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When writing dialogue I usually just make one character say whatever I want them to say and then write "said" at the end, but I feel like I'm doing it wrong.

What is the correct way to write dialogue?

marked as duplicate by Philipp, BugFolk, Community Jan 20 '18 at 1:34

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    Related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/31137/… – F1Krazy Jan 18 '18 at 16:17
  • Here are some additional examples: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/18174/… – raddevus Jan 18 '18 at 18:42
  • "said" isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's become so common that most readers would barely notice the "said", so it actually flows better than other options. – Harabeck Jan 18 '18 at 23:21
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    There's a typo in your question—you spelled "one" as "the." – Wildcard Jan 19 '18 at 3:17
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    Is this about the dialogue itself, or the text around the dialogue (i.e. the quote marks and "said")? Because the former is a completely different question from the latter. – Kevin Jan 19 '18 at 6:23
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It depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

Think of authors that you've read who handle dialogue differently, and what they were trying to convey.

For instance:

"I'm headed to the store," Bob called out to his wife as he headed for the front door.

"Really? What are we out of?"

"Eggs. I used the rest of them baking that cake last night, and I wanted to make sure that we had enough for the church brunch this Sunday."

"Oh, okay. Drive safe, hurry back."

"I will. Love you!"

"Love you, too."

As opposed to:

Bob slowly trudged down the stairs. He longed for the days when something as simple as going to the grocery store was just that: simple.

He cleared his throat before calling out, "I'm headed to the store."

Jill wiped the tears from her eyes. His voice had come out of nowhere, cutting through the dense fog of depression that threatened to overwhelm her. She looked around to see if he had seen her crying, but no, his voice emanated from somewhere else inside the house.

Her words came tumbling out before she had time to judge what tone was necessary. "Really?" she asked. "What are we out of?"

Bob was glad she was in the other room so that she didn't see his wince. "Eggs," he said, trying to keep emotion out of his voice. "I used the rest of them baking that cake last night, and I wanted to make sure that we had enough for the church brunch this Sunday."

Jill's face fell into her hands again. Like that cake was going to all at once make up for his betrayal. And that damn brunch! They'd agreed to help with the annual Memorial Day brunch over a month ago, long before his late-night confession.

She mustered the rest of her emotional strength to keep her voice in check. "Oh, okay," she said. "Drive safe, hurry back."

Bob almost let out an audible sigh of relief; one of the few discussions, if it could be called that, they'd had in a long time that hadn't devolved into a shouting match. "I will," he called out. He hesitated before saying what he had in mind next; he didn't want this spark to rekindle her anger, understandable and justified though it was. Nevertheless, he wanted his feelings to be known.

"I love you," he said, just before a tear snuck out and traversed a route down his cheek.

Jill heard the catch in her husband's voice, and a new wave of emotion rolled over her. He must think I hate him, she thought. How could I hate him? She felt the need to reaffirm their bond before he headed out the door, while at the same time not wanting him to think that everything was fine. She settled on a simple, "Love you, too."

Vs.:

Bob made sure to tell his wife where he was going before he headed out the door to buy more eggs for the Sunday brunch.

Even though the dialogue itself is the same in these three examples, they're each trying to accomplish something different, and neither is wrong. Any of these styles (or 17 others one could think of) could be applicable to the same story. Just establish what you're trying to accomplish before you try to accomplish it.

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    About the first example: Even though it's a good one, because it establishes both characters and then just the exchange of words, I often lose track of who's saying what if there's not a slight reminder every 4 o 5 lines of dialogue, making me go back to the last "checkpoint" and count. In your example, I would add it around the "love you" lines, like: "I will. Love you!", he said, smiling – xDaizu Jan 19 '18 at 8:59
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    This is the best answer. You win the Stack Exchange. – DPT Jan 20 '18 at 1:19
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There isn't really a correct way - just ways that work and ways that work better.

"Yeah, so?" John said.

is fine, and certainly not incorrect, but you could go for something more expressive :

"Yeah, so?" John mumbled.

You don't even need a synonym for "said", or the conventional structure :

John picked his nose and examined his fingernail. "Yeah, so?"

As long as the reader knows who is saying what, it'll be correct - even if it doesn't follow any of the conventional approaches.

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John Doe's answer does an excellent job of explaining what to do about the word "said" and other dialogue tags. But there's another half to this question which is currently being neglected. Specifically, the words inside the quotes.


I usually just make the character say whatever I want them to say

Ideally, the character should be saying what the character wants to say, regardless of what you, the author, want them to say. Unfortunately, the difference can be really subtle and hard to pick up on. Here are some specific things to watch for in a character's dialogue:

  • Tone - How does the speaker feel about the subject? Positively, negatively, somewhere in between? Are they happy, sad, angry, something else? How does the phrasing of their statement reflect these emotions?
  • Diction (word choice) - What is the speaker's background? Which words are they more likely to use? Compare a scientist with a layperson. Also consider colloquialisms, slang, jargon, etc., but don't use anything too obscure or impenetrable to your target audience.
  • Sentence structure and cohesion - How practiced is the speaker at speaking? Do they use short simple sentences, or long rambling word salads? How well do their sentences flow into one another? Compare a politician reading from a speech to that same politician speaking extemporaneously.
  • Certitude - How strongly does the speaker believe that they are right, and how assertive are they about it? Is the speaker confident in their statements, or tentative? Compare and contrast a salesperson and an engineer.
  • Politeness - How does the speaker see themself in relation to their audience? Is the character asking or demanding? Do they say "please" and "thank you," address people as sir or ma'am, etc.?
  • Goals - What does the speaker want, if anything? How does their dialogue directly help (or hinder) them? Obviously relevant to persuasive speech, but even simple, factual discussions will be colored by a character's biases and personal opinions.
  • Sincerity - You can get a lot of mileage out of contrasting a character's literal words (their dialogue, reflecting all of the above factors) with their demeanor (described outside of quoted speech). For example, an evil character might speak very politely, but in a cold voice or with unfriendly body language. This serves to emphasize their insincerity and untrustworthiness, and can be far more effective than making them talk like a jerk.

And a few riskier strategies:

  • Phrasing, grammar, and mechanics - Use with care, as overly irregular grammar will interfere with the reader's immersion and possibly their understanding. But the really nitpicky stuff, like who/whom, less/fewer, P-stranding, etc. can show a character's attention to detail. It can also make the character sound like an English teacher or pedant.
  • Phonetic spelling of an accent - Use with extreme care. Pick a small number of easily-recognized alternate spellings of individual words. Otherwise, your readers will have difficulty following the dialogue. Emily Brontë can get away with that, but you probably can't.

Notice in particular that "How does this dialogue advance the plot?" is not on the list. Dialogue isn't about advancing the plot. It is about advancing each character's personal agenda, in their own personal way. If the dialogue is totally pointless, you can skip it with an "and then Alice told Bob about the MacGuffin" without going into further detail. But you should never twist a character's literal words in order to serve the plot, except to the extent that serving the plot is also serving that character's interests.

With enough practice, you should be able to visualize the character, put them into a given scenario, and just listen to them talk about it. Write down what they say, and you have your dialogue. This requires a very intimate and detailed knowledge of your character's voice, but the resulting dialogue can sound quite natural with extraordinarily little editing.

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