Once in conversation with a client about an edit I had conducted of her novel, I pointed out that her scenes felt unrealistic because the characters’ indulged in too much name-calling. Let me explain: I pointed out that on one page of dialogue, the characters called each other by name every other line. Not only did this make for a clunky scene, her readers would probably lose focus after reading less than a page. After all, we don’t call people by name that often in real life, so neither should our characters.
This suggestion is just one I’ve collected from editing hundreds of novels. Read on for several more quick tips about how to craft killer dialogue in your novel. Whether you’re doing a self-edit or honing your skills as you write your novel, I hope these tips prove helpful to you!
1. Use Action Beats, not Speaker Tags
Before you give me that confused look, let me explain:
action beat = an action performed by a character immediately preceding or following a line of dialogue which clues the reader in that this character is the speaker
speaker tag = he said/she said; he explained; she whispered, etc.
For example, here is a bit of dialogue from chapter one of my first novel, The Sound of Diamonds:
A man burst into the cell, the door banging against the far wall. My breath seized in my throat, for I recognized that red hair and those fearsome brown eyes. Devon Godfrey, known to most as Dirk.
I lunged behind the only chair. “Come no closer!”
“Fear not, milady.” He stepped toward me, his masculine voice speaking English words familiar yet foreign to me after months in this place where I heard only feminine voices speaking Dutch. “I mean you no harm.”
My gaze latched onto the dagger strapped to his baldric. I fought the urge to shriek. No harm? He meant me no harm? He who killed my parents before my very eyes!
“You lie.” I dared a quick glance around, searching for a weapon of any sort. Seeing naught but the chair I stood behind, I bemoaned the Spartan nun’s cell. “Why would you rush in here if not to do harm?”
His gaze imprisoned mine. “I came to rescue you.”
“From what?” This was not what I expected.
Notice how there are absolutely no speaker tags in the snippet above? I didn’t need to insert them because I have plenty of action beats to go around that make sure the reader still knows who’s speaking.
2. When you must use Speaker Tags, stick to Said
Perhaps you’re writing a novel or nonfiction book with a scene or two (or most!) that do not have a lot of action going on within them. You may feel at a loss for action beats to use! Never fear, I’d like to introduce you to the invisible word:
Readers are used to skimming right past the word “said.” Don’t ask me why; I just know it works. So if you absolutely must use a speaker tag to eliminate confusion, then use “said.” Because using the invisible word is far better than confusing your readers during an important conversation in which they really, really need to be able to tell who’s saying what.
3. Do Not Overuse Dialogue
The best way to bore a reader is to insert too much dialogue in your book. Obliterate the boring “Hi, how are you?” “Great, how are you?” from all conversations and your book will be a lot better for it.
What’s the best way to tell when you are overusing dialogue? Read it aloud. If you start to yawn, you know what to do.
4. But Don’t Underuse Dialogue, either!
The second best way to bore a reader is to drone on and on with description in your book and not invite them into the characters’ world. This is more important in fiction than in nonfiction, but even some nonfiction writers use dialogue artfully in their books to break up the narrative. Fiction writers, aim for a 40/60 split between dialogue and description.
Warning: this will be difficult. Most writers I work with are more prone to one or the other: dialogue or description. So achieving a balance is hard work but well worth it.
Remember you want your book to feel realistic. And no one goes around giving monologues all the time. Life is a balance between interacting with others and time in our own thoughts. Your goal for your book should be to reflect that constant back-and-forth between thought (description) and conversation (dialogue).
5. And remember, no name-calling.
Except at specific points in a conversation with another person, you don’t use their name all that often. When we’re conversing with someone, especially when only one-on-one, we hardly ever call them by name twice in ten minutes, much less in twice in two sentences.
Here are the exceptions to the rule:
- You use a person’s name when you are attempting to get their attention because you need to speak to them
- You use a person’s name when you are clarifying something. Example: “…your purse, Mary.” (Most often applies in group conversations.)
- You use a person’s name sometimes when you are emphasizing a point. Example: “But, Mom, I need new Nikes!”
You did it! You just learned five ways to craft killer dialogue in your novel. Now’s the time for the self-edit. If you find yourself giving your dialogue a once-over…and wincing, try one of these tips to fix it. (And if you need more guidance, consider one of my editing services packages.) Or download the cheatsheet below for even more tips!