Dialogue is one of the hardest things to get right. I don't just mean what your characters say - I mean how they say it. Or how you, as the writer, present it. The mechanics of dialogue are tricky, and as an editor I see a lot of recurrent mistakes. If you're going to submit to a publisher or agent, or if you're planning to self-publish, it's important to get these things right.
So here are five tips to get you going.
Tell us at an early stage who is speaking
‘Hello, it's good to see you again. I've been having a really interesting time since I last saw you. Been all over the world - seen all kinds of amazing stuff,’ said Fred.
Bad because we have to wait a l-o-o-n-g time to find out who is speaking.
'Hello,' said Fred. 'It's good to see you again [and the rest...]'
Don't confuse action with attribution
Bad example: ‘Hello, it's good to see you again,’ Fred stood up, smiling.
Good example: ‘Hello, it's good to see you again.’ Fred stood up, smiling.
Spot the difference? It's small but it matters. Fred's speech ends with a full stop. Then his action begins. Standing up is an action, not a speech attribution. Speech attributions are limited to words that mean ‘said’, such as ‘intoned’, ‘added’, ‘yelled’, etc.
Group together actions and speech by the same character
This makes it so much easier for the reader – and it reduces the number of speech attributions you, as the writer, need to make.
Fred came into the room.
‘Hello,’ he said. Mary smiled at him.
‘It’s good to see you,’ she said. Fred grinned at her.
Fred came into the room. ‘Hello,’ he said.
Mary smiled at him. ‘It’s good to see you.'
Fred grinned at her.
Note that, in the good example, Fred’s speech and action are in the same paragraph, as are Mary’s. This is so much clearer. It means, too, that we can dispense with ‘she said’ – as it becomes clear from the grouping that these are Mary’s words.
Don’t overdo accents, stammering and the like
Just hint at these things. Lots of stutters and regional accents can be very tedious to read. Give us a few when the character is first introduced and remind us from time to time.
Read all your characters’ dialogue to yourself – preferably out loud
Natural speech has a lot of internal rhythm. We may be unaware of it, but when it’s missing, it stands out a mile. As you read your dialogue aloud, you will become aware of any awkward bits. Take the time and trouble to put these right – your readers will appreciate it.
I’ll restrict myself to these five tips today, though there are many more I could give you. I’ll continue the list another day. Meanwhile, happy writing, and don’t let worrying about such things stem your creativity in your first draft. Later drafts are the time to correct such things.