must. Check this out:

“I can’t believe I came all this way just to have you tell me you’re out of oysters!” Thomas said angrily.

See that? Why did you do it? The reader knows Thomas is angry because of his dialogue and you’re being redundant by telling us he said it angrily. We already knew! Adverbs take away from the dialogue and make you seem like an amateur. Let your reader’s mind do the work.

Action Beats

Action beats are bits of prose that come before or after actual dialogue and describes what that character is doing or thinking as they speak. An action beat can also be a description. Here is an example:

“What do you mean you’re out of oysters?” Thomas crumpled up his napkin and threw it on his empty plate. “We demand a refund for our cab!”

As you can see, the action beat describes what is happening in the scene as Thomas throws a fit. You may also notice it has replaced the dialogue tag. You don’t have to write “he said” after every piece of dialogue.

It’s not our job to hold the reader’s hand through the entire scene, but we have to be careful we don’t leave them behind. If we go on too long with a conversation without using action beats or dialogue tags, we run the risk of confusing the reader. It would also be confusing if there are two people in a room and one of them speaks without a tag or beat. Examples:

“How do you do that?” he said.

“Do what?”

“That…thing with your fork. Why are you doing that?” They both looked down at her utensil sculpture.

“When are the oysters coming?”

“They’re not.”

At the halfway mark, the writer leaves the reader behind by not throwing in a dialogue tag to help distinguish who is speaking. It’s also a little boring—playing with dialogue structure and descriptive action beats keep the back-and-forth lively and interesting.

Also, keep each character’s dialogue tags and action beats on the same line. When a new character speaks, or the action beat describes what they are doing, they need their own line.

Learn your rules of dialogue. Notice how your favorite writers structure theirs. Notice how they employ action tags to move the scene along. Dialogue is one of the strongest ways to give a character flesh and blood, but if the structure the dialogue is incorrect, your reader will never believe in them.

Play with the way you write dialogue and switch it up to see if you can make it more interesting. And, whatever you do, never stop writing.

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About Author

John Paul Schmidt is a former news journalist. Now he's a freelancer by day and bartender by night while he works on his novel.

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