Dialogue should play a major role in any story. Pages full of descriptive and narrative paragraphs are less enticing than hearing the characters speak for themselves in their own voices. Dialogue has an immediacy to it that is missing from all other kinds of writing.
Dialogue: Two or more people or characters tell each other something, or hide something from each other, or express emotions to others. It is speech written down.
In well-written dialogue, we can hear the voice of the speaker(s) in our head as we read. It allows us to infer the character’s emotions from what they say and how they say it, as we do in real-life conversations. It makes characters feel more real.
However, simply recording a conversation as heard in real life does not create deep dialogue. If all we write is the actual spoken words, two problems arise. First, there is no way to know who is speaking, especially if the conversation is long or there is more than one speaker. Second, a lot of what people say to each other is mundane stuff that is boring to read and does not move our story forward.
One way to address these problems is to use dialogue tags or beats and careful editing.
Name Dialogue Tags
The standard way of identifying the speaker in dialogue is to use a name tag. This is a short piece of information that identifies who is speaking. Such as Bob said or Magie whispered. The convention in modern writing is for the name to precede the verb and for the tag to follow the spoken words.
Obviously, in actual conversation, people don’t use name tags, and these types of tags can draw the reader out of your writing if you use them too much or make them too noticeable.
For this reason, said is the recommended verb to use for almost all dialogue tags as readers skim over it. An occasional whisper, murmur, or asked are acceptable. But avoid stronger verbs. The reader should be able to tell from what the character says or behaves how they are speaking. Also, if you are considering making an audio recording of your story, the use of said makes the dialogue less intimate.
In fact, in most cases, you don’t need name tags at all. Try removing as many saids, asks, and so on as possible from your draft.
That doesn’t mean you still don’t need to identify who is speaking. See if you can substitute any of the tag ideas that follow.
Action Dialogue Tags
Rather than a said or asked, consider showing who and how the character is speaking by their actions. A big advantage of action tags is that the name can come before the dialogue, which can’t be done with said. Here are a set of examples that show how the same words take on distinct tones depending on the character’s actions.
Bob slammed his fist on the table. “Don’t leave.”
Bob ran his hand down her arm. “Don’t leave.”
Bob shuffled the papers. “Don’t leave.”
Note: Avoid overusing simple, oft-repeated action tags like nod or glance.
Action tags can also show the detail setting through the interaction of the character with the objects in it and through their movements in it.
Carol slammed the chicken-coop door closed. “No way will that fox get my chickens again.”
Myki stepped out of the way of the child’s bicycle speeding by. “And when will you get you son under control?”
Emotion Dialogue Tags
Another way to identify the speaker and show the effect of the conversation is through visceral and involuntary physical reactions of the characters. This can be tricky as only the point-of-view character can feel the emotion internally. Non-point-of-view characters show their emotions on the outside as seen by the point-of-view character.
Mark’s face wore a grotesque grimace. “I found the letter.” [Secondary character – visible emotion on face]
Katie’s stomach clenched. “Where?” [POV character – she feels her stomach reaction inside]
For ways to express emotion, I recommend Ackerly and Puglisis’s The Emotion Thesaurus
Thought Dialogue Tag
People don’t stop thinking when they are talking. A powerful way to deepen dialogue is to insert the point-of-view character’s inner thought.
Bob waved a paper in her face. “I found the letter.”
All her secrets would be exposed. “Where?”
Some Dialogue Fixes
To discover if your dialogue is working for you, check:
Placement. In using any of these tags, consider if the action, emotion, or thought would logically come before the person speaks or after.
Balance. Is there a readable mix of dialogue, narrative, and action in every scene? If dialogue goes on too long without action or narrative, the reader can get lost. A general rule is three lines of dialogue should be broken up by one of the tags above to help identify who is talking.
Meaning. Do not use dialogue to tell the reader a fact that both characters know. Instead, ask: Why is the character saying this in this way? What do they want or desire from the other person? What does the other character want?
Too many tags. Read aloud the dialogue without the tags and eliminate as many as you can, especially the name tags with said.
Too many adverbs. Do not use adverbs to tell how the character feels or says something. Show that feeling or expression in what they say. For example, replace, he said angrily with “I’ll get you for that.” Or describe how the person’s voice sounds by describing its tone and quality. Is it melodious or rasping? Does it trail off, or are the words spoken through gritted teeth?
Overuse of character names. In real life, we do not say a person’s name every time we speak to them.
Is there subtext? Does your dialogue show how the character feels emotionally? One of the easiest ways to add subtext and also identify who is speaking at the same time is through the action tag. An action tag might show what the character is feeling even though their speech doesn’t show it. A nervous character might fidget with their tie clip but speak with authority. An angry character might clench and unclench their fists while using a soft voice.
Is inner thought over done or too long? Inserting the inner thought of the point-of-view character in a dialogue can deepen the meaning context. Too much, however, can cause the reader to lose track of the conversation. Keep inner thoughts to a sentence or two.
If longer, have the character refer back to the topic of the conversation when the dialogue restarts, just as we would if we lost the train of a actual conversation
Make it sound unique. Does each character have their own voice and vocabulary? Read your dialogue aloud without the tags and see if you can tell who is speaking merely from the words they use and how they phrase their sentences.
Include some setting. Do your characters interact with objects and elements in the setting as they talk, such as pick up an item or scuff their feet on the rug? Does something happen in the setting to interfere with or interrupt the conversation?
Cut the excess. Written dialogue is not a real conversation. Remove cliché small talk that does not develop character or plot, such as greetings, cliché compliments, and talk about the weather. Everything said should either develop the characters or move the plot forward.
Make clear who says what. If you have two characters speaking in the same paragraph, rewrite so that each has their own paragraph. For clarity, shrink long paragraphs of dialogue spoken by one character to three or four sentences or break into shorter paragraphs.
Silence. Add in moments of silence when the character does not answer back, but carries out an action. Not every comment by one character needs a spoken answer. White space makes for easier reading.
Fragment it. People do not always talk in complete sentences. Use sentence fragments and drop punctuation as needed. An ellipse . . . indicates a voice dropping away. An em dash—indicates a break in speech.
Dialects. Be very careful when using a dialect. Using poor grammar can make a character seem stupid. The general advice is to sprinkle in a few colorful or common words, such as lass for an Irish accent, that give the flavor of the language, and/or have the point-of-view character say something like: “His brogue deepened.”
Helps in fixing dialogue
- Read it aloud.
- Act it out with a partner.
- Use a text-to-speech app
Add depth to dialogue by using name, action, emotion, and thought tags more creatively.
Note: Dialogue is always in present tense and enclosed in quotes or with another accepted indicator. Write dialogue tags in past tense if your narrative is past tense; present tense if your narrative is in present.
4 thoughts on “Adding Depth to Dialogue”
Excellent thoughts here! What I do for internal quick thoughts is to use italics.
Very helpful and thorough blog! Thank you!
Excellent tips and checklist. Thanks!
This is extremely valuable . A fabulous tool for all writers young and old to their craft.