I've always been a do-it-yourself learner.
A few years back, I determined to become a professional novelist and dove headfirst into the world of fiction.
I knew I had a lot to learn, so I spent every waking moment outside of my day job devouring every craft book and blog I could get my hands on, writing until my fingers fell off (then promptly reattaching them, of course), and making pretty much every mistake in the book along the way.
Everything about writing was a struggle when I first began. I didn't have a writing routine or any higher education in literature. I didn't even have much experience to fall back on, but I didn't let any of that stop me from working towards my dreams. I wrote as often as I could, building upon the previous day's practice, until one day I looked back and discovered just how far my writing had come.
Of course, that doesn't mean that writing ever became easy. I'm still working to improve my storytelling skills every day.
One of the elements I constantly struggle with is dialogue. Bringing your characters' words to life on the page is no easy task! After working on it for years, I'm proud to say that my dialogue has grown in leaps and bounds, but it's still far from perfect.
Thankfully, I did pick up a few tips and tricks along the way that have proven invaluable, and I can't wait to share them with you today. So if you're ready to write better dialogue, read on, my friend! This is the post for you...
Every element in your novel plays a role in bringing the story together - in creating an experience that intrigues readers, builds buzz, and becomes renowned - but certain elements play bigger roles than others. I'm a firm believer that establishing strong characters and a thrilling plot should always be your two primary concerns, but learning to craft impressive dialogue comes in at a close third.
Dialogue itself can play many roles in your novel, from revealing character relationships, backstories, and personalities to creating palpable tension and moving the plot forward to establishing a mood that sets an entire scene.
In fact, I like to think of dialogue as fiction's version of a stagehand. During a stage production, the stagehand's sole job is to ensure the play is pulled off seamlessly. Stagehands work to arrange props, rig lighting, and create sound effects, ensuring everything runs smoothly so the actors can portray a story the audience can get lost in.
This is exactly what dialogue does for your novel.
It's a sad fact that most authors don't give dialogue nearly as much thought as it deserves. Even if the rest of a novel is lackluster, well-crafted dialogue can save the story from disaster because of the role it plays bringing the other elements to life.
So, let's take some time today to give dialogue a bit more thought. If you're ready to create conversations that speak volumes, here are 19 ways to write better dialogue.
Not every author has the spare time to practice dialogue every day, though I'd highly recommend it if you do. But if there is too much on your plate at the moment, here are my top two tips to transform your dialogue overnight!
1. Don't keep it real. You often hear that dialogue should be realistic, but this is exactly the opposite of the advice you follow.
In real life, conversations are filled with fluff. People stammer, repeat themselves, have trouble getting their meaning across, make small talk, and grumble. If you wrote such conversations into your novel, your manuscript would be thousands of pages long, and we certainly don't want that.
Instead of focusing on realistic dialogue, work to craft realistic characters that reveal themselves through the words they speak. This will bring your dialogue to life!
2. Each line should serve a purpose. Just as every character and scene must work together to create a strong story, dialogue should also play a purposeful role in your novel. After all, a well-oiled machine will still refuse to run properly if it's jam-packed with unnecessary gears.
Wondering what purposes your dialogue can serve? Take a look at a few of the most common:
- To reveal characterization
- To establish the mood or tone
- To disclose exposition
- To create tension or conflict
- To advance the plot
- To build suspense
- To establish foreshadowing
- To reveal backstory
If you aren't sure whether or not a line of dialogue serves a purpose, ask yourself if it fulfills any one of items listed above. If your answer is no, try cutting the line of dialogue to see if the scene still flows smoothly. If it does, you'll know you've made the right decision.
Though adapting the previous two tips will have the biggest impact on your fictional conversations, here are several other tips and tricks for learning how to write better dialogue.
3. Dialogue is dictated by personality. Your characters aren't clones. Just as real people don't all speak in the same way, neither should your characters. Take the time to discover your characters' personalities and allow your newfound insight to shape the way in which your characters speak.
