Strong dialogue often makes the difference between stories that catch an agent or editor’s eye and those that don’t. You want your dialogue to be among the best, which means you need it to be believable.
What makes dialogue believable? The trick is to strike a balance between what you might hear in real life and an artistic rendition of a conversation. Try recording a short conversation at the post office or in a coffee shop, and then transcribe your recording.
You will probably find that the transcription looks clumsy on the page, and is far from what you’re looking for in your work. People tend to speak past each other, repeat themselves, and invest a lot of time talking around the important information.
As the writer, it’s up to you to cut away all the unnecessary chatter and let the important parts of the conversation shine through. So how do you sort through all the words and leave your characters with realistic dialogue that matters? Here are some tips.
1. Do away with pleasantries
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 in the scene faster and allow them to start telling your story through language and action.
2. 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, if it can be broken up into a few different places in the conversation, or if another character can deliver some of the information.
3. Slow down
Having only one contribution to a conversation shouldn’t mean a character only speaks once. Maybe Frank’s only job is to tell George when the cops pull up outside a convenience store. “The cops are here” is the only thing you need Frank for, but make sure he isn’t silent until the moment he delivers that all-important line. Take the time to establish each character in the conversation, and allow them to do more than just advance the plot. A discussion between two characters can do a lot for tone and character development, too.
4. Stick to simple speech tags
At some point in your writer youth, you were no doubt told to be descriptive. When it comes to speech tags, we all spend a while playing with “David joked” and “Mary asked uncertainly.” In general, however, descriptive speech tags distract from the real story happening within the dialogue. If you’re doing it right, you don’t have to tell readers Mary is uncertain, because they already know (“I think the cops might be outside?” versus “The police are here!”). Stick to “he said”/”she said,” which blend into the page and let the reader stay in the scene.
5. Dress your dialogue in action
Your dialogue is creating a scene, but it doesn’t have to do all the work on its own. When the “he said”/”she said” is getting dull and looking a little cluttered, omit the speech tag altogether and replace it with an action within the scene (“The cops are here.” Mary watched Frank’s reflection in the window as he snatched the bag from the cashier.).
The only sure-fire way to create strong dialogue—and set your work apart—is to practice. A lot. Consider starting your daily writing practice with five minutes of dialogue, or rewrite a scene that’s been troubling you with a few different approaches to the dialogue. Read scenes with heavy dialogue aloud; if it doesn’t roll off your tongue, fiddle with it until it does. You’ll hear the difference when your characters’ conversations start working for you, and your readers will, too.
21-Time New York Times bestselling author Jerry Jenkins recently released an in-depth post on writing dialogue that reveals 6 tips to writing captivating dialogue, explains common mistakes writers make with dialogue and shows detailed examples. Here's the link: Jerry Jenkins.
Do you have any tips for creating believable dialogue? Share them below in the comments!