"Let's talk!" (About great dialogue)

A few weeks ago, we gave you some basic pointers on how to punctuate dialogue. Now that you know where the periods and end quotes go, it’s time to understand how we can make our dialogue more interesting to read!

First of all, good dialogue does a few important things to the story. 

Good dialogue:

  • Helps us understand what the relationships are between the characters.
  • Moves the story along (this is one of the most critical components of dialogue).
  • Increases tension within the story (i.e., it makes you wonder what is going to happen next!).

But how can you accomplish these things effectively, especially if you are not a seasoned writer?

Let’s take the first part: Dialogue helps us understand the relationship between characters. Below, I’ll give you an example of dialogue that does not accomplish this, and second, an example of dialogue that does.

“What time do you have?” Sarah asked tentatively.

“I don’t know,” he answered brusquely.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but do you happen to have the time?” Sarah asked. “I’m running late!”

“I don’t wear a watch,” the man answered, “and now I’ve missed my train!”

The second set of dialogue lets us know that Sarah was asking a stranger for the time and not someone she already knew.  Also note: eliminate the use of adverbs in dialogue tags when possible, such as “tentatively” and “brusquely.” Show through the actual dialogue how something is being said or asked. It’s perfectly acceptable to use says/said, asks/asked as dialogue tags.

Our second objective: Moving the story along might look something like this:
“I’m terribly sorry,” Sarah choked back tears, “it’s just that I have a very important meeting and everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.””No problem,” the man sighed, “I can get the next train, it’s not a big deal. Where is your meeting?” Our last objective: Increasing tension, might look something like this: “Downtown,” Sarah ventured, “at Main, between 5th and 6th Streets?””Really?” the man asked. “That’s funny. That’s where I work. Your name isn’t Sarah, is it?” Now we’ve hopefully got you wondering what the gist of the story is — whether or not the plot is about to unfold.

Again, note our verb choices: choked back (tears), sighed, ventured. All better choices than he said/she said or she asked/he asked, although it is perfectly acceptable to use said and asked, sparingly.

Care to continue the story? Feel free to give me the next set of dialogue in the comment section. If it’s believable, I’ll approve it for publishing here!