Sarcasm can be an essential part of giving a character distinct personality and speech patterns, but it’s not exactly the easiest thing to convey in writing. After all, much of what makes sarcasm recognizable is the tone of voice a person uses. Without that, a character’s dialogue can come across as confused, aggressive, or just downright mean, when the character is supposed to sound playful instead.
Thankfully, you don’t need to turn your story into an audiobook just so readers can pick up on a character’s sarcasm. There are several tricks you can employ to give readers all the information they need to understand how characters communicate beyond the words they say.
Dialogue tags are a quick and easy way to give readers an indication of how a character is speaking without drawing a lot of attention to it. You don’t always need to saturate your work with flowery descriptive language—in fact, in fast-paced scenes, it’s better to get the information out there and move on so you don’t ruin the scene’s momentum. In an action scene, it’s better to simply state the character said something sarcastically than to make readers play a convoluted guessing game about the character’s tone when it probably isn’t instrumental to the plot.
With that said, don’t go overboard. If your story has too many dialogue tags, it’ll read more like a script, and you’ll have a harder time keeping readers’ attention. Relying too heavily on adverbs all the time is also generally seen as lazy writing.
Body language is one of the key ways you can tip readers off to a character’s sarcasm. By simply having a character roll their eyes or gesture exaggeratedly, you can tell readers that the character isn’t being genuine without wasting a whole lot of space on the page.
Using body language also allows you to “show, not tell” how the character is feeling. Rather than telling readers that the character is being sarcastic, you can illustrate that through their movements. If you’ve done this well, it’ll end up being a much more authentic experience for readers.
For tips on writing body language well, you can check out another one of my articles: Writing Body Language: Bringing Your Characters to Life.
For information on “Show, Don’t Tell,” be sure to check out: Show, Don’t Tell: What It Is and How to Use It (With Examples).
Action beats are by far my favorite technique when writing dialogue for any situation, but it is especially helpful when writing sarcasm. Action beats combine the ideas of dialogue tags and body language, allowing you to get the benefits of both simultaneously.
Rather than using the tag “Mark said sarcastically,” you can instead use an action beat: “Mark rolled his eyes.” You still indicate who is speaking, and you show how he is emoting. Additionally, the action beat doesn’t take up any more space than the traditional dialogue tag.
If you intend to use action beats in your story, make sure you know how to format them properly. My article Action Beats: What They Are and How to Use Them can help.
Another way you can indicate a sarcastic tone in dialogue is by changing the way you write it. People naturally emphasize certain words as they are speaking, but when people are being sarcastic, their tone generally shifts, and they will emphasize different words. You can indicate emphasis using italics in writing.
Here are some examples of what it looks like to indicate sarcasm with italics:
- “Oh, I definitely won’t do that.”
- “I am being so careful.”
- “Well, aren’t you smart?”
- “Yup. That’s me, the athlete.”
- “Yeah, give me a sec. I’ll just run to the nearest island.”
Other characters can also be a tool that you utilize to control readers’ perception of a scene. The way other characters respond to a sarcastic comment will clue readers in to the words’ true meaning. If characters respond to a comment genuinely, readers will take the words at face value. If other characters get offended, snap back, or make their own sarcastic comment in response, then readers will be more likely to pick up on the sarcasm in what the first character says.
In other words, you can use the reactions of other characters to give readers the context that they are missing. Oftentimes, a well-placed “smartass” can be all that needs to be said for readers to understand.
Some Parting Tips
Of course, there are times when it is not a good idea to have characters being sarcastic. Sure, everyone loves a snarky protagonist, but sometimes it’s better to be clear even if you have to sacrifice a little bit of personal flair. Making sure your story flows well and readers can follow what is going on is more important than a little comedic relief.
It’s also important to keep in mind that most people are not completely sarcastic all the time. Characters that do behave like this will give readers the impression that they have something to hide—whether that’s their true self, a dark secret, or simply more vulnerable emotions. Of course, you can use this to your advantage. Also, if a consistently sarcastic character suddenly gets serious, that can add a lot of suspense to whatever situation elicits this reaction from them.
Finally, regardless of how you decide to handle writing sarcasm, be sure you get beta readers. Getting the opinions of other people before your story gets officially released to the public can really help you iron out any misunderstandings in the sarcastic character’s dialogue.