19 Ways to Write Better Dialogue
LISTEN TO TODAY'S ARTICLE:
For years, I struggled deeply with dialogue.
As a new writer, it was the bane of my existence. I hadn’t a clue how to delve into my characters’ voices, to write conversations that felt natural and true-to-character while also moving my story forward. To avoid staring my own weakness in the face, I often wrote the fiction equivalent of silent films. (But even those had dialogue, didn't they? Bah!)
Finally, one day, I realized I didn’t want my weaknesses as a writer to hold my stories back a moment longer. I wanted to improve my craft, and that meant improving my dialogue, too. Soon, I began studying every resource I could find, examining how skilled authors crafted incredible conversations. Today, writer, I’m sharing everything I’ve learned with you!
Why is dialogue so important?
Dialogue is, in many ways, the Swiss Army knife in a writer's arsenal of tools. By its use, we can explore characterization, create tension, reveal important contextual information, lend power to our stories' themes, foreshadow coming events, establish mood, and push our plot arcs forward, among a number of other opportunities.
Perhaps then, it is this versatility that makes dialogue so very intimidating to many writers. Every line in our stories must serve a purpose, but how can we handle the option overwhelm that dialogue can create? And how in the world do we craft conversations that ring true to character? What does well-written dialogue even look like?
It's time to take a step back, writer. Today, I have nineteen dialogue tips and tricks to share with you, beginning with ten pieces of advice that will help you craft richer, more nuanced conversations for your stories. Let's dive in!
#1: Don't keep it real.
Writers are often encouraged to craft realistic dialogue, and you certainly do want to write conversations that feel natural and true to language used in your everyday life. However, you may not want to write dialogue that matches word-for-word the conversations you hear around you.
In real life, conversations are filled with fluff. People stammer, repeat themselves, make small talk, and otherwise fill the air with relatively useless words. As we don't want to bog our stories down with nonsense, focus instead on crafting conversations that marry natural speaking patterns with purposeful content. Speaking of which...
#2: Every line of dialogue should serve a purpose.
We spoke a bit about purpose above, but I don't believe its importance can be overstated. Without purpose, dialogue lacks direction — and without direction, it's easy to leave readers feeling lost, irritated, and ready to throw in the towel. (Or, more accurately, to throw your book out of the nearest window.)
Before writing a conversation, take the time to ask yourself what key purpose(s) the conversation will serve. Most often, conversations work to resolve or create tension, establish context, or reveal new information that moves the story forward.
With an established purpose in mind, you can begin writing dialogue with the confidence that you're adding value to your story rather than setting readers up for boredom.
#3: Developing voice is crucial.
Choose three of your favorite characters and write a conversation about whether pizza is humanity's greatest food — without using dialogue tags. Would readers be able to tell which character speaks each line?
Unless they're clones, each of your characters should have their own unique voice — the verbal and non-verbal ways in which they communicate with the world as a result of their personality, experiences, cultural influences, and worldview, among other factors.
#4: People don't always say what they mean.
Rarely do we present our true selves to the world. More often than not, we tailor what we say and how we say it to fit the social climate around us. Because of this, your characters shouldn't always directly state what's on their mind.
Avoiding on-the-nose dialogue can actually help further develop your characters and their relationships by revealing the situations in which they don't feel they can — or want — to be completely honest. It also rings far more realistic to readers' ears.
#5: Relationships play a Key role in Conversation.
When crafting dialogue, you should always consider your key players. Examine the relationship between the characters and define how the dynamics of their relationship will affect the way in which they speak to one another.
If you've written a conversation that could just as easily occur between two strangers as it could two lovers, you likely need to spend more time developing the relationship at hand.
#6: Make use of body language and expression.
Well-written conversations aren't dictated by dialogue alone. Your characters' body language — including their posture, eye contact, and mannerisms — as well as verbal expressions like laughter, sighing, and groaning can easily deepen characterization and further readers' understanding of the conversation at hand.
#7: Don't be afraid to get messy.
People don't often speak in perfect, polite sentences. We aren't robots, after all. And as such, the dialogue in your stories should be peppered with imperfections: sentence fragments, grammatical errors, curses, lines of dialogue dropped mid-sentence, and so on...
#8: Balance the players.
Writing conversations between three or more characters can be tough. Fortunately, it's rare that so many voices will share equal weight in such a crowded conversation. When writing such scenes, identify which characters would have the most say in the dialogue, then let the power dynamics play out naturally.
When possible, consider limiting the number of players in your conversations as well. While it's fun to allow many of your characters to interact at once, doing so is at the risk of confusing readers and should only be employed when absolutely necessary.
#9: Work with the tension of the scene.
