“Hey there,” whispered Wordy Bird. “I think it’s time we had a little chat.”
“Who? Me?” asked Mr. Flippinflapper.
“Yes, you.” She frowned. “Who else?”
He gulped. “Do you think that’s wise?”
“I think it’s necessary,” said Wordy Bird, leaning in conspiratorially, “even though we’d both love to avoid it. After all, it’s tricky to talk about—” She snapped her head away and gazed at the steam wheezing out of the Fluff Factory. It was particularly pink and puffy this evening.
“You don’t mean…” His beak slowly dropped open. He grabbed a plate of pickled herrings and thrust it hard toward her. “Here, wouldn’t you like some? They’re scrumptious,” he squeaked.
Wordy Bird took a deep breath and swept aside the suspicious looking fish. She slowly nodded her featherbrained head. “Yes, my dear friend, it’s high time we talked about dialogue.”
Dialogue. We all know it’s important. It connects characters to each other, and gives the interactions between them life. It makes a scene interesting. And of course, it helps show—not tell—who each character really is, what they think, and what they feel.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on what makes great dialogue. It is simply a discussion of some of the very basic dialogue issues I very frequently encounter while I’m editing and teaching. What your characters say is up to you. But here are some things to avoid when you’re writing it, some things that will help you self-edit as you revise and develop your manuscript.
Identify the speaker early, especially in dialogue for young people, not at the end of multiple sentences of speech. This is especially pertinent when you have multiple characters in a scene, each of whom might conceivably be speaking. Sometimes, when there are multiple sentences of dialogue without a dialogue tag, if there’s any ambiguity about who might be speaking, I often I assume it is one character and then get an odd little shock to find it was someone else. It makes me stop and backtrack and readjust. It’s jarring. You don’t want anything in your manuscript that catapults the reader out of the story, even for a moment.
Avoid verbose dialogue tags such as responded, interjected, inquired, questioned, and queried. Use said most of the time. Said will disappear into the dialogue, not stick out like the awkward guy at the party, poking the reader in the brain and saying too loudly, “Hey, did you know—I am a dialogue tag. No, really, I am. I mean the same thing as said, but I’m a different word for it! How about that? The laaaaadies love it.” That’s what they always shout to me, and a lot of editors will agree. The dialogue tag’s primary function is to just show us who is speaking. Let them mostly sink away into the background.
Avoid superfluous dialogue tags.
“But I like pickled herrings,” said Mr. Flippinflapper. “Especially red ones. You’ll like them, too,” he continued, stuffing several in Wordy Birdy’s beak. “Won’t you try some?” he asked. “Here,” he said.
Second or third or fourth dialogue tags when the same speaker is still speaking are usually superfluous. You almost always only need one to identify the speaker near the beginning of his/her speech. The exception is when the speaker’s manner of speaking suddenly changes dramatically, for example:
“But I like pickled herrings,” mumbled Mr. Flippinflapper. “Especially red ones. You’ll like them, too.” He stuffed several in Wordy Birdy’s beak. “Won’t you try some?” he squealed.
Sometimes, you won’t need a dialogue tag at all.
Wordy Birdie chewed thoughtfully on the herrings, but something didn’t taste right. She very discretely disposed of them by coughing daintily into her handkerchief. “So, as I was saying about dialogue… shall we discuss grounding it?”
Ground Your Dialogue. Let us see what the characters are doing, with what they are doing it, and where they are as they speak. Nonverbal communication, such as body language, as well as the character’s general behavior, and how they interact with their setting and other characters can give the reader strong cues about their emotional state, what is important to them, and even what they might be trying to avoid.
It is rarely necessary to tell us that Character A looks at Character B while A is speaking to B. That is implied. It’s only worth noting if there’s something interesting or remarkable about the way A is looking B while they’re speaking to them, otherwise just leave the “turning and looking” out. What can be interesting and important is if a character doesn’t look at the person they’re speaking to. That can say a lot about what’s really going on between them, and/or draw attention to whatever is happening around them.
“Isn’t this wonderful?” said Wordy Bird, twirling around in the sunshine. “Aren’t you glad we had this chat?”
“I am.” Mr. Flippinflapper said, staring long and hard at the herring. He tossed it over his shoulder. It plopped into the pond, scattering the floating autumn leaves. “I suddenly feel much better. That wasn’t so hard after all.”
Wordy Bird watched the bubbles rise to the surface of the murky water and smiled. “I’m glad you agree,” she said.