4. People don't always say what they mean. In real life, most people guard their words carefully. They don't often blatantly state their opinions, instead choosing to beat around the bush and hint at what they really mean.
By including this type of speech in your novel, you avoid what is known as "on-the-nose dialogue" - dialogue that is painfully abrupt and obvious. Not only is on-the-nose dialogue unrealistic, but it quickly bores readers because it doesn't leave any room for them to read between the lines.
5. Relationships play a role. Relationships can vary widely, and not all relationships are healthy. Unfortunately, many authors ignore these facts by having their characters speak to every person in the same manner. Don't make this same mistake!
Consider your players when crafting dialogue. Who are the participants in the conversation and what sort of relationship do they have? Does one character take a dominant role in the conversation (as often happens naturally in real life) or do each of the characters share equal power?
6. Make use of body language and action. The days of extreme propriety are gone. No longer are conversations prescheduled and held in private sitting rooms over tea and crumpets (though the latter part would be lovely, wouldn't it?).
Most conversations are held on the go, and people aren't afraid to hold back. They laugh and sigh and groan as they speak, talking with their hands and making their feelings obvious through posture and eye contact.
As the author, this gives you the perfect opportunity to bring each of your characters and scenes to life by making the most of body language and action. Don't waste this epic opportunity by selling these elements short!
7. Adapt real-life elements. People don't often speak in perfect, polite sentences. They aren't robots, after all. They make use of fragments, curse, balk at the thought of giving speeches, shy away from maintaining the limelight, and exaggerate when it suits their needs.
Sometimes words are even misheard and people end up spreading lies that they honestly believe to be true. Things get messy, and as the author, you can't be afraid of that. Dialogue that is too clean will always leave a sour taste in readers' mouths because it simply isn't realistic.
8. Balance the players. You don't hear every word that is said in a crowded room, so don't feel you have to include every last line of dialogue in your novel. Instead, focus on the conversation that truly matters and relegate the rest to readers' imaginations.
Even if you have ten characters participating in a single conversation, keep the dialogue limited to only two or three main characters, having the others chime in on occasion. This will keep readers' heads from spinning as they try to keep up.
9. Dialogue should be rife with tension. Peaceful conversations are boring. Sad, perhaps, but true. You need conversation rife with tension to keep readers interested. This doesn't mean that your characters always have to be in a flat-out argument, but making them disagree, find offense, or have their feelings hurt is a sure way to keep readers flipping pages.
10. Not everything said must be spoken. You don't have to write down every word your characters speak. If they must say something mundane in order for the conversation to make sense, there's usually an alternative to spelling out their speech word for word.
For example, greetings aren't the most interesting of conversations, but sometimes they must be included. In this case, don't feel as though you have to write the greetings out. Simply state the characters greeted one another and move on.
Doing so will help you maintain the pace of your novel and hold readers' interest.
11. Ditch dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are used to attribute lines of dialogue (e.g. the most common tag is "said"). And while dialogue tags are certainly useful from time to time, writers often make the mistake of using them too frequently.
This is a mistake because dialogue tags are a sign of authorship. As the author, it's your job to weave a story so captivating that readers forget they're even reading a book. The more you make it apparent that an author is behind every word (e.g. by using dialogue tags as an internal note), the more likely you are to pull readers out of the story.
To prevent this from happening, replace as many dialogue tags as possible with other forms of attribution. By relating that the speaking character is acting or thinking in the narrative surrounding their line of dialogue, you effectively reveal who is speaking without injecting your presence into the story.
Curious to learn more about ditching dialogue tags and other signs of authorship? Check out this She's Novel post.
12. Said isn't dead. Though you should limit dialogue tags as much as possible, there are some instances where it would simply be too confusing not to include them. In these cases, avoid drawing any unnecessary attention by using the most common dialogue tag: said.
This may go against everything you were taught in school, but there is a reason for using "said" in most instances. Let's discuss this further in the next tip!
