Some Basics of Dialogue Mechanics

Dialogue mechanics tends to refer to all the other stuff surrounding dialogue that isn’t the actual words spoken by the characters. Today I want to talk a little about some of the basics of dialogue mechanics that have helped me improve my dialogues, both things to avoid, things to try, and why.

1. Dialogue tags

Dialogue tags are the speaker attributions in the text. All the “he said” and “she said” bits. And, yes, for the most part, you’ll want to use the simple word “said.”

I know, I know, my kids’ elementary teachers will disagree with me and insist that “said is dead” and we should use other words. Fancy words like cried and screamed and moaned and snarled and snorted and all of those kinds of words. The problem with these fancy dialogue tags is that they draw attention to themselves. Readers notice them and that draws their attention away from the words that were actually said in the dialogue. (Plus, you run the risk of making your novel sound like a melodramatic soap opera if too many people are panting and bellowing and hissing.)

While it seems like using “said” over and over would be boring, the truth of the matter is that readers don’t notice the word said. It’s basically invisible to them and they’ll focus instead on the actual dialogue instead.

2. Adverbs

Ah, adverbs. All those lovely –ly words. Writers will sometimes try to use them to make “said” more dramatic or interesting and as an alternative to those fancy dialogue tags. According to Browne and Renni in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.” Good dialogue should be able to stand on its own without explanations. And that’s all those –ly words are: explanation.

3. Explaining the dialogue

Adverbs are a quick way of trying to explain the dialogue. But sometimes authors go even further and actually spell out the dialogue. For example:

Connor ran his hand through Pippa’s hair.

Pippa twitched away from him. “Don’t touch me,” she said. Pippa hated it when people touched her hair. Especially after she’d spent an hour fixing it that morning, and especially by Connor, her ex-boyfriend. “I never want to see you again.”

This is just a quick (and not-so-great) example off the top of my head, but you can see how the long explanation in the middle about Pippa not liking her hair touched isn’t really necessary. Look at it again without the explanation of the dialogue:

Connor ran his hand through Pippa’s hair.

Pippa twitched away from him. “Don’t touch me,” she said. “I never want to see you again.”

It’s not amazing dialogue, by any means, but it has a lot more of an emotional impact when the distracting explanation is removed.

Another reason to be careful with explaining dialogue is that it often robs readers of the opportunity to pick up on subtext and try to figure out what’s going on beneath the words.

4. Action beats

Action beats can be a great alternative to dialogue tags, but writers should be careful using them. Every action beat is essentially a pause in the conversation. The longer the beat, the longer the break in the conversation. It’s important to be aware of how the beats function within the dialogue and use that to your advantage. So pay attention to how your favorite authors use action beats. Look at how they use those breaks to pause the conversation and how they avoid them when they want a scene to speed up.

In any case, Happy Independence Day and happy writing!

What advice do you have for me about dialogue? Have you learned anything that’s helped you improve your dialogue?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

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