Cottonwood Rust

Speaking Of Which:

Writing Realistic Dialogue (Part 2)


This week, we will continue to explore the ins and outs of dialogue. Check out last week’s post here to get caught up.

He Said, She Said

Once you have the goals, desires, text, and subtext formulated, it’s time to think about what else is going on in the scene beyond the dialogue — what are the characters doing? What may they be thinking? How are they expressing themselves? Tags and action beats can be a critical method of communicating these concepts through showing and telling the characters’ reactions and emotions.

“Tags” are the verbs (and potentially adverbs) that come directly before or after the line of dialogue. They can vary from the short and sweet “he said” to the more descriptive compounds “she sighed dreamily” or “they screamed dramatically.” The general consensus for tags is to keep them on the simpler side. The more identifiers, complicated verbs, and adverbs you add in, the more you are interrupting your characters and distracting your readers from your story.

If it’s clear who is saying what, feel free to leave out tags for a few lines, like in the above example from Hills Like White Elephants. If you’re unsure what tag to use, start with said and see if it has to be replaced with a more specific phrase. Other generally accepted and natural tags you can use are asked, answered, replied, added, continued, recalled, remembered, and reminded. If the tags begin to feel repetitive, mix up the order, like replacing “Greg replied” with “replied Greg.”

Action beats are an excellent method to illustrate characters’ emotions, power dynamics, and goals without explicit exposition. They also serve to break up longer discussions with action, similar to how conversations are in day-to-day life, and help to identify the speaker without the use of a tag through describing their thoughts and actions. Read the passage below from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, noting the use of action beats and tags to break up the dialogue and characterize Atticus, Scout, and their relationship.

After supper, Atticus sat down with the paper and called, “Scout, ready to read?”

The Lord sent me more than I could bear, and I went to the front porch. Atticus followed me. “Something wrong, Scout?” I told Atticus I didn’t feel very well and didn’t think I’d go to school any more if it was all right with him.

Atticus sat down in the swing and crossed his legs. His fingers wandered to his watchpocket; he said that was the only way he could think. He waited in amiable silence, and I sought to reinforce my position: “You never went to school and you do all right, so I’ll just stay home too. You can teach me like Granddaddy taught you ‘n’ Uncle Jack.”

“No I can’t,” said Atticus. “I have to make a living. Besides, they’d put me in jail if I kept you at home-dose of magnesia for you tonight and school tomorrow.”

“I’m feeling all right, really.”

“Thought so. Now what’s the matter?” Bit by bit, I told him the day’s misfortunes. “-and she said you taught me all wrong, so we can’t ever read any more, ever. Please don’t send me back, please sir.”

Breathing Life Into Your Dialogue

Take a look at the dialogue you’ve written so far. Even if you follow the tips above to make it concise and incisive, punctuated with tags and rhythmic with action beats, you may find your dialogue to be… flat. Consult the list of tips below for ideas on how to breathe life into your characters’ conversations.

  • Give each character their “voice.” While the majority of publishers don’t recommend writing out phonetic dialect, as this can be distracting and cumbersome to readers, there are several techniques to create distinct character voices. Differing senses of humor, diction, word choice, verbal tics and quirks, and levels of formality can shift according both to what character is speaking and to whom they are conversing. Whatever you choose, remember to be consistent throughout your book.
  • Keep your characters’ sentences short, and remember that we often don’t speak in full, grammatically correct sentences. 
  • Avoid soliloquy and long speeches. If one character is talking for a longer period of time, remember to include action beats or summarize with indirect dialogue less important areas.
  • If your dialogue still feels off, read it aloud. Practice writing realistic dialogue by listening to conversations nearby and transcribing them onto the page, noting the syntax and vocabulary used.
  • People often don’t respond directly to questions and may try to change the subject, especially during debates or arguments. Keep this in mind to up the drama and stakes as you work toward the conversation’s goal.

With these tools and tips in mind, take another swing at dialogue. Just think of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The most memorable and cohesive parts of your story may be unlocked within the direct voices of your characters.