Dialogue has been one of the hardest things I have to tackle when I write. When I first started writing, I read somewhere that dialogue is the key to push a story forward. The article said (and that’s what has stayed with me since) that if the writer finds himself in a pickle as to how to proceed in a story, then have two characters talk about it and that should give a way out. Alas, having only days of writing experience back then, I failed to understand the deeper meaning of that. I followed it to the letter and earlier versions of my now-on-hold fantasy novel were plagued with dialogues that served nothing and were woody and lame.

Have I improved as a writer since? In many aspects, the answer is yes. Have I solved the problem with dialogue, improving the way I use it? I say this with the utmost sincerity; NO! It still gives me a very hard time BUT it’s not as bad as it was. Still, it’s my main problem when I write, so much so that sometimes I dread it.

The novel I’m about finish (2 1/2 scenes to go, yay!) takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. There are very few people left and those who have survived, are in hiding in as much dark places as possible (hence the title, The Darkening). Isolation (and its associated mental issues) are a key in the story. As a result, there’s very little dialogue involved, although there are times where that can’t be avoided, especially when the character is talking to the voices in his head. Later in the story, things change and when other characters appear, dialogue is unavoidable, along with my problems to write them convincingly.

So what does dialogue entail?

Virtually every book that is related to teaching us how to write fiction has at least one chapter devoted to dialogue and dialogue tags or non-dialogue tags (for the latter, I’m sure there’s a name but I’m afraid I don’t know it.) Dialogue tags are the little bits that follow (or sometimes precede) whatever a character says in the form of “he/she said.”
“Get off my property,” the old farmer said/ he said.
“Thanks,” she said.
Non-dialogue tags are somewhat longer sentences that are related to what a character says and they usually show to the reader something the character is doing while speaking or emphasize a character’s trait.
She put both hands on her hips and glared at him. “Well? What’s your excuse now?”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” He looked over her shoulder, biting his nail.
One of the main differences in these examples is that they tend to use different punctuation. Dialogue tags use a comma before the “he/she said” tag and “said” acts as a way of linking the two bits, whereas non-dialogue tags often use a full stop. Another difference is that in the case of non-dialogue tags, the sentence that follows or precedes whatever is in the quotation marks is a sentence of its own and is fully capable of standing on its own.

Both kinds are essential because they tell the reader who tells what and in what way.

My earlier writings were terrible because I thought that said was such a boring word, showing so little of each character’s emotional state, so I thought “let’s spice it up a bit, shall we?” So I used words like “replied,” “grated,” “reciprocated,” etc. The problem was (and still is) that English is not my native language. As a result language barrier would soon kick in, leaving me repeating the same words. So I’d run to my bookcase, get my dictionaries, go online to as many online thesauri as possible and find new words. But they were words I had never seen or used before. Which after a while made me think “If I don’t know that word, then there’s bound to be someone else out there who also hasn’t seen or heard this word as well.”

I think most of us have gone through a similar stage, when we started writing. It happens naturally, in our attempt to be original and to show that we have some potential with this whole thing. Instead of that, we end up making things worse for us. At least I did.

I don’t think dialogue needs anything more than “he/she said” at most cases. I hardly ever use anything other than that nowadays. I had read once an article that said there was no need to write “Fired? What do yo mean?” he/she grated. Instead of the word “grated” it was better to have the same character sitting at the edge of their chair, perhaps holding something on their lap or having them tapping their foot lightly, then having them stand up with such intensity, their chair would fall back, later banging the office door as they left the room. The dialogue mentioned above can be broken down to increase intensity and show the reader all the feelings and emotions within the word “grated.” Here’s an example:
Alan sat on the edge of his seat, his foot tapping slightly with a mind of its own. He had his eyes fixed on Mr. Boss, studying every move he made, while the man read through his file.
“Alan, I’m afraid we’re going to have to lay you off,” Mr Boss said and closed the file slowly. “You see, the company -”
“Fired?” Alan stood up so fast that he sent the chair flying back. “What do you mean? After all these years?”

It’s not the best description of a scene but you get the meaning, right? The first example tells us about the character’s emotions and reactions (grated is a rather descriptive word), whereas the second one (though a miserable attempt at it, I admit) SHOWS us all these things. And you can see both dialogue tags and non-dialogue tags in action.

I hope this helps a bit 🙂