Here are eleven tips for writing good dialogue:
1) No long speeches, please
Don’t let your characters drone on and on for paragraphs. Instead, let characters interrupt each other, throw in a question or a comment, or insert a short description or a physical action.
2) Avoid “talking heads”
“Talking heads” are long sections of dialogue with no description of the setting or what the characters are doing. Remember that you’re writing a novel, not a screenplay. In real-life conversations, we don’t stand still, doing nothing, while we’re talking. Include short descriptions of your characters’ body language and facial expressions.
“It’s impossible.” She grabbed fistfuls of her curly hair. “Dammit.”
3) Balance narrative and dialogue
Don’t go to the other extreme and interrupt the dialogue too often either. If you have long passages of description and introspection between one character’s question and the other character’s answer, the reader will have forgotten the question by the time you present the answer. Try to achieve a good balance between narrative and dialogue.
4) Avoid formal, stilted dialogue
In real life, people don’t always use complete, grammatically correct sentences. Unless you’re trying to show that your character is a very formal person, let your characters speak in fragments sometimes and use contractions. But be careful not to use so much slang or dialect. Use just enough to give a flavor to the speech patterns, but don’t make the dialogue unreadable. A good tip to find out whether your dialogue sounds natural is to read it out loud.
5) Use oblique dialogue
Good dialogue doesn’t always need to be direct. We sometimes answer a question with a question; we change the topic; we answer to what is implied instead of what is actually said, or we keep silent.
6) Give your characters unique speech characteristics
Don’t let your characters all sound the same. Each character should have her own unique voice, vocabulary, and speech pattern, according to her age, gender, education, and family background.
7) Don’t let your characters talk about the weather
Don’t write pages of small talk and boring exchanges.
“Let’s discuss this over dinner.”
“Where do you want to meet?”
“I don’t know. Any suggestions?”
“How about that Italian restaurant just across the street?”
“Sounds good. I’ll meet you there at seven.”
This can be summed up more effectively: They agreed to meet at the Italian restaurant across the street at seven.
8) Make sure your dialogue has a purpose
Instead of filling pages with mundane exchanges, make sure all your dialogue has a purpose. Good dialogue should:
- Move the story forward: The conversation should change what happens next, e.g., your character reveals a secret, gets important information, forms an alliance, or makes an enemy during the conversation.
- Reveal character: what a person says and how she says it reveals a lot about her or his personality and background.
Two characters might use different words to achieve the same goal.
Character A: “It’s cold in here.”
Character B: “Can you turn up the heating?”
Dialogue can also reveal the emotional state of the speaker. People who are angry use shorter sentences, fragments, and forceful words. Nervous characters might ramble a bit.
- Create conflict: your characters should have a goal, something they want to achieve with the conversation, e.g., get some information out of the other character, but the other person doesn’t cooperate. Read more about how to create conflict here.
- Reveal information and backstory: Instead of revealing information by letting the character think about it, readers can find out during the course of a conversation. But be careful of creating info dumps or having the characters tell each other things they already know. Read more about backstory and info dumps here.
9) Don’t overuse names in dialogue
A pet peeve of many editors is the frequent use of names in dialogue. In real conversation, we don’t often use each other’s names.
10) Use dialogue tags correctly
Another common mistake is the inappropriate use of dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is a verb such as “said” or “asked,” which lets the reader know who’s speaking. Since this is a complex topic of its own, we’ll cover it in another blog post.
11) Make sure you punctuate and format your dialogue correctly
Last but not least, getting the punctuation right matters. We’ll cover that in a blog post of its own too.
Can you think of any other tips on writing good dialogue? Please let us know in the comments.