Dialogue isn’t just about creating direct quotations from different characters. Sometimes dialogue is best when it’s put into a summarized form, rather than the drawn-out form of an actual conversation.
There are several important things to remember when writing conversations like the examples above, which are called direct dialogue:
- Do not use dialogue simply to convey information. Dialogue should set the scene, advance action, give insight into characterization, remind the reader, and foreshadow. Dialogue should always be doing many things at once.
- Keep the character’s voice in mind but keep it readable. Dialogue doesn’t have to be grammatically correct; it should read like actual speech. However, there must be a balance between realistic speech and readability.
- Don’t use too much slang or misspelling in order to create a character’s voice. Also remember to use speech as a characterization tool. Word choice tells a reader a lot about a person: appearance, ethnicity, sexuality, background, and morality.
- Tension! Sometimes saying nothing, or the opposite of what we know a character feels, is the best way to create tension. If a character wants to say ‘I love you!” but their actions or words say ‘I don’t care,’ the reader cringes at the missed opportunity.
Formatting Short Story Dialogue
Format and style are key to successful dialogue. Correct tags, punctuation, and paragraphs can be almost as important as the actual quotations themselves.
The first thing to remember is that punctuation goes inside quotations.
- “I can’t believe you just did that!”
Dialogue tags are the he said/she said’s of quotations. Very often they are mistakenly used as forms of description. For example:
- “But I don’t want to go to sleep yet,” he whined.
While these types of tags are acceptable and even necessary at times, they should only be used sparingly. The dialogue and narration should be used to show the emotion or action stated in the tag. One of the most important rules of writing fiction is: show, don’t tell.
Instead of telling the reader that the boy whined in the example above, a good writer will describe the scene in a way that conjures the image of a whining little boy:
- He stood in the doorway with his hands balled into little fists at his sides. His red, tear-rimmed eyes glared up at his mother. “But I don’t want to go to sleep yet.”
Paragraphs are very important to the flow and comprehension of the dialogue. Remember to start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes within the dialogue. This helps the reader know when someone new is speaking (and who it is).
If there is action involved with a speaking character, keep the description of the action within the same paragraph as the dialogue of the character engaged in it.