Whether you’re writing the Next Great Novel or, arguably more important to its readers, the Next Great AU Crossover Fanfic, your characters probably have revealing, hilarious, and/or heartbreaking conversations with each other. I’m going to go over some ways to make those discussions more polished, so your pure genius shines through!
- Make sure your characters don’t all talk alike.
Maybe one of your characters talks in long, rambly sentences, while another is terse. One may say, “Oh my goodness,” while another curses like a fishwife. (Hey, if you were married to a fish, you’d be pissed, too.)
- Use “um” and “well” and “like” and such sparingly.
I just finished a round of edits on my latest romance novel, and my editor took out a lot of the verbal tics in my dialogue. In real life, a lot of us add filler phrases like “you know” or “I mean” to many of our sentences–you know what I mean? On the printed page, too much of that can drag your story down.
- Use non-standard English and dialect sparingly as well.
You can suggest accents and regional or cultural speech patterns by sprinkling just a few non-standard words, phrases or constructions throughout. If you try to spell every single word exactly as the character says it, you will drive your reader nuts.
- Avoid Floating Head Syndrome.
Oh, this is a struggle for me. In early drafts, I have line after line of dialogue with no descriptions of facial expressions, gestures, or physical actions. I’m in the middle of making long lists of facial expressions and gestures and things for my own reference in the future.
Of course, if your characters can do something while they talk–make a cake, clean their guns, whatever–that helps a lot! And this brings us to the next thing…
- Use some action tags!
OK, you know how you can wind up with “Sam said,” “Dean said,” “Sam said,” “Dean said,” all the way down the page, and it sucks? Say what the character is doing, and then when he talks, we’ll know it’s him. It’s fantastic! Like this:
Sam shut off the mixer. “Castiel is going to love this cake.”
Dean looked up from the Glock he was cleaning. “Why, is it angel food?”
- Use synonyms for “said””¦when it makes sense.
If you have plenty of action tags, you can use “he said” most of the time instead of coming up with different things like “he pointed out,” “she declared,” etc. Avoid fancier ways to say “said” when it doesn’t give the reader any extra information.
“Step away from the frosting, Crowley, or I’ll shoot,” Dean threatened.
Sometimes, though, another word for “said” is a clever way to let the reader know when the words and the tone of voice don’t match.
“Shut up,” Crowley suggested.
- Avoid inverted dialogue tags, maybe?
My publisher won’t accept “said Andi” or “asked the psychic.” It’s always “Andi said,” “the psychic asked,” etc. I had to change about two hundred instances of this in my story. But you know what? I think they’re right. It does sound better now.
If you have any other tips, I would love to hear them, because obviously, I’m still learning. Or if you just want to chat about what you’re writing, or about Supernatural, feel free!