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Dialogue, much like any part of writing a novel, has its own challenges. There are many examples of dialogue falling flat, of dialogue being used for small-talk and other unnecessary conversations. I have organized this 5-step process to ensure you get a grip on great dialogue.
Let’s jump into it!
Step 1: Establish Structure
Grammar and punctuation. Not the most exciting subjects to discuss for writers, but a very necessary first step to take towards improving.
When writing dialogue it is important to maintain a certain structure. One that readers are familiar with reading and will also help better organise your dialogue. In doing so, you ensure that your dialogue is not only easy to read but easy to write as well!
First, quotation marks and punctuation.
You start your dialogue with a set of double quotations and a single sentence. Your sentence will either end with a basic punctuation mark, such as an exclamation point, question mark or period if not followed by a line saying who is speaking.
“Dialogue is simple to read just like this!”
However, if your line is followed by the they-said line, then you won’t use a period if you had planned on using it. Instead, you will make use of a comma. Exclamation and question marks do not change.
“That’s amazing!” Robert shouted.
“If you say so,” Timothy shrugged.
Next, if you want a person’s dialogue to be more than a single sentence, then you follow their they-said line with more dialogue. You always keep the first line as a single sentence.
“How do I tell this story?” Robert murmured thoughtfully. “It all began in the garden. The dog had bit into the garden hose and water sprayed everywhere! On the walls, the guests and, of course, on the barbecue!”
“That’s awful!” Tina exclaimed. “What did you do?”
Finally, in a dialogue between two people, you no longer need to use a they-said line. You have established who is speaking, so now you need only write the back-and-forth.
“Well, of course, I yelled at the dog,” Robert continued. “But it only got him more excited.”
“Is that how you got the bite on your arm?” Tina asked.
“No, that came after the postman.”
“Don’t tell me, he-”
“He bit the postman, yeah. When I pried him off the man’s pants, his mouth latched onto mine!”
With all these rules in mind, your dialogue should look neater and easier to read.
Step 2: Use Actions to Create Interesting Dialogue
Dialogue that includes actions will help establish a sense of pace. When characters sit down to talk, there isn’t much that they can be doing. Perhaps they are drinking a cup of tea or fidgeting with some piece of string. Yet, when a character is standing, in the middle of an activity, it can alter your dialogue for the better.
“Can’t really talk now,” Tina muttered as she pulled on her jacket. “The dog escaped, I need to catch him.”
“I will help then,” Robert replied, following her out the door.
In addition to that, there is a selection of activities or actions that can be used to replace the they-said line completely.
“I don’t know,” the neighbour shrugged.
“I understand,” I nodded.
You won’t use these as often, but they can also help deliver a certain scene. You would be surprised how many activities and actions you can make use of in scenarios like this, lending some energy to a dialogue.
In doing so, your reader can play the dialogue in their head with the right emotion. It is through actions that a reader can assume how fast and loud the character is speaking.
Step 3: Use Words Other than 'Said'
Of course, one of the most obvious steps is cutting the word ‘said’ out of your dialogue as much as possible. If it isn’t fitting for the word ‘said’ to be replaced with words such as mumbled, shouted, spat, cried, grunted, murmured, etc, then perhaps you can replace it with an action or activity.
‘Said’ has become overused, it is the first word we ever learned to convey speech, you can understand why. Yet, with the vocabulary of a writer, it pays to work with other words.
Convey emotions easier, establish scenes better. The dialogue needs to show what is going on and ‘said’ is such a neutral word it fails to do so. By replacing ‘said’, you have taken another step towards writing great dialogue.
Step 4: Cut Unnecessary Dialogue
The fourth step is one that depends on your story, but I’m sure every writer makes this mistake. Unnecessary dialogue in the sense of small-talk is easier to cut out. It has nothing to do with the plot or any character development, so what is the point?
However, there are other forms of unnecessary dialogue that plague your writing.
It is dialogue appearing to relate to the plot, but lacks any substance or is simple repetition. Let’s take the scenario where one character is explaining what happened in the previous chapter to another character. The problem with this is the reader already knows what happened.
In this scenario, it is better to encapsulate the entire dialogue in a single sentence.
Character A finished explaining what happened to Character B.
From there, you can have a shorter, far less repetitive dialogue, where the characters discuss their feelings and opinions on what happened and then their next course of action.
Repetition can be more obvious, such as an un-ironic repetition of dialogue. It is easy to do and, thankfully, easy to fix. Keep your dialogue neat and important. The reader is not interested in reading the unnecessary and they can spot it easily.
In addition to that point, avoiding the unnecessary will save you writing and improve the pacing of your plot.
Step 5: Don’t Overdo Your Dialogue
After you have completed steps 1 to 4, you are now ready for the final step. Avoid lengthy dialogue.
With steps 1 to 4, your dialogue is neat, easy to read and write. It shows energy, creativity and captures a scene well. It avoids unnecessary and improves your pacing. Yet, you might still be making the biggest mistake of making a dialogue that continues for pages upon pages.
You can easily create a lengthy dialogue that includes necessary information, but you need only use the dialogue that’s crucially important to cut out the rest. Dialogue is an enjoyable break from the narration, but it is only effective if you use it less than narration.
You need to space your dialogue out with scenes, descriptions, activities and so on to ensure this tool works to your benefit. As brilliant as dialogue is, nobody wants to read it for so long. Ensure that the dialogue ends or is broken up with plenty of actions.
With that in mind, there is one form of length dialogue you can keep. It is the dialogue where a character is telling a story the reader hasn’t heard but needs to. In this scenario, you subtly shift from the dialogue to a secondary narration.
Similar to your narration, but written in italics. It will read something like this.
“If I had only known,” Tim murmured remorsefully. “It was all my fault.”
I left the store with the leash in hand. It was only after a block that my forgetfulness subsides and I noticed the green rope in my hand. My eyes widened, I turned on the spot and ran for home.
Perhaps if I had my phone I could have called ahead. Yet, my mind clearly wasn’t with me that day. The dog escaped and it is all my fault.
“I hope you can forgive me,” Timothy finished.
Keep this step in mind and you avoid another common trap many writers fall in.
Dialogue is enjoyable to write as often we have a good idea of what to write. Dialogue often plays in our heads when we are day-dreaming of our novel, or perhaps dialogue comes more naturally.
We can place ourselves in a scene and write what we would say like a certain character. Yet, without the five steps in mind, we very easily take our creativity in the wrong direction. No matter how naturally we create dialogue, it loses its effect if written poorly.
Keep these steps handy, use them as a checklist and you will have no problem writing effective and enjoyable dialogue.
Thank you for reading and as always…
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!
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Matthew Dewey, Writer
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