Writing good dialogue is not art. It’s craft, which means that you can get better at it. Here are some tips.
- Listen to how people talk in real life. Hang out in a coffee shop or a bar and listen to how people talk. (As a writer, you get to call this research.) Often, we think we know how people talk in real life because we are exposed to speech all the time. But hearing it is different than listening to it. Look for the words that people use and how they use them, but also look for the beats in a conversation, where the conversation ebbs and flows.
- Read books with good dialogue. Two of my favorites are Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and About A Boy by Nick Hornby. John Steinbeck and Elmore Leonard also wrote great dialogue.
- Sidestep the obvious in your dialogue. You don’t have to begin with the first word and end with the last. Leave out all the inessential bits, which often occur at the beginning and end, although plenty of them arrive in the middle, as well. Remember: get in late, leave early.
- Read it out loud after you write it. It’s not going to sound exactly like real conversation—you’ve left out a lot of non-essential bits, remember?—but reading it out loud will show you all the bits that don’t ring true.
- Don’t use dialogue for exposition. If the man is climbing the mountain, show the man climbing the mountain. Don’t have five pages of people talking about the man climbing the mountain.
- Don’t use dialect or accents. This used to be a popular thing in the nineteenth century, in an effort to provide local color. Most of know what a Scottish accent sounds like; you don’t need to force your version of it onto readers and block out what they hear in their head. At the very least, you could be misunderstood; at the worst, you could be accused of overt racism.
- Give every character a unique voice. Remember that character with the Scottish accent? He’s going to say “wee” a lot more than he’s going to say “tiny”.
- Ground your dialogue in a scene. Whether your two characters are sitting in a diner, sailing across the ocean, or fixing a toilet in space, they are doing something, somewhere. Make sure their conversation takes that into account. Conversations that aren’t grounded in a scene just float around, interjecting themselves into your story.
- Have people disagree. If people just agree all the time, what is the point of their having a conversation? Just say they went to lunch and had a great time.
- Employ silence. Real life conversations are not hundred-miles-an-hour diatribes. Most people take time to pause, sip a cup of coffee, and think about what the other person has said and what they should say next.
- Break up the dialogue with action. If you listen to the beats of your story, you’ll know where to include the action. When does he look out the window? When does she put down the hammer?
- The only verb for dialogue attribution is “said.” As in “he said”, “she said”. If a character is shouting, that should be clear from the story. Using anything other than “said” is showing, not telling. (And if your middle school English teacher encouraged this habit, unlearn it—and send them a copy of this article.)
- No adverbs in the dialogue attribution. If you feel inclined to say “she said forcefully” stop and look at the conversation you are writing. Is it clear—from the tone, from the pacing, from the action—that she is speaking forcefully? If so, you can leave that adverb out. If not, time to revise.
- Use the right number of dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are like those little dots on a map that say “you are here.” They are a service to your readers. Include only enough of them so that your readers don’t get lost in who is saying what. Beginning writers tend to use too many. Ernest Hemingway tended to use too few.
- Punctuate it properly. Now is not the time to invent your own style of punctuation for conversations. To avoid confusing your readers, punctuate your conversations so that they can tell the difference between what your characters are saying and what you are saying.
I’ll revisit some of these points in later posts, providing examples of each one. Stay tuned!
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