I’ve read before that 90% of writing is just trying to come up with another word for ‘said.’ Do you hit a roadblock when it comes to writing dialogue? Does your dialogue fall flat or throw a wrench into your stories flow? If so, you have come to the right place. Personally, I find writing dialogue fascinating and well worth the effort to work it out line by line and really give the reader an insight into your characters. The way we speak can indeed show who we are and how we interact with others and the world around us.
Below are a couple of articles on writing dialogue and how to improve yours. They give some helpful tips on what to do and what not to do. They can show you how conversation can move your story forward in a way nothing else can. After all, the more real your characters seem, the more your readers will connect with them, and that is always a good thing to have happen. There is also a short video on dialogue from a great YouTuber that gives some sage advice. I have also placed a link to a great ‘How To’ book on dialogue tags that I find very useful when writing my dialogue—give it a look to see if it might be useful to you as well. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
Top 12 Tips for Writing Dialogue
By Ginny Wiehardt
Realistic dialogue written well can advance a story and flesh out characters while providing a break from straight exposition. Writing realistic dialogue does not come easily for everyone, though, and few things pull a reader out of a story faster than bad dialogue.
It takes time to develop a good ear for dialogue, but following some simple rules and avoiding some obvious pitfalls can make a huge difference. For example, any good dialogue starts with speech patterns that sound natural to the ear. In keeping with using natural speech patterns, people don’t provide every detail when talking to each other. If you have some voids in your dialogue, it will sound more realistic.
Listen to How People Talk
Having a sense of natural speech patterns is essential to good dialogue. Pay attention to the expressions people use and the music of everyday conversation. Note how people can maintain conversations without complete sentences and sometimes by even finishing others’ sentences. Eavesdropping is not a crime, so go ahead and listen to how people communicate with one another.
Also, don’t overlook the value of silence. Not responding to someone’s remark speaks volumes—it connotes anger, disapproval, disdain, and a host of other negative feelings.
People talk in stops and starts, and they pause with nonsense words like “um” and “er.” Frequently they talk over one another. As much as you’re trying to emulate realistic speech patterns, the dialogue still needs to be readable. Alfred Hitchcock said a good story is “life with the dull parts taken out.” This statement also applies to dialogue. A transcription of a conversation would be boring and confusing, so give readers only what matters. Edit out filler words and unessential commentary that doesn’t contribute to the plot in some way.
Don’t Give Too Much Information at Once
Don’t make it obvious to readers that they’re being fed important facts. Let the story unfold naturally. Readers can be trusted to remember details from earlier in the story, so you don’t have to rush to tell them everything all at once. People who know each other leave a lot unsaid, so exposition still will be necessary to share some important facts.
Break up Dialogue With Action
Remind readers that your characters are physical human beings by grounding their dialogue in the physical world. Such details also help break up the words on the page. It can be as simple as referencing that characters are standing on the deck of a cabin cruiser. Long periods of dialogue are easier for readers when broken up by descriptions. The same holds true for long periods of descriptions: they need to be broken up with dialogue.
Don’t Overdo Dialogue Tags
Veering too much beyond “he said” and “she said” only draws attention to the tags—and you want readers focused on your compelling dialogue, not your ability to think of synonyms for “said.” You also need to trust that readers will be able to follow the conversation without attribution after each statement when it is part of a back-and-forth between characters.
Stereotypes, Profanity, and Slang
Be aware of falling back on stereotypes, and be sure to use profanity and slang sparingly or you risk distracting or alienating your readers. Anything that takes readers out of the fictional world that you’re working hard to create should be avoided.
Pay attention to why things work or don’t work when you’re reading. Take the time to note examples of when you are taken out of a story’s action and then try to identify why. At what point did you stop believing in a character—or when did the character jump off the page—and how did the dialogue help accomplish that? Try to identify what the writer did to have this effect. In other words, start reading like a writer.
Punctuate Dialogue Correctly
The rules for punctuating dialogue can be confusing. Many writers need help getting them right, especially in the beginning. Take some time to learn the basics. A reader should get lost in your prose. You may have written beautiful dialogue, but you don’t want the reader stumbling over it because it’s hard to follow due to missing, misplaced, or inconsistently used commas.
Cut to the Chase
Cutting greetings and other small talk is a great place to start paring down your dialogue. If you omit all the hellos and goodbyes, you get your characters into the scene faster and allow them to start telling your story through language and action.
Keep it Short
Try to keep each instance of dialogue to one sentence. When you get to the second sentence, it’s likely your character has become an “explainer,” delivering expository information instead of acting as a dynamic, believable character.
