Dialogue requires a different mindset. You need to place yourself in your character’s shoes, react the way they would and still play the writer and steer the conversation in the direction you want. Thus, dialogue can be pretty difficult to write if it doesn’t come naturally.
Here are 16 tips to keep in mind when writing dialogue!
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A Little Note
This article is one I’ve written in 2019, but revised and revamped. I’ve not only edited and improved the tips that I talked about before but also added a bonus tip!
As always, I like to promote discussion when it comes to these kinds of posts, so if you have any experiences you wish to share, advice to give or questions to ask, be sure to let me know in the comments!
1. Find Your Format
Writers have their formats for writing dialogue. Depending on education and origin, many formats work in writing. With that in mind, you can improve your dialogue by establishing a clean, simple format.
For example, my dialogue format helps cut out unnecessary tags.
"If you mean it, then show it," she muttered in my direction.
"I do mean it and I show it every day!"
"Well, it doesn't feel like it..."
This is a simple format that allows the reader to know exactly who is speaking. To top it off, it cuts out anything that isn't necessary. Proper grammar goes a long way and once you find your format, stick to it. Nothing will jeopardise the flow of dialogue more if you confuse your reader down the line.
On a personal note: I recommend experimentation with different dialogue. You might find one better suited for you than any other. You may even find certain formats suited for different genres.
I also recommend that if you are new to writing, look at formats that appeal to you. It can be from a short story or a favourite book. You can even use the same format that I do, which is a pretty common one. There are no perfect formats out there, so choosing one or the other won’t bring your writing down.
Inconsistency will, so once you find your format, stick to it.
2. On Avoiding 'Said'
While 'said' is not a bad word to use, there are better alternatives. You will sometimes want to convey character emotions without having to write a sentence or two describing their expression and tone. Conveying emotion isn't easy, but one way that helps do so is using different verbs.
It has often been debated whether 'said' should be the chief word used in dialogue. Yet, you need only pick up one of your favourite books and read the dialogue to see the different ways a writer will use to avoid ‘said’.
A few examples of words you can use instead of 'said':
I yelled, bleated, barked, roared, screamed, murmured, whispered, muttered, pleaded, begged, cried, lied, snapped, jabbered, gibbered, mumbled, grunted, snorted, cackled, rumbled, spat, screeched etc.
We have all these words and more at our disposal, so we should make proper use of them. If you feel like expressing character emotions better, experiment. Try some of these words out, find ones from other literature, note the methods that appeal to you and put them into practice.
No doubt you will collect a few that appeal to you and show your personality. Thus, you will use them more often than others.
3. Sometimes Simple is Best
Exposition is one of the worst forms of storytelling. The only time it is ever used is if the character speaks that way. Otherwise, dialogue is best kept simple for the characters and the reader. After all, a character should not constantly repeat what the reader already knows.
Simple dialogue is often the most powerful as well. You cannot spend your time writing complex sentences if they fall flat. Plus, people are pretty simple in terms of dialogue.
Take this simple sentence for example:
"I...I love you," he told her. "More than anything, I do."
As opposed to unrealistic and simply ridiculous this:
"My feelings for you are greater than that of general affection," he told her. "These feelings for you amount more than the feelings I have for anything else, of that I am sure."
Unless this character has stepped out of a cliché medieval story or is trying to be funny, it won’t work as well as the simple sentence above it. These interactions are more powerful with history backing them as well.
Simple speech is not only easier to read, but easier to relate to as well.
4. Make Use of Unique Speech
Characters will have different backgrounds and education. With that in mind, most characters will have different phrasings. For example, you can write their speech based on their pronunciation.
"Ya sure of dat?" Billy asked.
"I'm shuper shure," Steven replied. "Sho shure that theysh lyin’."
Of course, unique speech can be more in-depth than the way the characters pronounce words. Colloquialisms are another matter to consider. Phrases traced back to their origin country or societal group. Jargon and slang included.
"You are a pain in the neck," Robert droned.
"Well, yer a pain in me ***," Carl replied.
