Quality, believable dialog will advance your short story or novel as far as any element of your writing can. Dialog that sounds real and is easy to read is a pleasure for your reader. Who doesn't like overhearing someone else's conversations!
Well-written dialog has the power to do more than simply satisfy the reader's taste for listening in on others lives. Dialog can also
- help to create character,
- advance the plot of your story,
- give the author a voice through his characters,
- slow the narration to real time.
Unfortunately, all of us have gotten lost while reading dialog. We can't remember which character is speaking just now. We have to stop and count alternately up the page until we tie back to a specific character, then reconstruct the alternating sequence back to the point we got lost. This is not fun!
The writer must at all times keep the reader aware of which character is speaking!
To do this, writers use two methods:
- Indent each change of speaker with a new paragraph.
- Use dialog tags. Apart from the content of the dialog itself, dialog tags (and their variants)
tell the reader that the character will speak or has just spoken.
- relate additional information concerning how that material was spoken.
- provide clues to which character is speaking during an exchange. (The very word "dialog" means "two people speaking.")
Writers use ten different types of dialog tags:
- No dialog tag. When the dialog is rapid-paced, the writer may omit the use of any dialog tags to approximate the real-time event more precisely. Only the indentation will clue the reader to the speaker. If you choose this method, be certain that your reader is never lost. Make each character's voice distinct in its content and diction.
"Don't talk to me in that tone!"
- Noun of direct address. By including the name of the other person, the one spoken to, the writer keeps the reader from being confused on who is speaking.
"Don't talk to me in that tone, David!"
- Standard dialog tag. We are all familiar with the most used dialog tag, said. There is nothing wrong with using it, though it does not convey much meaning other than the fact that someone has spoken.
"Don't talk to me in that tone!" she said.
- Alternate dialog tags to show tone or feeling. Obviously, said does not let us hear how she spoke. An incredible array of alternate dialog tags exist. In class, we will each generate over 100 different dialog tags.
"Don't talk to me in that tone!" she snapped.
- Alternate dialog tag with an adverb modifier. Since dialog tags contain a verb, modifying them with adverbs just makes since. The adverb can add meaning to the how of the dialog.
"Don't talk to me in that tone!" she snapped angrily.
- Alternate dialog tag with present or past participle. Whereas the adverb modifies the verb portion of the dialog tag, the participle modifies the speaker part of the dialog tag. The writer can use this technique to give the reader additional character description.
"Don't talk to me in that tone!" she snapped, glaring at him with her large green eyes.
- Alternate dialog tag with noun-participial absolute. Don't let the term distress you. A noun-participial absolute simply means that a noun different from the speaker part of the dialog tag is being modified with a participial phrase.
"Don't talk to me in that tone!" she snapped, her large green eyes glaring at him.
- Combination of 5 & 6. This is just what is implies. Refer to methods 5 and 6, then synthesize them to yield the following:
"Don't talk to me in that tone!" she snapped angrily, glaring at him with her large green eyes.
- Combination of 5 & 7. Ditto.
"Don't talk to me in that tone!" she snapped angrily, her large green eyes glaring at him.
- Using action to flow dialog. Many authors prefer this last method. Without using any dialog tags, the writer makes it perfectly clear which character is speaking. The use of action, instead of dialog tags, gives the reader something to see as well as something to hear.
She slammed the book closed violently and turned to him, her large green eyes glaring."Don't talk to me in that tone!"
A wise writer varies his/her dialog tags. No one wants to read an entire conversation of "he said," "she said," "he said," "she said." No one wants to read "he said angrily," "she responded coldy," "he continued heatedly," "she replied indifferently." Try using all ten techniques. Use them in varying combinations. No one technique should be used all the time.
Even when writing dialog, variety is still the spice of life!