Are you struggling to write dialogue that sounds natural? Look no further than this video in which we dive into the art of writing great dialogue that sounds natural, with Tahlia and Rose Newland as our expert guides.
In this tutorial, Tahlia Newland, AIA Publishing’s managing editor, shares her top tips for crafting compelling dialogue that engages readers and brings your characters to life.
Whether you’re a seasoned writer or just starting out, this video is a must-watch for anyone looking to improve their dialogue writing skills. Tahlia brings years of experience to the table, and her insights are sure to help you take your writing to the next level.
So grab a pen and paper and get ready to take notes as Tahlia and Rose walk you through the ins and outs of writing great dialogue. By the end of this video, you’ll have all the tools you need to write dialogue that sounds natural and keeps readers hooked from start to finish.
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Video notes below, but watch the video to get the full picture.
For more details on writing good dialogue see https://www.tahlianewland.com/tips-for-writing-dialogue/ and
Too many ‘said’s?
An author should avoid using too many ‘said’s, but do we say things like ‘he espoused’ or ‘he agreed’ or ‘she ordered’ instead?
In a word, no. Despite what your primary school teachers might have told you.
‘Said’ is what we call a simple dialogue tag, and it’s a good word to use to ‘tag’ who is speaking because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. But if every time you write a bit of dialogue, you say ‘he said’ or ‘she said,’ it makes the writing repetitive and unsophisticated.
But replacing it with what we call fancy tags – anything that isn’t ‘said’ or ‘replied’ with the occasional ‘yelled’ or ‘shouted’ – isn’t a good idea because it draws attention to the word, and that distracts from the story. The best reading experience is when the reader forgets they’re reading, and any word that sticks out draws away from that. ‘Said’ and ‘replied’ aren’t noticed unless you overdo them.
See the video for my story of a mainstream publisher who had strong opinion on this.
How do you avoid using too many ‘said’s without replacing them with fancy tags?
Avoid using tags at all. Instead of a ‘he said’ you just describe what action the speaker is doing as they speak. Something like:
George slumped into the chair. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
Mary sighed and shook her head. ‘‘How about calling her.’
‘What?’ George rolled his eyes. ‘I can’t do that.’
And if there’s only a couple of people speaking you can have several pieces of dialogue going back and forth without tagging it because the reader can follow due to the punctuation.
Just make sure the reader doesn’t get lost as to who’s speaking though.
Ground your dialogue by placing it in a setting.
If you don’t include descriptions of facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and actions that remind the reader where the dialogue is taking place, it can become ungrounded, unrelated to any scene or context. It’s then like the conversation is taking place in a vacuum, so avoid this.
Different voices for different characters
Different characters should sound different. Their voices should reflect their character and how they see the world. They should have different speech patterns and use words that suit their generation and race,
So, if you’re a kid, you might describe a Van Gogh painting as a ‘a swirly mess of flowers’ whereas an art critic would call it a Van Gogh and probably know its title.
How they talk reflects how they interpret their world. In fantasy for instance, if you have different races, you want people from those races to speak differently. The high elves, for instance, could speak formally and the protagonist – if they’re a simple village girl – could speak more like we do.
The high elves might not use contractions and they might use titles all the time when referring to people. ‘Sir George, I cannot abide this situation.’ Whereas the protagonist might use contractions and first names for people. ‘Seriously, George, I really can’t hack this scene anymore.’ That’s the voice of a modern person.
Write how people speak
Write how people speak; don’t just write what you want them to say. You have to get inside the character, pretend you are them and speak as they speak.
For instance, modern people use contractions; we say, ‘I don’t want to go. I can’t stand parties.’ We don’t say, ‘I do not want to go. I cannot stand parties.’
- If you’re writing historical fiction, you must make sure to use the language of the time, and often that means not using contractions. It also means checking that you’re not using a word that wasn’t in use at the time your story is set. For instance the word ‘cool’ used as a way of describing something you think is ‘intensely good, didn’t start coming into use until the 1930s and not widely until the 1960s.
- Don’t have your characters reveal everything they’re thinking and feeling or give their whole life story to other characters – especially when they first meet them. People don’t usually bare their souls to others – at least not until they know them really well. In general people are usually circumspect with what they share. Leave the reader with some mystery.
- Use subtext to communicate, rather than laying character’s feelings out in dialogue. So someone frowning at a certain point could show that they are unsure of what they’re saying, or worried, rather than the character saying they are unsure or worried. The same information is given, but using subtext is more realistic, and it’s more sophisticated writing. See this article for more on subtext. https://www.tahlianewland.com/writing-good-dialogue-use-subtext/
Dialogue writing general tips
- Don’t use dialogue as a way to tell the story, use it as a way to show the story. In other words, use it to show what happened in a scene – what was actually said; don’t use it as a way to deliver information. An information dump in dialogue is still an information dump.
- Vary how you do it. Sometimes use tags, sometimes use actions, sometimes no tags at all.
- Put the name of the speaker before the tag – so ‘George said’, not ‘said George’ – and only short sentences before the tag.
So for instance: ‘I’m running to the supermarket now,’ George said. ‘Is there anything you want? I was thinking of having bean salad for dinner,’
is better than,
‘I’m running to the supermarket now. Is there anything you want? I was thinking of having bean salad for dinner,’ said George.
This is because it’s more immediate writing because the reader knows immediately, or fairly quickly, who’s speaking. You don’t want to get to the end of a long passage of speech without knowing who’s talking.
The single most important tip for good dialogue writing
Read it out loud so you can hear if it sounds natural or not and whether your characters sound different to each other.
00:28 – How to avoid using ‘said’.
05:10 – How to use punctuation to indicate who is speaking.
06.20 – How long before you need to put a dialogue tag in a conversation?
07:05 – The importance of grounding the dialogue.
08:08 – Differentiating how your characters talk.
09.20 – Info dumps in dialogue.
10:16 – Different ways of speaking for different character types.
11:57 – Accents.
12:59 – Subtext.
14:06 – Well, um, ah.
14:45 – More on tags and punctuation.
15.30 – 2 extra little-known tips for writing dialogue.