Dialogue Tips

Writing effective dialogue is often what distinguishes the professional writer from the not quite. This is no surprise because dialogue is probably the most difficult element to master.

And everything hinges upon it—if your dialogue fails, so will your story.

What is Dialogue used for?

People in real life often ramble on for no particular reason. Characters in stories, however, never do. Dialogue must do one of the following:

  • Establish the tone or mood
  • Provide exposition or back story
  • Reveal character and motivation
  • Create immediacy and intimacy (build reader empathy)
  • Move the plot forward and/or increase its pace
  • Create or add to existing conflict
  • Remind the reader of things they may have forgotten
  • Foreshadow

If your story’s dialogue does none of these, delete. If it does only one, try for two. Does two?
Can it do three? The richer its meaning…the richer your story.

How Dialogue shouldn’t be used

Although it’s on the list above, be very careful when using dialogue to introduce exposition and back story. Always ask yourself: would I say this in a conversation? We usually don’t go on and on about the past, especially with friends who probably already know it. Back story and exposition should be hinted at and slowly drawn throughout the progression of a story.

Dialogue should “sound” Real

Dialogue emulates but does not replicate real speech. It’s a condensed, distilled version of real
talk, thick on meaning, thin on chatter. The trick is to preserve the spontaneity required by
a “real” conversation while instilling the meaning required by a story.

  • Most people don’t speak in perfect grammar. Real speech is sloppy. People leave out words, compress phases into single words, use contractions, interrupt each other and talk in slang. Your dialogue should be the same.
  • Go out of your house and listen to the many different ways different people talk, and notice that how a person talks depends on whom they’re talking to. Incorporate any appropriate juicy bits you hear in your own writing.
  • Write dialogue in a quick fury but in editing make sure every line has a purpose.

Words echo Emotion and Conflict

Dialogue is brought to life by the underlying emotion and conflict that’s driving it. If you’re having trouble with a scene or the words sound stilted, drop down and get your bearings on the emotional context that underpins the characters and their situation. Use it as a basis from which
to build. Do so and your character’s language will have more guts and honesty and your story more focus and resonance.

Characters, like real people, should each have their own voice.

  • Use language particular to a character and organically reflective of their background and personality.
  • People often have habitual phrases and/or mistakes that they tend to repeat.
  • Create distinctions through a character’s vocabulary, accent, what they talk about and what they don’t.
  • Open up a good book and you’ll be able to easily distinguish the words of the Harry Potters from those of the Hagrids without need of a tag line.

Break it up

  • Never have long stretches of dialogue. Break up large blocks at strategic places with physical action, replies, description and other story elements. This both enriches the rhythm of the dialogue and brings the conversation to life in your reader’s mind.
  • Also space the conversation within the page by giving each person their own paragraph. This makes the page less overwhelming (not an endless scroll of words) and also gives readers a spatial beat between speakers that makes following the conversation easier.

TAGS—he said, she said

  • Always clearly indicate who’s speaking using ‘he said’, ‘she asked’, etc. Never force your reader to stop and have to figure out who’s saying what. This is especially crucial when several characters are conversing.
  • Never let attributions get in the way of your story. Cute tags like “he barked” or “she whimpered” pull the reader’s attention out of your book’s spell and aren’t needed when dialogue is strong. The tone of a character’s language should emerge from both the words themselves and the dramatic context.
  • Use dialogue and the description around it to more powerfully convey what you might be tempted to describe by attaching adverbs to tags. Don’t write dialogue like “I’m going home,” she said happily.

Is the dialogue I wrote any good?

The classic way to test dialogue is to read it aloud. Even better, have someone else read it (just as they would in their head if they were reading your novel). You’ll hear any cracks in rhythm and authenticity and can make sure your characters don’t sound like actors in a bad movie.