13. Choose strong tags. On rare occasion, you may need to attribute a line of dialogue with a verb more powerful than "said". When this happens, you must make strong word choices (which is exactly what your teacher was trying to convey when they told you "said is dead").
For example, instead of modifying "said" to explain that the words were spoken softly (i.e. "she said quietly"), use the word "whispered". Both phrases mean the same thing, but "she whispered" packs a far more powerful punch.
14. Use realistic tags. When choosing strong tags, make sure to choose verbs that make sense. This may seem obvious, but writers too often use attributive actions in the place of attributive tags, and this makes for sloppy writing.
Let's take a look at a few examples of attributive actions improperly used as tags:
"I can't believe it," Emma gasped.
"That is hilarious," Henry chuckled.
Unless you're super-human, you probably can't gasp or chuckle words, yet this is exactly what the above sentences imply. Now, let's take a look at two different ways to properly attribute these lines of dialogue:
Emma gasped. "I can't believe it." OR "I can't believe it," Emma said with a gasp.
"That is hilarious!" Henry chuckled. OR "That is hilarious," Henry said, chuckling.
See the difference between the two? Your dialogue might not need to be entirely realistic, but your dialogue tags certainly should be.
Want to learn how to properly punctuate all forms of dialogue? Give this post from The Editor's Blog a read.
15. Cut redundancies. Another common mistake is to include attributive action phrases in a line of dialogue, therefore making the dialogue redundant.
For example, "'Ugh,' she groaned." is redundant because "ugh" is the noise you make when you groan. Instead of including both, simply use the attributive action phrase to strengthen whatever line of dialogue comes next.
16. Avoid name drops. It's not often that people directly address the person they're speaking with. Instead, they acknowledge the other person through eye contact, then say what they have to say. When one does call someone by name, they're usually trying to gain their attention, acknowledge their superiority, or emphasize a point during an argument.
However, writers often make the mistake of name-dropping their characters in nearly every line of dialogue. This simply isn't realistic! In fact, the repetition of names can become quite frustrating to read, especially when the characters have already been directly addressed in the narrative.
17. Balance an info-dump. It's never a good idea to drop a bucketload of backstory or exposition on your readers at once, but sometimes an info-dump is simply unavoidable. In these instances, the best way to maintain readers' interest is to break the info-dump up into a conversation between characters.
When using this technique, it's important to remember that the info-dump be a conversation, not a speech. One character should relay the necessary backstory or exposition while the other interrupts to ask pertinent questions or infer information. This balance will keep your info-dump from actually feeling like an info-dump, which is always a good thing.
18. Use dialogue to break up narrative. Narrative that spans page after page can become extremely taxing to read, even when it's action rather than an info-dump. Our eyes require a break from relentless paragraphs every page or so in order to keep our minds interested. The perfect way to add this interest is to sneak in a line or two of dialogue.
Keep in mind, this dialogue doesn't have to be a full-blown conversation. A small remark will do. Even if your character is alone, you can add a line of dialogue by having them speak to themselves or react to something they've witnessed.
19. Read dialogue aloud. It's always difficult to tell if you've written effective dialogue, even after putting these rules into place. The best way to determine the quality of your dialogue's content and flow is to actually read it aloud.
If your dialogue doesn't sound right when spoken, you'll know that it won't flow well when it's read either. If that's the case, take the time to rework your wording. It may be a nuisance, but getting your fictional conversations just right can have a major impact on the success of your novel.
Whew! I've certainly given you a lot to digest today. Congratulations on making it through this extra-long post!
As always, these rules should be treated as guidelines. While I certainly recommend incorporating these tips and tricks into your own dialogue, don't hesitate to stick with what feels right for your novel. After all, every novel is different, and only you know your novel best.
Have any more tips or tricks for creating fictional conversations? Perhaps a question on how to write better dialogue? Leave a comment below, and let's chat!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!