9 Tricks for Mastering Dialog

Dialog is scary, and it can be a beginner’s worst nightmare. It’s hard enough to write eloquently, but writing exactly how people talk? Very difficult. However, with a few tips in mind, dialog can become easy and fun.

1. Transcribe conversations. One of the best ways to get a feel for how people talk is to sit in a public area, and write down what you hear, verbatim. Or bring a tape recorder with you, and record and listen to write it down later. That way you can see what speech actually looks like on the page and how it differs from normal writing.

2. People don’t talk in full sentences. This is the first thing you’ll notice if you ever transcribe a conversation. People talk in fragments and run-ons. For fragments, just punctuate them like full sentences, and for run-ons, don’t be afraid to start a sentence with a contraction. Example:

“How was your day?”

“Awful.”

“Oh. Thought it would’ve been better.”

“Yeah. My boss kept me late, and she didn’t even thank me for staying overtime. But if you think about it, I probably deserve it.”

3. Keep slang/ onomatopoeia in mind. Speech isn’t pretty. Certain characters may be vulgar or not speak proper English. If they come from a certain region/ time, they may talk differently too. “Ya’ll,” “wanna,” “ain’t,” are all examples of this. Also, people make a lot of verbal noises like “huh,” “nu-uh,” and “ugh.”

4. Keep it short. Unless they have a reason to rant, most people talk succinctly as possible. Make sure your characters aren’t repeating sentences that basically mean the same thing. Instead of saying a full sentence, they may say a phrase too. Example:

“Guess what.”

“What?”

“I ran into my ex yesterday.”

“Sounds like a nightmare.”

“You bet.”

5. People never say exactly what they’re thinking. Along with keeping it short, I learned from one of my fiction classes that dialog works like an iceberg. There’s often a lot unsaid underneath a conversation. People are rarely completely honest with each other. One of the biggest reasons for dialog sounding unnatural is if all the characters use it to say what’s on their mind. Chances are a moody teenager wouldn’t calmly explain to their parents that they’re having problems at school:

“How was your day?”

“Fine.” She folded her arms.

“You don’t seem fine.”

“Well, I am.” She walked away before she could answer more questions.

6. Know the pace of a conversation. People pause and speed up when they speak. They also move while they speak. If someone pauses or slows down, make good use of periods and commas: “Well… I don’t know how to say this, but it’s not a good idea. At all.” Between tags of dialog make sure there are actions and description dispersed too. You shouldn’t have giant chunks of dialog and giant chunks of description.

7. Know how your characters would talk. Along with all of these rules, the biggest part of mastering dialog is knowing your characters well. A 4 year old would have a limited vocabulary, while a middle-aged professor, may use more lengthy sentences with bigger words. If your character is more closed-off, they may have shorter dialog that isn’t straightforward. If they’re a self-less person, they may always talk about others but rarely talk about themself.

8. Don’t think about it. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but dialog is often unnatural when you think about it too much. I write dialog the minute I think of it, as I think of it because that’s how speech works. You rarely pause and think about the wording of each sentence; you just say it. Because I type my dialog like my character is speaking in my head, I often rarely have to edit it because you don’t edit conversation.

9. Punctuate it correctly. Along with the content of dialog, I noticed so many people don’t have a grasp on dialog punctuation. Since it’s one of my pet peeves, here’s a basic run-down on how to punctuate dialog if you’re a writer in America (To my knowledge, the UK goes by different rules).

  • Periods and commas ALWAYS go inside the punctuation quotes.
    • “Like this.”
    • “Like this,”
  • For question marks and exclamation points, they generally go inside if they are a part of what is being said and outside if not.
    • She asked, “How are you?”
    • Didn’t she tell her to “go away”?
  • If you’re tagging the dialog after the quote, consider it part of the sentence, and end the quote with a comma.
    • “This is awesome,” she said.
  • OR if you’re tagging before the dialog, set off the tag with a comma
    • She said, “This is awesome.”
  • If there’s action with the dialog, treat it like a separate sentence.
    • “I saw you there.” She smiled.
  • If there’s more than one sentence of dialog, you can tag it after the first sentence.
    • “Well, it started yesterday,” he said. “I woke up with a fever and couldn’t get out of bed.”
  • If there’s action between two sentences, it’s still a complete sentence.
    • “Well, it started yesterday.” He tugged at the sleeve of his shirt. “I woke up with a fever and couldn’t get out of bed.”

 

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