Hello and happy Wednesday!
As you can probably tell, today’s post is all about . . . dialogue.
When you read that word, what’s your first reaction? Is it to run screaming in the other direction? Is it to grit your teeth and pull together all your resolve? Or does it bring a smile to your face?
I personally love dialogue. Reading it, writing it . . . I’ve been told it’s because I like to talk so much in real life, and it carries over to fiction. I’m not denying the possibility. All I know is that the dialogue-heavy parts of a story are the parts I look forward to writing most, and usually am most excited to read.
Good dialogue, anyway. To me, good dialogue means conversations that are realistic and fit the characters. It means the lack of info-dumping for the reader’s sake. It means creating tension, emotion, and suspense.
Good dialogue creates a movie in the reader’s mind and crafts vivid characters through use of individual ‘speaking’ styles and word choices.
There are many things I struggle to write, but thankfully dialogue has never been one of them. Writers whose talents for things like beautiful descriptions, intricate plots, and relatable characters far outrank my own, have sometimes asked me for tips on dialogue. I’m always happy to try and help out – as long as they don’t mind me asking a bunch of questions back, haha.
Today, I thought I’d share my best dialogue tips with you, as well! I’m not an expert by any means, but whether you’re fond of dialogue or not, I hope these are helpful – or at least inspire you to get writing!
Speak it Aloud
This is a game-changer, or should I say, ‘story-changer’, for me. I have always loved getting inside my character’s heads and acting out how they would react in a particular situation. A lot of the time, I write dialogue into a story because a scene came into my mind and I acted it first, noting what felt natural for the characters to say and do. So I’m ‘writing’ the dialogue by seeing what flows as the scene progresses.
Maybe you’re horrified at the thought of doing that. That’s okay! I realize that’s not the way most people prefer, especially if they’re not fond of acting, and it doesn’t make any difference whether you speak the dialogue before or after it’s written down. Ideally, I try to read it aloud more than once anyway.
Sometimes dialogue can seem fine on the page, but when you try to speak it, little things jump out at you that just don’t feel right. Maybe it’s word choices, maybe it’s flow, maybe it’s just too much. It’s hard to catch those awkward little things until you see how it feels to actually speak it.
Most of the time those things aren’t enough to jar readers from the story – sometimes they are! – but even so, people may feel like something a character is saying is ‘off’, or weird. Often without even realizing what the problem is, they start to regard your characters as unrealistic, or just not relatable, because they don’t talk like normal people talk.
You know how normal people talk, don’t you? Speaking your dialogue helps ensure that it fits those expectations. I’m not saying you can’t have unique dialogue – on the contrary, real people speak in many different ways – but just that it should feel like something the particular character would actually say.
If you’re not used to speaking it aloud, it may feel strange at first. But just stick with it! The difference it makes is incredible, and the more you do it, the more you learn what feels natural for characters to say.
Consider the Character
And this ties into the previous tip… When writing dialogue, you should always know the character that’s speaking. Not just the obvious things, like their name, but really know them. Why are they speaking right now? What do they want? What are they hoping to do, or change, or gain?
Consider what kind of personality they have, where they’re from (think of accents), whether they have any favorite words or phrases, if they tend to be succinct or long-winded, and their relationship with the person they’re talking to. Did they just meet them? Did they grow up together? Someone will talk very differently to their friend or a coworker than they will to their mother or a boss.
Also consider where they are while they’re talking. Are they relaxing on the couch, having a heart-to-heart with someone? Or are they breaking into a bank, whispering their plans to a partner? Are they sitting in a hospital waiting room? In the back of a taxi? In front of an interviewer’s desk?
All of these things affect what a person says, and when and how they say it. A helpful exercise I’ll do on occasion is to take a short piece of dialogue (ex. “I didn’t do it!”), put it ‘in the mouths’ of different characters, and then see how it changes. Do some characters emphasize different words? Do some hesitate? Do some add more confidence?
Then try changing the setting for each one. Have them say it to a confidant in their kitchen, to a police officer in an interrogation room, and to a victim in the crime scene. How does how they say the words change with each new setting?
Paying attention to the setting, and to the character’s personality and motivation, is crucial for crafting dialogue that feels natural for each scene.
