Monday, February 4, 2013

Dialogue, Part I

Because it is so powerful on its own, dialogue is an integral aspect of writing, and it is often overlooked for the same reason. Today’s discussion aims not only at making sure your dialogue adds to the story, but also leveraging that dialogue to captivate your audiences. I’ve broken down this discussion into two parts. This post will cover the technical aspects of dialogue, and Wednesday’s discussion will focus on the content.

Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are those phrases attached around dialogue such as “he said” or “she asked.” These identify the speaker and give a little extra information about the character interaction.

Stick with “Said”
A big mistake that many writers make when it comes to dialogue tags is replacing that “said” with other more descriptive words. The following are a small fraction of the many descriptive dialogue tags that writers use.

“I’m going to the store,” she stated.
“Have a good time,” he replied.
“Oh, I’ll be sure to,” she countered.

So, what’s the problem with these dialogue tags? Well, for one, these are cues to agents and editors that you are an amateur writer, regardless of your talent. But more importantly, these types of dialogue tags draw attention away from the story and towards the writing, and this is a bad thing.

Shy Away from Adverbs
Just as distracting as these descriptive dialogue tags are those –ly words that writers attach onto a dialogue tag.

“What do you want to do?” she asked softly.
“You all are losers!” he shouted rudely.
“I have to find out,” she said hurriedly.

Incorporating these –ly words to dialogue tags are discouraged for the same reasons I stated above. They are distracting and a cue that the writer is a newbie.

In addition, many times both types of dialogue tags are unnecessary. The perfect example is written above: “he shouted rudely” is redundant—the context illustrates this. Using said will save you the time coming up with creative tags and will better focus the attention on the story rather than the language used.

The Caveat
I happen to be an editor, reader, and writer that doesn’t mind breaking these rules every now and then. Because I have a fairly relaxed disposition when it comes to these dialogue tags, my suggestion would be to use them in moderation. Problems arise when they are constantly used, but I also feel that under certain circumstances they can add an additional depth to the dialogue.

Inserting the Right Amount of Beats
Beats are segments of action (including short bits of internal monologue) interspersed throughout a scene. These can be great alternatives to dialogue tags.

Dialogue Tag: “I still can’t find the coffee grounds,” he said.
Beat: “I still can’t find the coffee grounds.” He walked out of the kitchen.

This is a Goldilocks rule. Too many beats can slow down and weaken the power of strong dialogue. However too few beats can decontextualize a scene. There is no magic middle ground either. Some fast-paced sections of dialogue might require little if any dialogue tags, while other sections of dialogue are best narrated with a sentence or few sentences surrounded the dialogue.

Why tell you this if I can’t be more specific than that? A lot of times being aware of these rules is all a writer needs to go back and edit their work with a more critical eye.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. One of the tough ones is when you really know you need a beat, and can't quite figure out what to put in there. I hate that!

    1. I’ve been there and I hate that too! Thanks for posting!