Every writer needs to master the art of writing dialogue. In this post, we discuss how to write great dialogue.
Learning how to write great dialogue is a necessity. Modern novels are filled with it. More than 50% of your book should be filled with characters talking to each other. Beginner novelists are often afraid of dialogue and they should be.
Writing dialogue is complicated. An author has to give the impression that characters are speaking as if they existed in a real world without including the boring everyday conversations people indulge in.
How To Write Great Dialogue
‘Real world’ dialogue is the kiss of death in a novel. Real life has no plot. Most everyday conversations have no point. They exist for the sake of appearances. They are made up of exchanging greetings and pleasantries. Small talk is just that and has no place in your novel.
Only use everyday conversations if they become important at some point or if you are setting up an important scene that includes these rituals.
Writing tip: An interesting way to test this for yourself is to tape a series of conversations and write them down exactly as the words are spoken. You will find people ramble on. They repeat what they have said, they struggle to find words, their grammar is terrible, and they talk ‘at’ each other.
How do authors only include dialogue that is necessary?
One way is to read a variety of novels published in the last 10 years. Examine the dialogue. Good authors only include what is necessary for the story. Sometimes this means dialogue has been pared down to the minimum, but this is necessary.
Never include unnecessary conversations. Readers expect every conversation you choose to include to be significant. Unnecessary conversations are the red herrings of the dialogue universe.
[Must-Read: 10 Dialogue Errors To Avoid At All Costs]
Authors should remember that there are three reasons for including dialogue in a novel:
- Dialogue should move a plot forward. Let your characters talk about plans, actions, and consequences. Let them give instructions and make introductions. Dialogue allows us to introduce conflict into scenes.
- Dialogue should reveal character. Every word your character uses shows the sort of person he or she is.
- Dialogue should provide information. Treat this one with care. There is a fine line between revealing important facts and boring the reader with details. Do not allow your characters to ‘tell’ in dialogue. Rather use a short summary.
If your dialogue does not fall into one of these, you should probably omit it.
Writing tip: Read your dialogue scenes to somebody. Ask them to tell you what they’ve learnt about the plot and character from the interaction. If they have learnt nothing, you may want to remove it.
The supporting act
Remember that people don’t just utter words when they interact. They act, they move, and they use body language – intentionally or unintentionally.
Two friends may walk or drink coffee as they speak. A young mother may jump up to prevent her child from crawling away. A woman may cross her arms as she listens to her husband. (You may find these body language cheat sheets I created useful.)
Writing Tip: Introduce a habit with dialogue. Your villain might flip a coin when he speaks. Your love interest might smoke when he or she speaks.
Add a thought or two
Remember that thought is also part of dialogue. Allow your viewpoint characters to have a thought or two as they speak. This adds to the richness of the interaction and it is realistic. Most of us think before we talk.
If you want, you could allow your character a short interior monologue before you start the dialogue. This could allow the character to sort out his or her thoughts.
Writing tip: Do not repeat what you say in thoughts in dialogue. Rather use this technique to add to the interaction.
Use dialogue tags
We use dialogue tags to show which character is speaking. The most common dialogue tags are ‘he said’ and ‘she asked’.
We must use them because they allow us to avoid confusing readers. Your readers will always know who the speaker is.
If we use them, we can break up long pieces of dialogue, insert an action or a reaction, and add body language.
Writing tip: Avoid using too many adverbial dialogue tags when you write. An adverbial dialogue tag is “when an adverb modifies the verb we use to denote dialogue. For example, ‘he said hastily‘, ‘she said gruffly‘, ‘they asked groggily‘.” Too many adverbs make us tell rather show.
Novelists should ignore the many posts suggesting 50 words to use instead of ‘said’.
Said is perfect. It shows the reader who is speaking. and it keeps the reader focused on the dialogue.
When characters mutter, proffer, utter, cry, growl, and grin words, the author just looks silly. It’s also exhausting for the reader who has to wade through all the unnecessary verbs.
Writing tip: Read your dialogue out loud. Your tongue will trip over all the nonsense words. Remove them.
Accents and dialect
Follow speech patterns rather than misspelling words. It takes a dedicated reader to muddle through idiosyncratic vernacular. Add the odd foreign word to show the speaker is not English.
Like everything else in writing, perfecting dialogue requires practice and patience. Write every day, and include dialogue in that writing if you can. This will teach you how to write great dialogue.
TOP TIP: If you want to learn how to write a book, sign up for our online course.
© Amanda Patterson
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