Unique speech, as you can see, also helps describe a character's personality. It is for this reason you can see why many professional writers take their time here. Developing a personality for a character requires a lot of thought. Yet, it will make for an interesting character from beginning to end.
If you think writing this way will work in favour of your character and your story, be sure to give it a try!
5. Check the Purpose of the Dialogue
It is easy to write meaningless dialogue. When I say meaningless, I mean something worse than small talk. Dialogue needs to build on a character or progress a story, if dialogue fails to do either, it is on thin ice.
While there are other reasons to include such dialogue, such as comedy, be sure that it has the desired effect. If you find your dialogue lacking any smaller reason as well, that dialogue is best omitted. It is better to keep things simple, that way the reader stays invested.
With that said, you also break the immersion with dialogue not fitting the story or characters.
"I saw a cloud the other day," William said.
"I saw a cloud too," his brother replied.
I tried to make this example lack comedy, but that is difficult without context. Something so bland and meaningless coming out of nowhere still subverts expectations, which is comedy in a nutshell. Yet, I am sure you get the idea. Be sure to check your dialogue for its purpose in the novel.
6. Use Realistic Dialogue
Too often a writer will type out a cliche or some other unrealistic dialogue. It is so easy that it might take the writer a while to realise what they have done. Writers often do this to avoid swearing in their novels.
The monster bit off the sailor's right hand in a gory display.
"Goodness me!" the sailor yelled. "That hurts an awful lot!"
As you can see, that doesn't read better than this:
The monster bit off the sailor's right hand in a gory display.
"****!" the sailor yelled followed by terrible screams.
Not the best writing, but once more, you get the idea. If your story includes some strong imagery, it will need some strong language. It makes a scene far more gritty and believable. The reader wants to be immersed, by not coddled like a child when something bad happens.
Once more, this comes down to putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine what they feel, use their personality to direct you. Use the words you think they would use.
7. Put Thought Behind Speech
Speaking of empathy.
You are not the only one in the story. When you create a character, you have to approach dialogue from their perspective. You have to ask yourself, what is their opinion of the character they are speaking to? What kind of mood are they in? What kind of person are they when pressure is placed upon them?
"You know you need my help," the outlaw told the knight. "You best realise that before we are both killed.
"You killed too many people for me to care about your life," the knight replied in anger but faltered when he thought about what was at stake. "But...my king is in danger. If receiving the help of a demon ensures his safety, so be it."
"Then watch where you swing that sword and I will watch where I swing mine."
The dialogue gives us enough information on the situation. We know the relationship between the characters, their opinions of each other. Yet, we also know they wish to live for a different purpose. For the outlaw, it is so he can live. For the knight, it is so his king may live.
Despite the cooperation, these two still have ill feelings towards each other. Simple thought behind dialogue and conveys the characters intentions to the reader. Understand the motives of who is speaking and words come naturally. The ones that fit and make sense in the context will stand out.
8. Avoid Repetition
There is a small list of don'ts that I will mention. The first is to avoid repetition. Some characters may argue, but it will only bore the reader if there is no progress. In these cases, it is best to show some change or introduce a new conflict.
The same would apply to any form of repetition. Characters repeating lines is nonsensical if they lack purpose. Ensure that you limit these lines as much as possible.
"You can do this, sir," the private told the captain. "You are the best there is!"
"I will see it done, soldier."
"That's right, you will. You are the best, sir, and that is why you can do this!"
A big NO to this in any shape or form.
9. Avoid Small-Talk
Small-talk is much like speech without purpose. Yet, small-talk is on more common subjects. These conversations not only serve no purpose, but they also bore the reader as well. The dialogue centred on the story is what will keep the reader's attention, not thoughts on the weather.
"I was hoping for rain today," Lionel grunted.
"Yes, but I heard there will be some tomorrow," Ruby replied hopefully.
Unless this is code exchanged between two secret agents, give it a miss and anything else like it. If it doesn’t set the scene, progress the plot or develop any characters, then it is better to get straight into the real dialogue with a single sentence cutting through the small talk.
