Tips for telling a story through dialogue only

“I heard you’re a bit worried about it.”

“Well, I’m really unsure about this only writing dialogue. How do I do it? What are the tricks?”

“What are you specifically unsure about?”

“Well, it’s the speech tag thing, you know, writing without them.”

“You just cut them out. Don’t write them.”

“Well, how will the reader know who’s speaking? How do you work around it? If I cut out every ‘he said’ and ‘she asked’ and ‘I replied’, how will the reader know who’s speaking?”

“Sometimes you can use tricks like starting one character’s lines with the same word, like ‘Well’.”

“Well, I guess I could do that.”

“There are other ways you can use language to help characterisation. One character uses pompous, over-emphatic, deliberately highbrow and impossibly long-winded sentences.”

“And the other doesn’t.”

— And sometimes you can use punctuation to differentiate the two speakers.

Like that?

— Yes, like this.

Oh, I see. Is that an em dash or an en dash? I can never tell the difference.

— It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s consistent. Otherwise, it can become too confusing.

That’s good to know. Any other tips?

Alternate using italics.

With non-italics?

Yes, that’s another easy way to go.

Maybe this is a little easier than I realised.

Yes, exactly.

But how can I inject emotion into the dialogue? Usually I show characters’ expressions or use actions to show how they’re feeling.

WHY ARE YOU STILL ASKING ME QUESTIONS?!

Huh?

WHY ARE YOU STILL ASKING ME QUESTIONS?!

I’m trying —

WHY ARE YOU STILL ASKING ME QUESTIONS?!

OKAY, I understand you now.

“Are those … are those … tears in your eyes?!? You suddenly look so sad.”

“No, I’m standing in a wind tunnel!”

“Creative use of punctuation can also become your … new … best … friend.”

“Well, what if someone isn’t saying anything? There’s just a giant pause … ?”

“…………………………………………….”

“Oh. And actions? How can I incorporate actions that can really help the story move forward or show us what characters are feeling or help further develop character?”

“Hang on, I’m just flicking the switch on the kettle.”

“And can you bring out the sugar please? I’ve cut out milk but I’m so half-hearted about these things, I can’t do without sugar. Jeez, that kettle is so noisy!”

“Yeah, sorry, about that. We need to buy a new one. We’ve just been a bit slack. Or Richard has been a bit slack and I’ve been holed up in the study reading romance novels.”

“Any last words for the would-be wise?”

“Yeah … a one thousand maximum word count doesn’t mean you have to write one thousand words or even come close to it. Some stories are completely fine being shorter.”

“Can this whole dialogue-only thing be achieved with poetry as well? Or is it just a prose thing?”

“I guess you can try. Prose or poetry? … My advice is, see how you go.”