While cleaning out a closet, I found an old copy of The Writer magazine, which contains an article titled, “Your Ultimate Fiction Workout.” I thought I’d paraphrase the section on writing dialogue and pass along some tips that took me years to learn.
Dialogue is the illusion of real conversations, a distilled yet genuine version of how people actually speak. It’s also what isn’t spoken. If someone says, “Of course I don’t mind,” and throws something to the floor, you know he’s lying. The old adage that ‘actions speak louder than words’ is true and combining action with dialogue creates a more vivid image.
Dialogue should be precise and to the point. Skip the pleasantries and any unnecessary chit chat. Unless a tornado’s on its way, don’t have your characters discussing the weather, or ask how someone’s feeling unless she's swaddled in bandages. Skip the speeches and keep dialogue short. A little goes a long way.
Dialogue tags should be kept to a minimum as well as low key. “He saids” and “she saids” have a way of disappearing into the text, if not used too often, while “he growled” or “she yelled” seem to stand out like stripes on a Hereford. Few tags are necessary when two people are talking, but three or more speakers need occasional tags.
As for punctuation, a rare exclamation point doesn’t need he emphasized or she shouted following the statement any more than she asked is necessary following a question mark. But most writers, including myself, write unnecessary tags.
Each speaker deserves his own paragraph, and should have a distinctive voice, which includes word choices, accents, cadences and slang. A reader should be able to determine the character’s age, education, and background from the way he speaks, without writing his words phonetically.
Reading dialogue aloud or tape recording and listening to how speak patterns sound is a good way to learn how to write believable dialogue.
~Jean Henry Mead