How to Write Great Dialogue
When two characters struggle for conversation in a book, the dialogue stands out like a scraggly weed in a garden of tulips. The reader’s attention is quite suddenly ripped from the story and shifts to the awkwardness of the passage. Bottom line, if you want to be a writer, you need to learn how to write great dialogue so the reader feels like he is eavesdropping on your characters.
If you look back at all your favorite books, you’ll discover that you probably got lost in the conversations. The words flowed naturally as they might if you got together with your best friend or sibling.
Honestly, writing dialogue isn’t hard. It just requires a bit of understanding, study and practice.
How to recognize great dialogue
Dialogue is a tool that can breathe life into your story. It must always have a strong purpose, or it will fall flat and be boring. Never have two characters chat for the sake of filling a page with words.
When you write great dialogue, it allows the reader to see how a character feels and what motivates him to do the things he does. It defines his relationship with other characters. In addition, dialogue allows you to move your story forward, provide background information, foreshadow events, or set the mood for a scene. If it doesn’t do any of those things, those passages probably need to be cut.
One of the best ways to learn to write dialogue is to study the dialogue within other works. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it’s true.
Definitely read lots of books. When you find one which captivates you, go back over the scenes you liked best and observe how the author conveyed his or her message. Look for style points that you might be able to use.
I also suggest that you glance at screenplays you like. After all, scripts rely on dialogue to tell the story. By studying these you can see what works and what doesn’t.
In addition, watch movies or television shows and pay attention to how the screenwriter tells the story through the people. Each main character should have his or her own way of speaking, which helps us understand their personality better. For instance, Tyrion Lannister (from Game of Thrones) uses off-color humor and intelligence to overcome potential prejudice. Or when Teal’c from SG1 lifts an eyebrow and says, “Indeed,” it speaks volumes about the stoic Jaffa warrior. Both characters are beloved by fans.
If you’re anything like me, you were probably brought up to never listen in on the conversations of others. Well…I’m going to ask you to break that rule. I know it sounds weird, but if you eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers, it will assist you in your quest to write great dialogue.
Airports are good places to find interesting people from diverse backgrounds. Malls and cafeterias are other hot spots. If the place is too crowded, the ambient noise might be overwhelming, so pick a place where you can zero in on one group of people.
Really listen to how people naturally chat. Take notes. What slang do they use? Keep in mind that slang and pop culture references will date your piece. This can be helpful. “Groovy, Daddy-o…” would put us in a different era than “Gag me with a spoon.” “Wassup?” was huge in the 90’s, whereas the term “newbie” only became popular this century.
Really observe others as well. Conversation isn’t just about the words; it also involves gestures, facial expressions and vocal tones. Note these down. You can sprinkle them into your story later to make your dialogue more realistic.
Great characters use great dialogue
The best way to write great dialogue is to truly know your characters. To do so, I recommend writing character biographies. Besides physical description, background, hobbies and the like, you can do a deep dive into the characters’ personalities. Is Sam angry because he was overlooked for a well-deserved promotion? Perhaps Georgia is grief-stricken by the death of her husband and Luke is so self-involved that he doesn’t even see another’s point of view.
Give your characters distinct voices
By knowing your characters, you can jot down phrases, physical mannerisms or speech patterns that reveal their true natures. Following the examples above, you’d probably find Sam speaking in short, clipped sentences, while Georgia might speak more hesitatingly. And Luke might have trouble answering a question directly because he doesn’t really care what anyone else is saying.
Make the speech realistic
Some new writers might wonder about contractions. As a child, I was taught that a good writer never used them in formal writing. Later, I learned that isn’t always true.
Sure, there are times when a character might shout, “I will not do that!” If you read that line out loud, you’ll probably find yourself punching each word individually. “I…Will…Not…Do…That!”
However, most of the time, in a normal (not yelling) conversation, the character would use a contraction. “I won’t do that!” It is more casual. And that’s often the right way to go.
Also, consider if characters completely spell out their thoughts or do they sometimes trail off mid-sentence. I think you’ll discover that in real life we often don’t speak in complete sentences. And we don’t always say what we mean.
For instance, you wouldn’t write:
Darla approached Sam uncertainly.
“Go away, I’m mad at you!” he huffed angrily.
This on-the-nose exchange is boring. Instead, here’s another option:
Darla tiptoed over to Sam, biting her lip. “So, I was thinking…”
Sam folded his arms across his chest and glared at her. “What?”
The reader can see that Darla is uncertain and Sam is angry. We don’t have to spell it out.
Like your characters
Whenever you invest yourself (and the reader) in a character, you have to be sure to like him or her on some level. Otherwise the character probably won’t be authentic.
Robert De Niro said in an interview that he must really like every character he plays—even the evil ones. He explained how he had to be able to relate to each character he portrayed in some way in order to get the audience on board. I have to say, that was very enlightening for me, as that concept applies for writers as well as actors.
If you look at it, evil people rarely consider themselves to be evil. They have a reason for their actions, just like anyone else. It’s just that their purpose is often self-serving and contrary to agreed-upon moral codes, making it disturbing for the rest of us.
When you write dialogue for a bad guy, get his or her viewpoint fully; think as he or she would. Otherwise your character won’t be believable.
Tips to write great dialogue
If you want to improve your technique, I recommend doing exercises geared towards writing dialogue. Here is an article with a few writing prompts. Personally, I like to put two developed characters in a room and just listen to them converse.
Then I write what they say.
It’s so simple it can feel like cheating.
Let it flow
While you are writing your first draft, just let the dialogue flow. Don’t worry if it matches your character’s voice or motivation. Don’t agonize over whether or not it’s relevant to the story. And please don’t fret over grammar, spelling or punctuation. Just let it flow.
When you do this, you’ll uncover some sparkling gems of conversation that you might never have discovered otherwise. Don’t worry, you’ll have a chance to fine-tune your character’s words during the editing phase.
Delete the boring stuff
In real life, we sometimes carry on mundane conversations.
“How are you?”
“Good. And you?”
This sort of dialogue is terribly boring for a book. No one wants to read it. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.”
As a writer, you must be creative and work out how you can get your point across, forward your story, and develop your characters, all while trimming the humdrum.
Keep your dialogue exchanges short and snappy. Get straight to the point. You want to make an impact, so drop the reader into the middle of the exchange.
Watch the dialogue tags
When I was starting out as a writer, I loved to use any alternative to “he said” I could think of: “She argued” or “He pontificated” or “She moaned” (you get the idea). I went way overboard, and it became terribly distracting for my poor readers. Most of the time it’s much better to stick with the bland “he said.” Having said that, you can skip most of the tags, popping them in when needed for clarity.
For instance, you might write:
“Last night was rough,” Jane said.
Mary nodded. “You’re telling me. I’m sore all over.”
“Think we’ll be called in again tonight?”
“It’s Tuesday,” Mary said. “Nobody wants to see us wrestle on a Tuesday.”
Read your dialogue out loud
When you complete your book, leave it alone for a few days to a week before you edit. Give yourself time away from the piece.
Now, read your dialogue out loud.
Bad dialogue pops out beautifully when you do this.
Here’s a rule of thumb: if the words don’t slide off your tongue easily, your character will trip over them, too. As will your reader.
Note: If you’re bored as you read through the dialogue, you need to edit. Don’t worry, that’s normal! Ideally, even though you wrote your book, you should be just as enthralled by it when you read it over as your future readers will be. When it flows and you get drawn into the story, you know you have a winner.
If you need help with dialogue, email me and we’ll sort it out. Dialogue-driven stories tend to be my favorites.
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