Writing Dialogue: Hearing the Conversation

Writing Dialogue

When I first decided to open up a blank word document and try my hand at writing the story that had been eating away at me, I did so with many unknowns. I had no idea what filter words were or how pacing worked. I didn’t have a clue about the romance arc or what a trope even was. But the thing that made me the most nervous about that book was the dialogue.

“But what about the dialogue?” I would ask anybody who read it. “Does it sound natural? Is it terrible?”

Because even though I didn’t call myself a writer, I was most definitely a reader. And natural, flowing dialogue has always been such a huge part of the reason I fall in love with books. What if I couldn’t do it? What if reading my book was like watching a terrible movie? But, even though I was terrified my writing was terrible, not knowing any writing rules may have been my biggest strength… to a point.

Hearing the Conversation

Here’s the thing: if I had to write a paper for a college professor, I would fail…hard. But luckily for me, writing dialogue isn’t at all the same thing. The strict rules that intimidate the crap out of me do not apply here. In order to write dialogue that your readers will relate to and enjoy reading, it has to sound like a conversation they might actually have. When speaking to our friends and family, there are chances that you will occasionally use slang or maybe favor a certain word or phrase more than others.

“Stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen.” — Regina George

Our lives are running dialogue. When you are on the phone, be aware of your words. How often do you really say your friend’s name while having a conversation? Listen to your friends and co-workers. How do they phrase things? Do those phrases change with their emotions? Watch your favorite movie. Differentiate between characters. How do their speech choices and patterns show you their personality? Because even though you may just be writing a scene between your MC and her bestie drinking wine, there is still a purpose behind these words. And that purpose is usually to get your reader to connect with your characters.

Hot tip: Read your dialogue out loud. I know. It feels silly and ridiculous, but trust me on this one. It is so helpful to hear your words outside of your head and get an actual feel for them. There have been times (tons) where I had no idea how awkward something I wrote was until I tried to say it out loud.

Dialogue and Action Tags

When I was polishing my manuscript to enter into Pitch Wars, one mentor tweeted four words that changed the way I viewed my dialogue forever: Dialogue and action tags.

***Insert screeching brakes and car crash soundtrack here***

Dialogue tags are words like “said” and “asked.”

“What in the world is a dialogue tag?” Alexa asked.

“A major part of writing dialogue,” the editor said.

Action tags, on the other hand, are where you do more showing than telling.

“What in the world is an action tag?” Alexa clasped her hands together and blinked back tears as she realized she still had no clue what she was doing.

Here is what I go by when using dialogue tags. First, use them sparingly. If you can use an action tag instead, do it! You know, the whole showing vs. telling thing. Also, avoid combining an action tag and dialogue tag. This is something that I still do, but try to avoid. In cases like the above example it’s pretty obvious:

“What in the world is an action tag?” Alexa asked and clasped her hands together and blinked back tears as she realized she still had no clue what she was doing.

Putting in “Alexa asked” didn’t add anything meaningful. The reader is still fully aware that a question was being asked without using the words.

Another thing I’ve been told is to not be creative when assigning dialogue tags. Use “said” and “asked.” They are so commonplace in writing that they are known as invisible words because reader’s brains tend to not register them.

When you get creative with dialogue tags, it can just become frustrating to the reader.

Of course, there are exceptions: mumbled, whispered, muttered. Lastly, remember that there are certain words that can never be used as dialogue tags. People cannot smile, frown, laugh or sigh words. Those are all actions.

Talking Heads

This is the dialogue from the first page of my book. Take a look.

“Marlee, let me see your hand! Did Chris propose yet?” Amber asked.

“Still naked. When it happens, I promise to let you know.” I said.

“Marlee, we made an exception for you to join the Lady Mustangs. Try to acknowledge that and save your little side conversation until we’ve finished.” Courtney said.

“Sorry, Court.”

“As I was saying, the annual Lady Mustangs Fashion Show is in three weeks. Everyone must attend the next meeting so we can discuss the outfits for you and your husbands.”

So? What’d you think? Missing something? Yes.

That is what we refer to as Talking Heads Syndrome. When you are writing a scene and there is just dialogue and not much else, you run the risk of creating a talking heads scenario. While a few lines of just back and forth dialogue is okay, but it shouldn’t go on like that for paragraphs or pages at a time.

Think about when you are having a conversation. Are you just standing there and talking? Doubtful. Maybe you’re fidgeting or looking around. Consider all of the internal thoughts you are having along with the external motions you’re making. What about reactions and emotions that happen? This should happen in your writing as well.

Writing Dialogue with Confidence

Writing a book can be unbelievably overwhelming, but I hope that being armed with these tips for writing dialogue will help with that. Dialogue shouldn’t only be fun to read, it should be fun to write! So go forth, my kissing friends! Make us laugh and cry and fall in love with the words you write and worlds you create.

Feature image by Ella Jardim on Unsplash 

Alexa Martin
Alexa Martin is a writer and stay-at-home mom. She lives in Colorado with her husband, four children, and German shepherd. When she’s not telling her kids to put their shoes on (again), you can find her catching up with her latest book boyfriend or on Pinterest pinning meals she’ll probably never make. Her first book, INTERCEPTED, is out now with Berkley.
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