An Ear to the Street: Improving Dialogue

An Ear to the Street: Improving Dialogue

Dialogue serves as your character’s primary voice unless you’re writing close first-person narration. When characters speak naturally the story comes to life. Arguments, accusations, and vows are all spoken. Considered by many writers to be challenging, dialogue forms one of the most essential pillars of craft, and in this article I’m covering how to improve.

You want your dialogue to sound natural. That’s the number one goal. Forget trying to show off your writing chops in dialogue. Purple prose will turn people off, but purple dialogue will destroy your characters. You don’t want to try and achieve anything with dialogue other than capturing the character’s voice. Employ the exactitude of expression, authenticity, and character based dialogue and you’re moving in the right direction. Writing authentically can be difficult, because it’s hard to escape our personal voice, and channel someone elses. Listening to strangers will help.

Make sure you have a note taking app on your phone and put it on your home screen next to your favourites so it’s always accessible. Go out and listen. Turn your ear towards people on the bus, on the train, in traffic, on the street, in the mall, in restaurants, at sports fields. Many writers recommend observing humanity, but take it a step further. Listen to humanity. Really listen. Every time you hear an interesting snippet spoke by strangers, write it down. You’ll start to get a sense for how real people speak and how to write interesting dialogue. After awhile your file of quotes will grow large and you’ll have a treasure trove of insight.

Dialogue formatting distinguishes the dedicated writer from the unmotivated novice. I do some beta reading for fun, and I like to write critiques to new writers. There’s all sorts of creative ways people try to format dialogue but there’s only one correct way.

“Like this,” said Dr. Good Vibes.

“What if there’s a question?” he asked.

“The question mark goes inside the quotations.”

“Interesting,” he said. “Sometimes you find punctuation outside the quotations marks. Is that correct?”

“Never,” said Dr. Good Vibes.

You end the final sentence of dialogue, before the tag (s/he said), with a comma. If there’s no tag, use a period.

“I used no dialogue tag here because it’s clear who’s talking.”

I recommend omitting dialogue tags only when it’s very clear who the speaker is. Repeating he said, she said, Billy said, Belinda said can grow tedious, but omitting the tags has a chance of confusing the reader. You can omit the tag but do your diligence and make sure it’s as clear as possible.

Dialogue tags are not a chance to show off your vocabulary. Most of the time a simple ‘said’ works best. Novice writers will stretch the dialogue tag to fit all sorts of story detail.

“Nice,” he said, looking down at the gun in his hand and considering how many eggs he might steal.

Dialogue tags are not storytelling devices. Think of them as an extension of punctuation. They’re there to let the reader know who’s speaking, and that the line of dialogue has completed.

Do you write the spoken word? Have strong opinions about dialogue tags? Drop in the comments and share your experience, I’d love to hear from you. Follow for more writing tips from a daily discovery writer.

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