Creating believable conversations between characters is important in advancing a story because it breaks down the exposition and pushes the story forward. It also helps to flesh out the characters themselves. Realistic dialogue can be a powerful tool that when used poorly will most certainly pull the reader away from the story. However, learning to create entertaining conversations between characters will ensure the success of not just the overall story, but also keeping our cherished characters the focal point.
Here are some of my favorite tips and techniques for creating successful dialogue.
1) Observe real conversations taking place around you.
Listening to actual people having a conversation is one of the best practices in gaining useful dialogue within a narrative. Not only are you hearing and seeing a conversation take place, you can also gather material for the dialogue you chose to insert into a story. Watch the expressions or gestures people make, take note of the words they use, and simply monitor the way people talk.
2) Keep it simple—stick with ‘said’ or ‘asked’ in dialogue tags.
While there may be some conflicting opinions out there regarding the use of ‘said’ and/or ‘asked’ in dialogue tags, it’s important to think of this in terms of a character’s voice. This is, in fact, what we would typically use to express ourselves in conversation. So, since the reader is reading the conversation, it’s important for the author to remain as non-intrusive as possible. When we add extra descriptive words or too much action it gives the reader a lot to digest and distracts them from the conversation taking place. Readers can discern who is talking and their attention should be more on dialogue. Some exceptions can be made, but should always be centered on the simplest verb to get the meaning across.
3) Adverbs do not belong in a dialogue tag.
Dialogue tags that include adverbs scream amateur writing to readers. They are a distraction and make the story seem overwritten. Adverbs do a lot of telling and take away from the writer’s ability to show the reader what is taking place. Rather than tell your reader that Johnny, ‘said sadly,’ show them ‘he said, keeping his eyes locked on the floor as he spoke.’
4) Keep dialogue tags to a minimum.
The dialogue tag is there to keep the reader informed of who is speaking. Not using enough tags can confuse the reader and muddle up the conversation since we lose track of who is talking. The same can be said when using too many tags. ‘Sam said,’ ‘Carol asked,’ ‘Indeed,’ said Sam, ‘For sure,’ said Katie. You get the picture. Use common sense and maybe revisit tip number 1 and observe a real conversation taking place.
5) Punctuation is key.
Punctuating dialogue can be an overwhelming task for a beginning writer. There are tons of ‘how-to’ books on the topic and online writing forums that provide helpful advice and exercises to assist in learning the basics. It’s important to learn the proper ways of punctuating dialogue early on and continue working to practice and master the techniques so that your story and readers do not suffer.