How to Write Dialogue That Doesn’t Suck: The Comma Rule

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July 9, 2017
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how to write dialogue that doesn't suck

Dialogue. It’s the grease that keeps your story moving. Done well, it gives personality to your characters and brings them to glorious technicolor life. Done poorly, it can make an author crash and burn faster than Harrison Ford in a prop plane. If you want to write stories that keep your reader reading, it’s important to learn how to write dialogue that doesn’t suck.

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you probably know most of the “rules.”

Don’t explain Every. Little. Detail. in your dialogue.

Do inject personality, but don’t make the character’s patois overwhelming or you’ll lose meaning (and readers!)

Use the verb “said” rather than exclaimed, called, or God forbid, ejaculated. It’s okay to add a different verb every now and then, but “said” is, by and far, the best choice. You want your reader focused on the character’s words, not yours.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There’s lots of instruction on how to write dialogue. For me, the question was: Is there a hack I can use to improve, fine tune, or otherwise tweak the dialogue I’ve written? The answer is a resounding YES and, what’s more, it’s a super simple technique that will have you slapping your forehead in amazement that you didn’t think of it sooner. Best of all, the results will be dialogue that really packs a punch.

How to Write Dialogue: The Easy Trick to Better Character Discourse

Sometimes an example is worth a thousand words, so I’m going to use one to unveil this tip. Here’s some sample dialogue:

“Have you taken out the trash yet? I heard the truck down the street a moment ago.”

“Well you see, I was texting Mark about playing basketball and I forgot.”

“Jerry, your father asked you fifteen times this morning. How could you forget?”

“Mom, I know. I won’t forget next week–promise.”

Now, REMOVE EVERYTHING BEFORE THE COMMA IN EACH SENTENCE. Watch the magic happen. Here’s the revised conversation:

“Have you taken out the trash yet? I heard the truck down the street a moment ago.”

“I was texting Mark about playing basketball and I forgot.”

“Your father asked you fifteen times this morning. How could you forget?”

“I know. I won’t forget next week–promise.”

See the difference? Without those pauses slowing it down, this dialogue packs a punch. Want to make it even better?

Replace Commas with Description

You’ve cleaned up your dialogue, now add some polish. Check out this revision:

“Have you taken out the trash yet? I heard the truck down the street a moment ago.” Jerry’s mother peered through the yellowed lace of the kitchen curtains looking for the hulking blue form of the garbage truck.

Jerry scuffed the toe of his sneakers on the kitchen floor. “I was texting Mark about playing basketball and I forgot.”

“Your father asked you fifteen times this morning. How could you forget?” Margery Billings sighed in exasperation. Jerry would forget his head if it wasn’t attached to his neck.

Her son gave what he hoped was a sheepish grin. “I know. I won’t forget next week–promise.

Do you see how Jerry’s toe-scuffing sneaker takes the place of his hesitant “Well, you see . . .”? His mannerisms step in where his words left off. Not only does it substitute nicely for the removed dialogue, but it helps the reader see Jerry in their mind’s eye. The same thing happens when you replace Margery’s calling our her son’s name with sighs of exasperation. By removing that bit of fluff, the writer is able to add insight into the mother’s outlook on her son’s forgetfulness.

Ah, I love it when a plan comes together! Writing dialogue is easy, and revising it even easier, with this sweet little trick.

See you on the next page!

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