Writing great dialogue doesn’t seem like it would be difficult, but it is actually one of the biggest hurdles that writers face.
Done well, dialogue advances the story and fleshes out the characters while providing a break from straight exposition.
The key? Good dialogue is not actually real dialogue – which is often rather boring when transcribed. Usually ‘normal’ dialogue contains a lot of useless, uninteresting information…general mundane banter. What we want is to create realistic dialogue that also engages the reader and serves a purpose – well-written dialogue is pretty useless if it doesn’t ‘help’ the story along in some way.
Dialogue should help a writer to:
- Show rather than tell: something I am pretty sure we write about in almost every appraisal we provide.
- Develop the plot…build tension and drama, provide new information that will drive the narrative forward…
- Reveal more about your characters (through what is and isn’t said).
- Give structure to your printed page (this sounds silly, but readers need a break from dense texts, dialogue gives them this escape, a chance to relax and feel like they are simply absorbing the information)
Every line of dialogue that you write must earn its place. If the speeches in the novel doesn’t meet at least one of the above criteria, then they should be cut.
‘The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.’
– Anthony Trollope
So it isn’t simply about writing great dialogue, it is about knowing when and how to use it to further your plot and character development. Here are a few tips to get you on the way to writing great dialogue…
Dialogue should drive the story forward
Conversations in the real world often have little or no point to them. However, your dialogue needs to EARN ITS PLACE in the narrative by advancing the plot, giving depth and meaning to characters and to convey information in some way.
Here are a few ways to determine whether your dialogue deserves to stay or go:
- Delete the dialogue from the page…does the narrative still make sense?
- Does your dialogue help to change your character’s situation? What I mean by this is: does the information they reveal/receive impact on their ability to achieve their goals?
- Further to the above, does the dialogue help to shed light on your character’s goals? Anything that makes the character’s goals clearer should remain – as should anything which clarifies their motives…what drives them to achieve their goals.
- Does the dialogue increase the suspense for what is to come?
We could go on, but this gives you an idea of what is meant by ‘does it serve a purpose and drive the narrative forward?’ If you find that it doesn’t actually serve a purpose, then it really has to go!
Note: there are some ‘pointless conversations’ in novels that are good, they may simply be entertaining interludes used to break up heavy text. General, ‘normal’ conversation is still necessary to convey realistic worlds. However keep the use of these ‘pointless conversations’ to a minimum and always ensure that if a passage of dialogue starts out being about nothing of any importance, it quickly gets to the point.
Dialogue should help characterise
Dialogue should help the reader to understand more about the character’s personality through what is said and how it is said.
Think about your character’s vocabulary. Consider the different ways one idea could be conveyed and choose the one that fits your character. So if you want them to say ‘I need you’ think about all the ways this message can be conveyed through word choice, body language descriptors, facial expressions etc. Another way of expressing this could be ‘I can’t do this without you’ or ‘Do you have to leave so soon?’
Each character should sound distinct. A good way to work out whether you have achieved this is to remove all the tags and see if you are still able to identify who is saying what.
It might help to think about the character in these terms, it could help you to identify their ‘voice’ when writing their dialogue.
- AGE: a 12-year-old will use different language to a 50-year-old.
- GENDER: women and men may use different vocabulary
- BACKGROUND: where are they from? What is their financial situation? What kind of family did they grow up in? This will have an impact on their word choices.
- IDENTIFYING PHRASES: consider whether your character has any phrases that they use ie ‘righto’ or ‘sure thing!’
- VERBOSITY: some people tend to lots of words, while others prefer one-word responses.
Dialogue can be a chance for you to help reveal more about where your character has come from, thus identifying their motives for pursuing a particular goal.
Dialogue is also one of the most important tools there is in demonstrating the relationships between different characters. The way two people speak to each other reveals a lot about them, their relationship and possibly where they as individuals or as a ‘group’ might be headed – demonstrating this definitely gives dialogue a purpose.
Realistic doesn’t mean real
Dialogue is supposed to give an impression of real speech, but it’s not supposed to be a transcript of how we really talk. You don’t need all the Hellos, Goodbyes and boring small talk of daily life.
Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was ‘life, with the dull parts taken out.’ This very much applies to dialogue. Edit out filler words and unessential dialogue — that is, the dialogue that doesn’t contribute to the plot in some way.
