Anyone who has worked with me knows that I take a pretty hard line when it comes to rules for writing dialogue. I have a low tolerance for telling in dialogue tags, like:
“I’m so excited!” she said exuberantly.
“That’s wonderful.” Coldness radiated from his voice.
Nothing bums me out more than reading scenework where the writer has decided to take all the fun out of it on the reader’s behalf. Sometimes I call it “hand-holding,” sometimes I call it “overexplaining,” sometimes I just cross it out. Let’s take a deeper look at the rules for writing dialogue and what you need to watch out for.
Overexplaining Takes the Shine Out of Your Dialogue
The reason behind my aversion is that writers who do this are taking something essential away from the reader. The star of dialogue is the dialogue itself (tips on how to write dialogue). Holding the reader’s hand through each snippet of dialogue says to me that you don’t quite trust yourself to communicate the scene in a way that the reader gets it.
Scene is one of the magic places in a manuscript where characters can be on display, speaking to one another, acting toward one another, and otherwise demonstrating themselves and their relationships. Rules for writing dialogue that works is the ultimate voyeur’s paradise (calling the reader a voyeur here). Whenever you tell, instead of show, you take away the reader’s power to interpret and appreciate character. (Follow the link for more info on show, don’t tell if you need to brush up on this elusive concept.)
Rules For Writing Dialogue: Match Dialogue With Action
The first example of writing dialogue in fiction, above, is there because it’s redundant. You would not believe how many writers do this. If a character says “I’m so excited!” then it can stand alone, with no further explanation. I’d be a wealthy woman if I had $5 for every time I saw:
“I’m sorry,” she apologized.
“Yes,” he agreed.
The second example is more subtle. Your character is saying one thing, but there’s an undercurrent of story tension and the suggestion that they mean something else. Delicious! Instead of describing tone of voice (sneaky telling), maybe match up the dialogue with action to color it:
“That’s wonderful.” He crossed his arms.
Writing Dialogue in Fiction: Match Dialogue With Character Reaction
Or, maybe even better yet, leave it up to reader or POV character interpretation:
“Oh yeah? You think so?” The last time he’d used that descriptor, he was watching a snake choking the life out of a mongoose.
Let the character react, which will help guide reader feelings.
Dialogue Tags Communicate Information
The two biggest things they should clarify are:
- Who is speaking?
- Is there anything going on in narration or action that’s not implied in the dialogue?
But too many tags tell about emotions, tone of voice, and tension when those are better uncovered by the reader for lasting character and relationship understanding. Next time you’re working on a scene and you want to try something hard, take out ALL of your dialogue tags and see how it reads. If it’s totally confusing, layer back 25% of what you had before and see if you can make it work. (Check out types of dialogue tags here.)
If you’re one of those writers addicted to dialogue tags, especially in scenes with only two characters, where you theoretically don’t even need them, I bet this will be a revelatory reminder that you’re explaining too much.
Are you struggling with the rules for writing dialogue? When you invest in my manuscript editing services, I’ll help you identify instances of telling in dialogue, as well which tags you can trim altogether.