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How to Write Dialogue

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 9 13 2021 How to Write Dialogue

Writing dialogue isn’t easy to do. And don’t let anyone tell you that it is.

Dialogue is one of the most important parts of a story because it aids in characterization and plot progression. It’s a valuable literary device that can be used in almost every type of fiction. However, dialogue is notoriously difficult to write. Here’s why:

The perfect bit of dialogue is both brief and insightful, realistic but edited. It pushes the story forward while developing the characters at the same time. Dialogue reveals what your characters are thinking, doing, and feeling, without plainly spelling it out to the reader.

And that, my friends, is not easy to do in the span of a few sentences. But when it comes to dialogue, you have a meager sentence budget to work with. For any given scene, you may have half a page and 10 sentences max to devote to dialogue. Every word must count, especially when it comes to your dialogue.

In this post, let’s discuss the top do’s and don’ts of writing dialogue.

A Word Before We Get Started:

Do a quick exercise before reading on. Take 10 minutes to write a scene with dialogue. Or review a scene that you’ve been working on. Then proceed to read the rest of this post. You can use that sample to identify your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing dialogue.

To make it easier, we’ve created a reference guide to accompany this post. Use this printable guide to ensure that you’re on the right path with your dialogue.

Now, let’s get started!

Do Join the Conversation at the Right Time

Dialogue doesn’t need to start at the very beginning of a conversation. Instead, you can start the dialogue in the middle of the action. If necessary, you can use exposition to relay the start of the conversation.

Do Eliminate Extraneous Content

It’s easy to let your characters ramble on and on. But don’t allow dialogue to hijack your novel. Your dialogue should be the most edited part of your story. Remember that dialogue shouldn’t mimic real life exactly. Instead, it should resemble a realistic conversation minus all of the fluff and unnecessary parts that we often forget when we’re recalling a conversation in our minds.

Do Reveal Something About the Character

Dialogue is the perfect place to explore characterization. What your characters say is just as important as what they hold back, especially if your reader is privy to what they’re holding back. You can reveal a lot about how your characters feel about other characters and the topic being discussed by what they choose to say.

Guide to Dialogue

Do Move the Story Forward

You can use dialogue to share backstory, but it's even better when you use dialogue to push the story forward. Have your characters confront each other with problems that they can't ignore, and then document their reactions. In a character-driven story, your character's reactions are the fuel that moves the vehicle known as plot.

Do Set the Mood

Your dialogue can help you convey your intended mood for a particular scene. By the way, the mood is the way your reader feels when reading a scene. It’s easy to establish a mood through dialogue. You can choose how your characters speak to each other. Are they angry? Are they hopeful? What would you like the reader to feel at this moment? Your characters should reflect that same sentiment.

Do Create Unique Voices

Every character in your novel should sound unique. Think about it—every person you’ve ever encountered has a distinctive way of speaking. The same should be true with your characters.

Think carefully about how your characters talk and focus on your main characters. What words do they use frequently? What words do they never use? Is their speech straightforward and blunt? Or is it flowery and ornate? Do they beat around the bush? Do they pepper their speech with idioms like I just did?

Also, as a telling exercise, remove the tags from your dialogue sample. Can you still identify which character is speaking? If not, your voices aren’t unique enough.

Do Foreshadow

Use dialogue as an opportunity to foreshadow a future event. Even something as basic as a character admitting to another character that they have a bad feeling about a course of action can build anticipation and introduce tension.

Do Pay Attention to the Flow of Your Sentences

To create an engaging dialogue that moves your story forward, be intentional with sentence structure.

To create an engaging dialogue that moves your story forward, be intentional with sentence structure. Here's how:

Use short sentences when you want to drive the plot and create a rushed and or tense atmosphere. Use longer sentences when you want to explain or explore characterization. Use a mix of short and long sentences when you want to create a power struggle between characters, for example.

Different scenes call for different sentence lengths. Be willing to mix it up.

Do Limit How Many People Are Talking

You may have five people in one scene, but five people shouldn’t be talking. Why? It’s confusing for your reader to keep up with five different characters. Instead, only allow two or three characters to talk at any given time. This way, the scene’s pivotal characters can convey the most important points in the scene.

Do Use Body Language

Dialogue is more than just words. When writing dialogue, also record how characters are physically acting and reacting. Document your characters’ postures, the way their voices sound, and their actions. This can add richness to the scene.

Do Speak Your Dialogue Aloud

After you’ve written the dialogue, it’s essential to read what you’ve written aloud. This way, you can catch whether your dialogue sounds true to the character. Reading aloud also helps you analyze the conversation’s rhythm as a whole. Does it flow? Is it halting? Does the rhythm you’ve established contribute to the mood that you’re trying to convey?

Guide to Dialogue

Don't Forget the Rules of Grammar

You can play fast and loose with other rules in fiction, but always obey grammar rules when it comes to writing dialogue. Otherwise, you may confuse your reader.

Here are the most important grammatical rules to follow:

  1. Start each person’s speech on a new line and indent that new line.

  2. Add quotation marks to contain each person’s speech.

  3. Add commas before a dialogue tag (i.e., “I ate the orange,” Paulina said).

Don't Let Your Characters Talk for Too Long

Unless your character is standing behind a podium and proclaiming a speech that kids will someday memorize and recite in front of school assemblies… Don’t let your characters speak for too long. Why? First, a long speech in fiction is boring. Second, it slows the pace of the story. Third, it puts you in “tell, not show” territory, which is a cardinal sin for fiction writers. Dialogue should only be used to move the story forward not to let a character steal the mic.

Don't Get Fancy With Your Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are used to identify who’s speaking (i.e., Martha said, Joshua replied, Tony asked). The best dialogue tags are the basic three: said, asked, replied. No doubt you’ve come across fancy dialogue tags like reflected, protested, agreed, etc. But those dialogue tags are a telltale sign of an amateur writer, especially if used frequently throughout your novel.

Why?

Two reasons. First, dialogue tags take the reader out of the moment. It’s a writing best practice to use basic dialogue tags that provide the least disruptive experience. “Said” is so widely used that it’s almost invisible to the reader. However, a tag like “bragged” or “grumbled” can stop the reader and force them to visualize what that phrase means. Second, dialogue tags like “moaned” are inaccurate. Can someone moan an entire phrase, like “He took me to the candy store on Tuesday”?

It’s best to stick with the three dialogue tags. It may seem boring, but it’s effective.

The Bottom Line

Writing dialogue isn’t the easiest task, but it is one of the best devices you can use to move a story forward. Use the above tips to create rich dialogue that adds dimension, tension, and insight into a scene.

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