Any time you find yourself giving a character multiple sentences of dialogue, ask yourself if there’s a natural way to put all the important information into one sentence or see if it can be broken up and inserted into a few different places in the conversation. You can also try having another character deliver some of the information.
Let it Flow
When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. Pour it out like cheap champagne. You can make it sparkle like Dom Pérignon later on by adding the finest fresh strawberries—first you have to get it down on paper. This technique allows you to come up with lines you probably would never have thought of if you tried to get it right the first time.
Be an Improvisational Actor
In the privacy of your own home, improvise a scene as though you are both characters in the scene. If the two characters are in conflict, start an argument. Allow a slight pause as you switch, giving yourself time to come up with a response in each character’s voice.
Your Guide to Writing Better Dialogue
Writing dialogue is hard work.
You’re tasked with capturing the natural cadence of language and the reflexive dynamic of human conversation. That ain’t easy. And I’m sad to say that most writers don’t get it right.
You see, most writers fall into one of two groups: either they hate writing dialogue and try to avoid it as much as humanly possible or they love writing dialogue and fill their entire novel with mostly useless exchanges.
But there’s a third group that few writers join. It’s the group of writers who understand the importance of dialogue in a story. They know how to use dialogue as a tool to enhance their storytelling. That’s the group that you want to be a part of, and in this post, I’m showing you exactly how to join them.
Let’s get started.
Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to follow when writing dialogue.
Why Use Dialogue?
Most novels can benefit from well-written dialogue.
Dialogue is a useful tool for developing your characters and moving your plot forward. Dialogue can help you establish the backstory, and it can reveal important plot details that the reader may not know about yet.
Dialogue is great for ratcheting up the tension between characters.
Dialogue can also establish the mood. By playing off characters’ verbal exchanges, you can set an atmosphere for each scene. Remember that there’s tension in what’s spoken, and especially in what’s not spoken.
All dialogue should pass the following criteria:
- It must move the story forward. After each conversation or exchange, the reader should be one step closer to either the climax or the conclusion of your story.
- It should reveal relevant information about the character. The right dialogue will give the reader insight into how the character feels, and what motivates him or her to act.
- It must help the reader understand the relationship between the characters.
If your dialogue doesn’t accomplish all of the above, it is a waste of words.
Now, let’s take a look at how to write the best dialogue for your story.
Top Tips for Better Dialogue
Here’s what you need to know to write forward-focused dialogue:
Keep it brief
Dialogue shouldn’t go over for pages and pages. If that happens, you should probably be writing a play, and not a novel.
The best dialogue is brief. It’s a slice and not the whole pizza. You don’t need to go into lengthy exchanges to reveal an important truth about the characters, their motivations, and how they view the world.
Plus, dialogue that goes on for too long can start to feel like a tennis match with the reader switching back and forth between characters. Lengthy dialogue can be exhausting for the reader. Pair the dialogue down to the minimum that you need for the characters to say to each other.
Avoid small talk
Oh, this one is music to my introvert ears.
In your novel, never ever waste your dialogue with small talk.
In the real world, small talk fills in the awkward silence, but in the world of your novel, the only dialogue to include is the kind that reveals something necessary about the character and/or plot.
How’s the weather? doesn’t move the plot.
If you’d like to show that your character doesn’t like awkward pauses, work on characterization and scene description. Instead of using mind-numbingly long exchanges, show the character’s discomfort by describing how she taps her fingers against the window pane, or takes a series of sharp sighs.
Don’t try to make your dialogue sound too “real” by including small talk. Small talk can water down the effectiveness of your scene. Instead, pick exchanges that capture the essence of the moment, and bypass small talk altogether. Let that be an understood nod between you and the reader, and dive right into the action.
So, instead of starting with “Hey, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?”, start with the action: “I can’t believe you’re showing your face around here after what you did to Papa.”
Don’t info dump
While you can certainly use dialogue to learn more about your characters, you shouldn’t use it to dump a whole lot of information on the reader.
It’s cringeworthy to read a dialogue exchange that starts with:
“As you know…”
If the character already knows, then why is the other character repeating it? I also hate when characters (especially villains) go into lengthy reasons why they did or are doing X, Y, Z.
No one talks like that. No one interacts like that.
If you must info dump, don’t do it in dialogue. Info dump slows dialogue to a grinding halt. It sounds awkward. And it actually insults the reader.
So, what’s the difference between info dumping and revealing relevant information? Info dump is a large amount of exposition given all at once, and left for the reader to sort out. Relevant information is more subtle, and it’s dispensed a little at a time.