Avoid “As You Know”
If you’ve read much writing advice, you probably know what I’m talking about here. “As You Know” dialogue is something that’s explained between two characters – and both of them already know it. Something like, “As you know, Jim, we’ve been dating for four years now. I even moved across the country to be near you, leaving behind my steady job and parents. I think it’s time we tied the knot.”
The above example is really bad dialogue, haha, and most people have no problem knowing that instinctively. Both characters already know most the information, so why is it being stated again? Readers will know it’s only for their benefit, and it jars from the story.
But sometimes “As You Know” dialogue isn’t so easy to spot. I’ve caught numerous examples in my own writing lately, even though I think I’m watching for it. Although starting any dialogue with the words, “As you know,” is a red flag, not all “As You Know” dialogue starts with those words.
In general, watch for any dialogue that’s only there to clue the reader in. That reveals information all the characters would already know. Though giving details to the reader through dialogue is a good idea, and can be used well, it should come naturally in the conversation, and not just be there for the reader’s benefit.
A tactic many writers use is a ‘dummy’ character. This simply means a character that, like the reader, doesn’t know what’s going on. In that case, it feels natural for another character to explain – and in doing so, explain to the reader. It doesn’t feel like cheating anymore, because the ‘dummy’ character needed to know the information along with the readers.
Beware the Monologue
Out of all the dialogue rules in existence, this is the one I break most often. There’s something so satisfying to me about finally spilling all the genius of my villain’s master plan through a triumphant and boastful monologue. Only, what’s satisfying to a writer is sometimes dull or cringe-worthy to a reader. That’s often the case with monologuing.
Though villains are the common culprits, monologuing can be done by any character. Any time there’s a long, uninterrupted chunk of dialogue, it can be considered a monologue, and it’s best to see if all the dialogue is truly needed. Sometimes there may be too much information being revealed, and sometimes, it just needs to broken up.
In general, breaking up bits of dialogue with action is best. Action can be stereotypical action like an explosion, chase, or fight, or it can be – and usually is – something simpler, like the speaker stopping to adjust their clothing, furrow their brow, or cast a suspicious look at the person they’re talking to. Anything that breaks up the talking.
It also works well for the person they’re talking to, to respond. Do they ask questions? Do they have any frantic or confused thoughts? Do they spit, glare, or frown?
Adding details like these breaks monologues up, and helps create a movie in the reader’s mind, too. When physical details are provided along with the verbal ones, the scene is much easier to picture.
It’s also a good idea to carefully read through what the character is saying, and see if there’s anything unnecessary there. Do they really need to reveal every detail of their plan or childhood? And if so, do they need to do it now? One of the biggest improvements I ever made to my novel, Cabin Girl, was to break up huge backstory reveals, and instead spread them throughout several key moments.
Pay Attention to What’s Unsaid
Maybe this feels like cheating in a post about dialogue, but often, what’s not said is much more meaningful than what’s spoken. For example, imagine two friends that have known each other for many years. They’re hanging out when one receives a phone call that her beloved grandmother passed away in the night. After she relays the information with a choked voice, the two sit in silence for a few moments.
What touches you to read more? When the other friend says, “I’m so sorry. I know how much she meant to you.” Or when she swallows hard, meets her friend’s teary gaze, and silently embraces her?
There’s nothing wrong with the first one, and depending on the story, it could work well. But I often find that, especially in times of great emotion, the fewer words there are, the better. Sometimes words are hard to find. Sometimes they’re not enough. And sometimes a story is more impactful when words are replaced by a hug, a grin, or a sob.
This also ties into the earlier tips, about characters not speaking too much information. What if, instead of a character explaining, they simply flip over a piece of paper with an address, point to a sign, or open to a specific page in a book? What if, instead of answering a question, they scoff, smile, or swallow? Even having the character turn a question over to another is a good way to add variety.
I love dialogue, but when in doubt, less is more.
Well, those are five of my best tips for writing realistic and engaging dialogue. Did you find any of them helpful? Are there any you don’t like using? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
What are YOUR best tips for writing dialogue? I’d welcome the chance to learn from you – so let me know your favorite strategies in the comments!