This brings me to: get in late, leave early. You don’t have to start dialogue right at the beginning of a conversation or end it at the ‘real’ end. You also don’t need pleasantries like ‘Hi, how are you?’… ‘I am fine, thank you. How are you?’… Don’t waste the reader’s precious attention-span and time on the mundane of reality. Instead, throw them into the action.
He said, she said, I replied…
A ‘dialogue tag’ is the bit you put before or after the dialogue. Many of us have been taught to ‘add spice’ to our dialogue tags to keep the reader’s interest, using adjectives like whispered, shouted, pondered.
Normally, the word ‘said’ will work perfectly well. Throw in an occasional whispered or shouted if you need to, but otherwise try to keep it simple. The reader will barely notice the word ‘said’, but overly descriptive tags (think: ‘shouted furiously’) can distract the reader from the actual dialogue.
Dialogue tags can also be considered to be lazy writing; we should know that they would ‘shouting furiously’ just through descriptions of their body language, or through what they are saying etc. It all comes back to SHOW, DON’T TELL! We shouldn’t need more adjectives or modifying phrases to tell us these things.
Banish “ly” adverbs… think: happily, sadly, angrily. Writers tend to use “ly” adverbs to sneak emotion into their dialogue. Effective dialogue conveys emotion through what is being.
Consider the following:
Lucy dabbed at a tear that was rolling down her cheek.
‘I don’t think I can keep going,’ she said.
The reader is being shown that Lucy is sad. The dialogue is used to convey her emotion. Can you see how adding the tag ‘she said sadly’ would have halted the ability to create the scene and add emotion by showing my reader that Lucy was sad? Showing the reader these things also helps them to connect with Lucy on a more intimate level.
Exposition in dialogue
Dialogue, as we have already talked about, helps you to share information with your reader – and it is a great way to throw in information that could otherwise make fairly dull reading. All I would say here though is to make sure the information you are offering is appropriate in the setting. Avoid having characters tell one another things that they logically should already know ie a husband would never say to his wife, ‘Judy, my sister, had to take Josie, their golden Labrador, to the vet again’ – the wife should really already know that her husband’s sister is called Judy, and that she owns a dog called Florence. This is what I call ‘information cramming’ and is just a clumsy way of throwing information at the reader.
Trying to force information into the dialogue makes for not only unrealistic dialogue, but tedious too. I don’t know about you but I usually wouldn’t say this when catching up with a friend for coffee: ‘Since arriving here just before lunch, to watch the school bully – Sarah – choose her next victim, I have really wanted to pee.’
Use the correct punctuation
This is crucial. I know a lot of writers find punctuating their dialogue quite tricky, but it is important to get it right whether you are submitting to publishers or agents, or choosing to self-publish.
- Begin on a new line for each new speaker
- Have double or single quotation marks around the words (be consistent with which you choose – as a rule of thumb, the US standard is double and UK is single)
- Have punctuation inside the quotation marks
- End the dialogue line with a comma if you’re adding a dialogue tag, but with a full stop if you’re adding an action.
Read it out loud
This will help you hear the voices of your characters while noting the rhythm of the words that you have written – it is the quickest way to identify problem areas and will highlight where you might have gone wrong with punctuation.
When you are reading out loud, take note of where you stumble or where you are pausing unnaturally. Take note of accidental rhymes or closely repeated words and edit them. Listen to what you are saying and who is saying it. Do the words match the character?
It is impossible to read a bad sentence without flinching or stumbling along the way so make sure you dedicate some time to reading your dialogue out loud.
Location, location, location!
Every conversation takes place somewhere. And the location or setting can make a real difference to the dialogue that is used.
So, think about:
- Where are your characters? What are the sounds/smells etc around them?
- Who’s nearby? Is it loud, or is it intimate etc?
These things will affect what is being said and how it is being said.
Use action to break up dialogue
Dialogue is not simply an exchange of words, body language is also used to get a message across. Dialogue is well served by being broken up with a bit of physical action. On the one hand, using action gives you a creative outlet to show more about the people and the conversation they are having and also breaks the monotony of using the word said. And like location, action helps to ground your dialogue and make it more convincing
But remember: don’t cram in too much action and description. It is about finding the right balance so that you enhance the setting but don’t take the reader away from the importance of what is being said.
So there you have it…a few, simple ways to hone your dialogue writing skills and also a lesson in SHOW, DON’T TELL while we are at it!