Writing good dialogue can be tricky. It’s hard not to write dialogue as if you are speaking, but the truth is that written dialogue is a lot less wordy than how we actually speak. And good dialogue has to move the story along, so it has a pretty big job to do. When you throw in needing to convey a person’s subconscious motivations, and creating tension, well, it’s no wonder a lot of us are intimidated when it comes to writing dialogue.
So, here are a few guidelines:
- Dialogue needs to have a point. It has to move the story along, reflect a character’s inner character and conflicts, expose secrets, goals, and wounds. Often in dialogue, it’s what’s not said that’s important.
- Contains differing points of view. When two people are conversing, their dialogue needs to reflect their characters and show they are at odds, with totally different motivations. This is what makes dialogue interesting.
- Has more content that ordinary conversation. It’s all about context. Use juicy verbs, edit superfluous words and keep sentences simple. Reveal complex characters with simplicity. Again, often what’s not said that is most important and revealing. Most “real” speech contains fragments, “ums” and idioms. Don’t include those. Don’t have your character say something unless it’s pertinent to the story or the character.
- Avoid monologues. This is as true in dialogue as in life. Readers will get bored. Break long bouts of dialogue with some action. Get a character to pour tea or clean out an ear. This comes back to #1.
- Show a character’s lack of self understanding in his/her dialogue. Dig into the subtext of the dialogue and try to figure out what it is that you as the author knows, but that the character doesn’t know about him/herself.
- Don’t try and explain things in dialogue. None of us like listening to the “know-it-all” person who has to explain everything along the way. Don’t let your dialogue or characters be that person (unless that is their character). Let the reader have some fun and try and figure it out by themselves.
- Use dialogue to create tension. Dialogue is a great way to show characters in crisis, which in turns shows a character’s true colors. There are several ways to create tension in writing, and dialogue is one of the better ones.
- Mix up the speech patterns to differentiate characters. One character might talk in long sentences, another in one-word answers. Listen to people around you and try and pick up ideas for differing the ways people speak in dialogue. This will make your overall text more interesting to read.
- Study the rhythms and repetitions of authors you admire. The best often repeat words or sounds, and use rhythms and patterns to give dialogue interest.
- Keep dialogue tags simple and use sparingly. “He said” is perfectly fine. Don’t try and convey meaning in a dialogue tag by writing “He said, sadly.” Make your dialogue convey the character’s sadness. Also, you don’t need to say “he/she said” with every sentence of dialogue if it’s clear to the reader who is speaking. Take out the extra ones.
Examples of good dialogue:
Abigail Carter is the Seattle-based author of The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow’s Transformation and Co-Founder of Writer.ly, an online marketplace where writers can find the people they need to publish successfully. She can be found on Facebook and on Twitter (@abigailcarter) and on her blog, abigailcarter.com