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How to Write Effective Dialogue
How to Write Effective Dialogue 


Dialogue can be found in fiction, nonfiction, articles, and even poetry. Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more characters or people. It's distinguished by the use of quotation marks.  

"An opening quotation mark starts the beginning of a dialogue. A closing quotation mark ends it." 

About Dialogue

Dialogue can be really easy to write.  All you have to do is write down what a character says, or what a person you're quoting said. But be warned: Writing dialogue is easy. Writing effective dialogue that complements your work instead of detracting from it can be even harder.   

Dialogue can sound "stiff" or "stilted." It can take away from the story by adding things that aren't important.  It can also repeat things you've already said in narratives. These things are no-no's when it comes to writing dialogue. That said, let's learn when and how to use dialogue so it's effective in everything you write. 

When to Use Dialogue

Dialogue should be used when you want to show something. If you're writing a story, anything you write in dialogue could just as easily be written into a narrative.  If you write stories, then you know what I'm talking about. However, dialogue should never be a replacement for a narrative, just as a narrative should never replace dialogue. They both have their own place.

Use dialogue:

·         To show a character's emotion

·         To show what a character is saying

·         In non-fiction, to back up a statement with a quote – or to add more details

·         To tell what's going on instead of showing -- If two characters are arguing, you can tell about it in a narrative, but that's not telling the story, is it? Show the argument by putting it into dialogue.

·         To show relationships between characters

·         To reveal characters' personalities  

·         To quote someone

·         To show when someone is speaking

Never use dialogue:

·         As a shortcut because you don't want to write a narrative -- For example, if you're writing a scene where two characters are watching a movie, it's not appropriate for one character to say, "The sun is shining today."  Although you can use dialogue to set a scene, make sure it's appropriate.

·         To repeat what you've already written in a narrative

·         To stray away from the original story -- Dialogue should show what's going on in a story, and it should reveal the characters' personalities, motivations, etc.   Dialogue shouldn't tell one story while your narrative tells another. 

Writing Effective Dialogue

Effective dialogue comes with practice. However, the most effective dialogue is natural.  It sounds as if someone were actually saying the words instead of them just being on a piece of paper. Of course, this is different with journalistic and nonfiction pieces where you use dialogue to give exact quotes. 

When you write a story, each character has his/her own personality. Their personality includes the way they speak.  In real life, you'll be hard-pressed to find two people whose speech patterns are exactly the same. This should be reflected in your dialogue. Don't worry about writing proper English, necessarily. By that, don't worry about writing, "She said it was going to rain," when it would sound more character-appropriate to say "She says it's gonna rain, ya know."  Write as the character speaks.  Just as long as readers can read what you wrote, it's a good thing to do. You can use common slang spellings of words, such as "gonna" instead of "going to."  If that's how your character talks, then do it.

Dialogue should be a part of your story. The dialogue you write should push the story forward. Be careful not to use dialogue to repeat what you've already written in narratives.  

The sky darkened. Big black clouds were pushed in by the increasing wind, and Amy could feel the first raindrops start to fall on her face. 

"I think it's going to rain," she said.

"Yeah, it's getting awful dark," Tom replied.

The above example uses dialogue to repeat what the narrative already says. It does not move the story forward.

Look at this example instead:

The sky darkened. Big black clouds were pushed in by the increasing wind, and Amy could feel the first raindrops start to fall on her face. 

 "We'd better head inside," she said. "Things are going to start flying around here in no time, and I have no desire for another concussion."

"Yeah, that last twister got ya good, didn't it? You go ahead inside. I have to put the horses up first," Tom replied. 

Can you see the difference? The last example offers new information for the story. It tells that Amy was stuck in a tornado in the past. And it also moves the story forward by sending Amy inside (if she goes) and has Tom putting the horses away. It's important to use dialogue to progress the story. 

Speaker Attributions
Speaker attributions immediately follow dialogue and tell a reader who's speaking. Take a look at this:

"Let's go inside," Tom said.  

In the example above, "Tom said," is the speaker attribution.  It lets you know that Tom is the one speaking.

Speaker attribution is as easy to use as dialogue. When it's used correctly, most readers don't even notice the attribution is there. It doesn't detract from the story at all. However, if you don't use speaker attribution correctly, it can easily take the reader away from the story, make the reader stop reading to try to figure out what you mean, or make even the best story too tedious to continue reading.

Here is a list of things you should do  -- and never do – when writing speaker attribution:

·         Use speaker attribution to tell the reader who is speaking. That's it. Convey emotion in dialogue and narratives. Don't use speaker attribution to do it.


·         Avoid using adverbs (or words that end with –ly) with your speaker attribution. "Go to the store," he said angrily. Show that he was angry using dialogue and narratives. Don't try to "tell" it by adding an adverb. 


·         Try to stick to the basic attribution. Readers don't notice "he said," "she said," "he replied," or "she replied."  In other words, don't get clever. Avoid attributions like: "I just want to get out of here," he expressed. The most common attributions are: said, replied, exclaimed, shouted, asked, and cried.   


·         Put speaker attributions after dialogue, not before.


·         Only use speaker attributions to make it clear who's speaking.You don't need to use a speaker attribution after each line of dialogue if it's clear who's speaking.    


·         Make sure your attribution shows speech.  A common mistake with new writers is something like: "I just can't do it," she sighed. People don't speak in sighs. The correct way to write that would be, "I just can't do it," she said with a sigh. Other attributions new writers like to use, but shouldn't, are "breathed" and "steamed." Those are descriptions of an action.  They are not attributions.   Don't confuse the two.


·         Always use speaker attributions if more than two people are speaking.


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