He Said/She Said - How Do You Make Dialogue Compelling – Part 1
It’s every writer’s wish to create compelling and realistic dialogue. It adds to the enjoyment of a story; great dialogue gives it depth and structure, and more importantly for the writer, it accomplishes more than showing the reader conversations.
Dialogue doesn’t just tell half of the story – or further the plot – it can move the story forward, it develops relationships, it can create tension, conflict an atmosphere and it can reveal character. It’s one of those things that can show the reader how skilled you are – it’s the difference between great dialogue and bad dialogue, and the latter is a sign that the writer hasn’t yet got to grips with how dialogue works.
So, how can you make your dialogue compelling? Well, thankfully, there are multiple ways a writer can do this.
He Said/She Said
Let’s start with probably the most contentious element – dialogue tags and how they should be used. A dialogue tag is the ‘he said’ or ‘she replied’ etc., tagged on the end of the dialogue.
There is a lot of advice on the use of tags, but most writers agree that balanced use of ‘he said/she said’ is perfectly fine. That’s because the reader is conditioned to see ‘said’ and so it almost becomes invisible. They hardly notice it.
The idea is not to rely on it so that every single tag is a ‘he said/she said’. There is nothing wrong with using a different tag from time to time. ‘Replied/answered’ or the odd ‘muttered’ won’t hurt. Just don’t overuse them, otherwise they can become distracting.
Well-crafted dialogue doesn’t always need the dialogue tags, because we often use narrative to break up the dialogue or we use action before dialogue, so the reader already knows who’s talking, for example:
Amy turned from the colourless scene outside and looked at David. ‘What if we can’t sell this house?’
Here, there is no need to put ‘she said’, since it’s clear from the action before the dialogue that Amy is speaking.
To create interesting dialogue, it’s best to get rid of redundancies. This is where the writer repeats what he or she has already told the reader, by adding actions after a line of dialogue, for example:
‘Ouch!’ he yelped.
‘Ouch’ already tells the reader that the person is in pain or discomfort, so ‘yelped’ makes the dialogue redundant, as it’s simply telling the reader the same thing twice. Many writers make this mistake. It could, therefore, be left simply as ‘Ouch!’, or action can be placed before the dialogue:
Jimmy sucked in a breath. ‘Ouch!’
Writers can’t help themselves sometimes. They feel the need to explain everything, just so the reader understands, for example:
‘At last we can sell the house!’ Amy whooped happily.
This example is telling the reader about the character’s feelings twice. It’s clear from what Amy says that she’s excited, so there is no need to use the adverb ‘happily’. This is another mistake writers make – they go overboard with the adverbial dialogue tags, such as:
...‘he said excitedly’, ‘she said shyly’, ‘John replied bashfully’...
Adverbs weaken sentence structures, so instead of telling the reader, it’s much better to show. That way, there is no need for any adverbs, for instance:
‘At last we can sell the house!’ Amy said, and her eyes glimmered.
Make it Effective
Dialogue is effective when it is delivered in small amounts, especially during fast paced scenes. Dialogue tends to be short and snappy, interspersed with snippets of narrative and description. So unless absolutely necessary, don’t have your characters talk for too long, otherwise it will bore the reader and become distracting.
Longer conversations/speeches are generally a way of slowing the pace and make the narrative more reflective and should be used sparingly.
In Part 2 we’ll look at more ways to achieve compelling dialogue, including the use of narrative beats, action before dialogue, punctuation and more.
Next week: He said/she said - How do you make dialogue compelling – Part 2
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