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Techniques to Structure Dialogue

By Paul Burdiss

“Don’t you hate reading awkward dialogue?”


“Do you dislike when reading character exchanges feels disconnected or empty?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Or when the responses aren’t satisfying and do nothing to move things forward in the conversation?”

I’ll retire the bit now, as it’s neither pleasant to read nor to write. When writing, it can be really easy to slip into bad dialogue habits, and there are a few important things to keep in mind. Good dialogue should:

  1. Move the scene or plot along and inform character,

  2. Only change speakers when necessary, and

  3. Utilize the appropriate dialogue tags.

Number 1 should be straightforward – if your characters are talking, they should be talking about what is happening, about the conflict or about necessary information to understand the events taking place. However, it’s important to keep in mind while writing dialogue that people in stories don’t talk the way people in the real world speak. For instance, two people talking about recent events might spend half an hour discussing trivial matters – readers don’t want to sit through all of that! Instead, either condense all the important information down into a few lines, or suggest through summary that the two speak at length, and only give the reader the most important bit of their exchange. Which brings me to number

2: try not to change speakers too often.

Again, it can be tempting to replicate real speech patterns, but changing speakers often makes an exchange take up a lot of space on the page and breaks up important information between multiple lines. When writing dialogue, it can be effective to let one speaker say the important thing they need to say without interruption, then allow the other character to react or respond to it. Only interject things when it’s important, otherwise it may end up reading like the opening to this post.

Finally, it’s important to utilize the correct dialogue tags, and to avoid being overly informative with your tags. First, dialogue tags are how the reader understands who is speaking and how they are speaking. Tags are not necessary after every line of dialogue, but when there are two speakers, at least the first two lines should be tagged so the reader knows which order the two are speaking in, and if there are more than two, any time a new character enters the exchange it should be tagged. Likewise, if a character will be speaking at length, it is good to interject a tag toward the beginning so that the reader both knows who is speaking and how they are saying it. “It can be frustrating to reach the end of a paragraph of dialogue only to learn the speaker was shouting or whispering,” Paul whisper-shouted. Try to avoid non-speech tags, and try to avoid adverbs. Nobody has ever chuckled and spoken at the same time, nor have they grinned out words or scowled a sentence. Likewise, it can help to know that someone is speaking urgently or quietly, but it should be more obvious if someone is speaking angrily or merrily – “these sorts of tag adverbs should only be included when it goes against the expectation of what is being read,” Paul said rather flirtatiously. Oh, and most times “said” is all you need.

“So just remember next time you’re writing, dialogue is essence of real conversation and should be treated as such,” he chuckled merrily he said.

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