Writing dialogue is a huge part of writing in general. Whether you’re working on a novel or a screenplay or a web comic, it’s highly likely that your characters will need to interact amongst themselves, plus internal dialogue for the reader to follow along with your POV character. There are a lot of different approaches, so here’s how I approach it in first person and in third person. I mostly write in third person and past tense, but I’ve written a bit of everything.
Speaking tags are usually verbs (sometimes accompanied by adjectives) that are used to describe how the words in quotations are being said. There’s a stark difference between these two pieces of dialogue:
- “Help me!” Character A shouted.
- “Help me!” Character A hissed.
In each case, the speaking tag determines the context for the words themselves, and can help set the scene for your reader.
I usually format my dialogue like the above, where it’s “phrase spoken,” Character + verb. But sometimes, if I need more context, then I’ll introduce a speaking cue before the phrase spoken. For example:
- Character A’s voice dropped into a whisper. “Where are you?”
Doing this can help add variety and adjust pacing for the reading experience, and also eliminate ambiguity in longer phrases. You don’t want to have multiple sentences of dialogue, and then at the very end the reader is informed that the character was whispering the whole time. It throws off the scene. Find a balance and put yourself in your reader’s shoes to see what information they need and when.
If your characters are having a normal conversation, say they’re on a date at a coffee shop, then it’s safe to assume it’s easy for your readers to infer that the initial speaking tags are consistent throughout. However, if there’s a commotion at the coffee shop and suddenly it’s much louder than it was, then you might want to introduce the next phrase’s tone to reflect that the following dialogue is going to be adjusted for the noise.
A word of caution: Try not to overuse speaking tags. Put some trust in your reader and that their imagination can fill in the gaps, because saying things like “he murmured” then “she joked” then “he sighed” then “she ventured” will overwhelm your reader and detract from the conversation itself. If the inflection is important, and you need your reader to notice the change in dialogue tone, then definitely use speaking tags. But sometimes the best and most natural dialogue is just… plain dialogue.
I don’t usually write in first person, but my advice for anyone who wants to is to acknowledge that your perspective will automatically filter all information through the lens of your POV character. Consider how you, as a person, interpret the world around you. If someone speaks to you, you’re going to automatically make some observations about this person and how what they’re saying affects you. Are they standing too close? Are they talking too loud or soft? Do you like or dislike this person? When writing in first person, especially dialogue, everything being said is processed through a filter of, “how does this relate to/affect me?”
Another very important thing to keep in mind is the limits of what your POV character knows. Unless you’re writing an omniscient character, there are things that your character won’t be privy to. Even if you as an author know that the love interest has good intentions, you have to consider how your POV character would interpret the information that they do have. If they met on a disastrous date and your POV character was offended, then the next time they meet there will be a wariness. It’s natural for your character to proceed with caution given their experience up to that point.
As for how this relates to dialogue, remember that your POV character will be speaking and listening through their own lens. Adjust speaking tags to reflect their feelings, and include internal dialogue to keep the reader informed. I’ve found that first person writing is much smoother when there’s more internal dialogue, because your readers are experiencing the processing of information as much as the information itself. You want your readers to understand why your POV character is acting and reacting the way that they are.
I prefer writing in third person and past tense, probably because that’s where the majority of my writing experience lies. In my work, there’s usually a POV character, so there’s still the lens through which the world is being processed, but it’s at more of a distance. This is especially useful if there are multiple POVs – for me, it helps keep everything easier to understand and compartmentalize with that degree of separation.
For dialogue, the trickiest balance in my experience is keeping track of who is doing or saying what. If you have two female characters speaking with each other, then you have to find a balance between “she said” speaking tags and occasionally use their names or other context clues so that your reader doesn’t lose track of who is speaking vs. listening. I’ve found that mixing actions with dialogue can help with the distinction, and make the dialogue varied enough to be interesting without being too complex to follow. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to character build with things like mannerisms or personality.
It takes some practice, but in my opinion, writing in third person can help character traits become more apparent than when you’re writing in first person. Especially for traits that the POV character does without thinking, and maybe wouldn’t notice naturally on their own. Third person and that extra degree of separation can help readers get more of a “birds eye view” of each scene, instead of being limited to only what the first person character can see or interpret. But, of course, to each their own! No matter what perspective or tense you write in, there are ways to communicate the same information. It just takes practice to find your balance and your writing style.
Tip for Writer’s Block
When I find myself stuck on a scene, I’ll actually write the dialogue first. I’ll add speaking tags so that I know the shifting moods and emotions as part of the conversation, and then I’ll let the conversation unfold naturally to see where it takes me. As I go, I’ll nudge it towards information that needs to be revealed to the reader, but I’ve found that by writing the dialogue all in one go, I can often capture a more organic conversation.
Conversations happen in real time, so the pacing can be hard when you’re also having your characters move through their space. My advice is to isolate the conversation as if your characters are standing perfectly still, to see how it progresses. This of course wouldn’t apply if you’re in the middle of an action scene, because the focus of that scene would be, well, the action. But if you’re in a lower energy scene and need to relay information, then try to focus on that part of the scene and write everything happening around it later.
Writing dialogue is tricky because there are so many variations that there can never be an agreed-upon rulebook. You’ll want to make sure that your dialogue is clear and easy to follow, things like knowing who is saying what, but the majority of dialogue decisions will come down to author style. There will probably be authors who think my method of writing dialogue is totally backwards, which is fine! My style has grown with me and I’ve found it works for the sorts of things I write. If you need to reinvent a style to match your story, then you can do that.
Just remember a few tips when you’re honing your style:
- Always prioritize clarity: don’t let your readers get lost in ambiguous dialogue.
- Use speaking tags purposefully: make sure your writing is communicating a why, but not at the expense of the dialogue itself.
- Pick a perspective and then stay consistent: if you’re writing first person present tense, stay within first person present tense. There’s nothing more confusing than tense or perspective changes in the middle of passages – it takes some practice, so editing stages and/or beta readers are your friends.
What do you think? How do you write dialogue? What perspectives or tenses do you prefer to write in? What kinds of stylistic choices do you make when writing? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss out on any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!