Have you ever read a court transcript? It accurately gives a word-by-word report of exactly what each person says. But is it interesting? Uh-uh. If we wrote verbatim the way we talk, our readers would execute us at dawn (or maybe earlier). So what do we do to create “natural” dialogue?

First, we must listen to the way people talk—both the choice of words and the rhythm of those words. People rarely speak in long sentences or without pausing, so we must write dialogue in fragmented sentences and in short bursts.

Second, we must decide which of these spoken words are worthy of writing. For example, in real life, when we greet someone, we generally say, “hello,” then ask how he is, maybe how his family is, and so forth. But this is boring stuff to a reader. The reader is smart enough to realize small talk occurs and impatient enough to want to get immediately to the meat of the conversation. Therefore, we need to eliminate the “niceties” and get on to what the reader wants to read.

And third, we need to add body language and action to dialogue to convey its true meaning. For example, a character says, “You jerk.” Without body language, we don’t know what the emotional value of this statement is. Consider the following statements:

“You jerk,” he said, his eyebrow cocked just enough so I’d know he was challenging me, that he was checking to see if I would back down or not.

“You jerk,” he said, and the twinkle in his eye told me that I’d finally earned his respect.

“You jerk!” Carl slapped his knee and laughed from his belly until I feared he’d fall down.

As you can see, it is the action and body language that allows us to interpret the meaning of the words. Since the reader cannot see the character talking, it is our job as writers to describe all the information the reader needs.

Adding action and body language to our prose also accomplishes another task: it slows the pacing. Now, there are times when rapid-fire dialogue is necessary, such as at high-drama points when things are moving quickly, or after a long descriptive section to pick up the pace. In monologues, the story the writer tells holds the reader’s attention, so he doesn’t need to break up the monologue with tags or action.

There are no precise rules for writing dialogue, but you develop an ear for how it should sound by reading aloud. Do you start drifting? You need action. Do you forget who’s talking? You need a tag. Is the conversation moving too quickly? You need a break—narrative or action—to even out the pacing.

Here are some quick tips for writing dialogue:

  • Don’t sound out sound effects. This is annoying. Simply state, “The gunshot echoed through the chapel,” instead of “Bang! Bang! Bang!” (An exception to this is children’s stories—children love onomatopoeia.)
  • Take it easy on dialect. Sounding out words becomes distracting and time-consuming, and most readers tire of it quickly. Instead, use the grammar and rhythm of the character to insinuate the dialect or tag it with an explanation, such as: “she said, her Polish accent thick, the way it was when she was tired or sick.”
  • Don’t include “well,” “uh,” and other such nonsense unless it serves a very good purpose. (Such as a character whose only word is “uh,” or a character whose main distinction is prefacing every statement with “well.”)
  • Keep your tags invisible (see the tip sheet, “Dialogue Tags” for help with this).
  • Keep your tags either interspersed with action and description or at the end of the quote. A tag at the beginning (although occasionally okay) tends to make the writing more passive.

Consider which of the following carries the most power:

He said, “Help me. I need help.”

“Help me. I need help,” he said.

“Help me,” he said. “I need help.”

“Help me.” He crawled toward his victim. “I need help.”

Remember, we need to be able to visualize our characters as they talk — do they roll their eyes, clench their teeth, smile—any of the visual clues that help us interpret the intent of the words.

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