Making blanket statements is often risky business. But in this case, I feel comfortable saying that the dialogue in our stories should always revolve around tension. You see, tension is — in essence — an unanswered question, and it is the use of questions that drives our stories forward.
Some conversations will introduce tension, while others will resolve it. Some may even do both! When sitting down to write a new conversation, however, identifying the tension at the core of the scene can go a long way toward helping you craft purposeful dialogue that keeps your story rolling.
#10: You don't need to write every detail.
Readers don't need to see the mundane details of every conversation play out on the page.
Greetings, exchanges of basic information, and other boring but occasionally necessarily details can just as easily be stated in the text as they can be spoken — and oftentimes to better reception. So rather than slow the pace of your scene by writing mundanities into the conversation, state that she gave him her phone number and move along.
With my best tips for writing the content of your story's conversations laid out, let's turn our eyes toward the technical side of writing fantastic dialogue. Here are nine more tips for improving your work!
#11: Ditch unnecessary dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are used to attribute lines of dialogue to characters, the most common tag being "said".
Used occasionally, dialogue tags can help clarify who is speaking without slowing the story's pace. Many authors, however, make the mistake of overusing tags in an effort to maintain clarity and expound upon how the dialogue is being said (e.g. she shouted, he whispered, it hissed...).
If you've crafted strong voices for your characters, however, and if you make good use of action tags —which we'll discuss in a moment — you'll find there is little need to include much more than an occasional "he said, she said" in your story. Speaking of which...
#12: Said isn't dead.
If you do find that you need to employ a dialogue tag for the sake of clarity, "said" is most often your best choice. Why? Because "said" is so ubiquitous that it's often, in a sense, silent. Readers will graze right over the word while still catching the identity of the speaker, ensuring your tag doesn't disrupt the flow of the story.
#13: Utilize Action Tags.
Action tags are the small attributive actions that precede or follow a line of dialogue, such as the following:
Amanda fiddled with the hem of her shirt. "I don't know if that's the best idea."
"Are you sure that's what you really want?" Brad raised a questioning brow.
Making use of action tags is a great way to indicate speakers during dialogue while also keeping readers engaged and adding motion to the scene.
#14: Choose strong tags.
In some instances, neither the content of your dialogue nor the simplest of tags is enough to inform readers of how a line is spoken. If the difference in tone is nuanced enough to matter, avoid qualifying tags with adverbs and go straight for a stronger tag.
For example, instead of writing "she said quietly", use the word "whispered". Both phrases mean the same, but "she whispered" packs the more powerful punch.
#15: Use realistic tags.
When selecting strong tags, ensure you use verbs that make sense. This may seem obvious, but many writers often mistakenly use attributive actions in the place of attributive tags — a grammatical error that's sure to drive copy editors up a wall.
Here are two examples of attributive actions improperly used as tags:
"I can't believe it," Emma gasped.
"That's hilarious," Henry chuckled.
Unless you're superhuman, 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:
"I can't believe it," Emma said with a gasp.
Emma gasped. "I can't believe it."
"That's hilarious!" Henry chuckled.
"That's 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.
#16: Cut redundancies.
Another common mistake is to include attributive actions in and after a line of dialogue, therefore making the dialogue redundant.
For example, writing "'Ugh,' she groaned," is unnecessary because "ugh" is the noise one makes when they groan. Instead of including both, simply use the action tag to strengthen the next line of dialogue.
#17: Avoid name drops.
Not very often do we directly address those we're speaking to by name. Instead, we make eye contact, give a quick greeting, and say what we have to say. If we do call someone by name, it's often either to gain their attention or to show respect.
Unfortunately, many authors make the mistake of name-dropping their characters frequently during dialogue, often to establish the character or inform readers of the conversation's key players. Both, however, are sloppy writing. Instead, make use of strong action and dialogue tags to indicate speakers.
#18: Use dialogue to break up narrative.
Narrative that spans page after page can become taxing to read, no matter how theoretically exciting its content. Adding a line or two of dialogue can be a great way to give readers' eyes a break, especially if you allow your point-of-view character to engage or react to the world around them.
#19: Read dialogue aloud.
It's always difficult to tell if you've written effective dialogue, even after putting these last eighteen tips into practice. One easy way to identify dialogue missteps, however, is to read your story's conversations aloud. If the dialogue doesn't flow when spoken, you'll know exactly where to revise your work.
If you're as unskilled at writing dialogue as I was when I first began, trying to put all nineteen of these tips into action at once will likely prove to be extremely overwhelming. So, don't shoot yourself in the foot. Work with just one or two of these tips at a time until they become second nature. You'll master the art of crafting dialogue before you know it!