Give your characters a unique way of speaking
Every character, just like every person you know, will have a unique way of speaking and delivering their thoughts.
Some people are more forceful and deliberate. Others are more passive and meandering. You can honor these (and other) different styles without rambling. My preferred method is to focus on word choice.
For example, to show that someone is rather gruff or abrupt, go towards single syllable or somewhat quick words, like “yeah.”
But, if I were looking for words for a charming character, I’d choose more graceful phrasing, like “of course.”
Same basic concept but different delivery, based on character.
Of course, word choice alone can’t dictate character. You’ll do most of this through characterization, but word choice should subtly support and reinforce characterization.
Along with word choice, I also like establishing a pattern of speech. Does the character speak in a sharp staccato, or a deliberate, flowy manner? By knowing how the character (especially the protagonist) speaks, you can create consistency whenever the character dialogues with others.
Remember to be consistent with your characters. Someone who speaks in a self-depreciating and shy demeanor won’t automatically become bold and acerbic.
When your characters speak, they should stay true to who they are. Even without character tags, the reader should be able to figure out who’s talking.
Use dialogue to increase the suspense between characters.
It’s human nature for people to withhold what they’re truly thinking or feeling. People leave a lot unsaid, and this is also true for the characters in your novel. To create a realistic interaction between your characters, you must honor the fact that most people leave a lot of things unsaid.
But that doesn’t mean that the reader can’t be privy to what’s being left unsaid. As a writer, you can build the scene, show the characters’ motivations and desires before the scene, and let it play out, with the reader wanting a resolution that doesn’t quite happen.
Answer the following questions to setup your scene for suspense:
- Does one character have the upper hand in the scene?
- Is the other character seething just under the surface?
- What does the reader find out through the exchange?
You can control all of this through dialogue.
Honor the relationship
Characters tend to speak differently based on who they’re speaking to. A character will speak to his mother differently than he does to his best friend. That’s not a shift in consistency. It actually gives more depth and realness to the character.
You can still stay true to the personality you’ve created by using the same speech pattern.
Show, don’t tell
“Show, don’t tell” is the writer’s mantra. When writing dialogue, it’s easy to start “telling” what the characters are feeling instead of showing it.
Instead of your character saying, “I’m angry, Jan!” describe how the character’s body is closed– tight lips, narrow eyes, deep breaths.
Don’t underestimate your reader. The reader likes to see the scene, pick up the cues and come to the conclusion, instead of being told what to think.
Your dialogue shouldn’t be completely on the nose, and explain exactly what the character is feeling. Most people– including your characters– aren’t always aware of how they feel. And sometimes, what they say they feel is different from what they truly feel.
So, don’t get lazy with your dialogue. Use it to reveal characters, but not directly.
By the way, body language is an important part of dialogue, and should be written into every scene. It gives the reader important clues that they’ll use to recreate the scene in their mind.
Minimize identifying tags
“He said, she said” gets boring after a while. And the answer isn’t to switch out those “said” tags with other words like “enthused” or “shouted”. (By the way, when it doubt, “said” wins out.)
Not only is it boring for the reader to constantly see “he said” or “said she”, it’s also disruptive. Identifiers take the reader out of the immersive world of your story and reminds them that you, the author, are relaying a story. That can be pretty jarring, and it can happen if you use identifiers too often.
Of course, you can’t not use identifiers. They’re vital for establishing who’s speaking, but can be minimized by doing the following:
- Creating a unique pattern of speech, as we discussed above.
- Using descriptive follow ups. (i.e. “That’s not what I said.” Vincent reached for the rock.)
I love the second option. You can show what the characters are doing to further emphasize their words, or add context to the scene.
Greetings and goodbyes aren’t always necessary
While it’s only polite to say hello and bid adieu, it’s not necessary in novel dialogue to document these courtesies. You can use exposition for salutations, but do avoid writing a blow-by-blow. Instead, set up the scene by describing how the character enters or leaves the scene.
Avoid speeches and soliloquies
Most people, in conversation form, do not have the privilege of extended speech. They’re almost always interrupted because who wants to listen to someone natter on and on?
Read it aloud
During the editing process, you should always read your manuscript aloud, but do pay special attention to your dialogue.
If the dialogue doesn’t seem to flow, or you’re tripping over your words, it’s not going to sound right to the reader.
Even though you’re not capturing every part of a conversation in your dialogue, everything that’s written should sound like an actual person said it. If not, it’s time to erase and try again.