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.
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.
Before you go, check out these related posts:
- How to Set the Mood in Your Novel
- Are Your Characters Under-Developed? Here’s a Helpful Guide to Find Out
- Tension! What It Is & How to Develop It In Your Novel