The two exchanged empty pleasantries before getting down to business.
From there you can get on with the real dialogue and save your reader a few boring and unnecessary lines. Not to mention saving you from wasting your time to write them.
10. Avoid Using Names
Another simple rule, avoid using names in dialogue. While it is fine to tag the person speaking, names are often not mentioned in dialogue. That is not to say they never will be. In some cases, mentioning the name of the characters serves a purpose.
"Robert Steven Musgrave!" Robert's mother yelled. "You get in here this instant!"
"Coming, mom!" Robert nervously called back.
Yet, most of the time it won't make any sense.
"Good morning, Robert Steven Musgrave," Robert's mother greeted.
"Morning, Barbara Alison Musgrave," Robert replied.
It would be far better to say 'good morning', making it a more believable dialogue. Otherwise, it sounds like breakfast talk between two aliens. Of course, this is a silly example, but once more, you get my point.
Nobody mentions names in dialogue without reason.
11. Consider Character Reactions
Certain dialogue should receive certain reactions. It is often that writers who are starting dialogue don't know how to keep a conversation flowing. Sometimes information will surprise someone or offend them. It helps improve dialogue if you include at least one or two reactionary dialogues.
"...and of course I said, 'Yellow'," she continued.
"What! I can't believe you said that!"
It always pays to have fun with such reactions as well. In a dialogue between antagonist and protagonist, reactions make the dialogue more impactful. Something to remember if you hit a dead-end in such a scene.
12. Action While Speaking
More often than not, your characters are doing something while speaking. Including an action helps give a sense of pacing and even tension. Of course, this can be any action you wish. Something related to the character, the dialogue or the story helps too.
"I'm almost out of nails!" I yelled over the hammering.
"Take some of mine!" Sarah replied, positioning the board over the window. "And hurry up! The zombies will get in if you take so long!"
It helps position characters, it makes them feel more alive. Having them react to the physical and audible world immerses the reader more. All these benefits for a little extra effort. It needn't be so dramatic, your characters could be making breakfast. Yet, having that action will add to the dialogue.
Depending on your chosen genre or the specific scene, you will use actions in dialogue often, while in other genres you will use them rarely if at all.
13. Emotions Cloud Dialogue
If your characters are arguing, they will speak with anger. If they are sad, they will speak with misery. You can experiment with how each character acts when feeling emotion. Emotions play a huge part in a dialogue. It might slow it down, it might speed it up. Yet, by keeping the emotions of the characters in mind, you improve the dialogue.
"I-I don't know if we should do this," Louis murmured, his fingers tapping. "What if we get caught?"
"Then we get caught," Craig shrugged, placing a hand on Louis's. "But we need to try, Louis. You know I need your help."
You can almost catch the anxiety from the character. These emotions are easy to capture if you keep them in mind. A dash of empathy or using the way you speak feeling such an emotion helps too. In the end, the dialogue is more impactful.
14. Read Dialogue Aloud
A more common rule, but it will help if you find yourself stuck. Some dialogue isn't easy to write. The kind of dialogue you have no experience with, for example. That is why it is better to read it aloud. Doing so will help place you in the situation and you can better think of the right response.
Reading the dialogue aloud is the most useful tool for combating these difficulties. What might read right might not sound right. Someone might pick up on this and suddenly the dialogue feels wrong or falls flat.
15. Break Narrative with Dialogue
Narrative can be long-winded and boring. Yet, there is almost always an opportunity to break it up with dialogue. This tip is not about how to write dialogue, but when to write dialogue. If you find the narrative too slow and need to speed things along, use dialogue.
It is a tool used in the real world, it is a tool used in your novel. Don't be afraid to introduce some dialogue and take the story a step forward in the right direction.
Note: Don’t think you can use this all the time. Breaking narrative is more effective when it fits your story or the scene. Yet, if you do it too often or your dialogue is too long, it loses the effect and becomes too ‘normal’ in your story.
16. Know When to Leave It Alone
When you are happy with the dialogue you have, don’t mess around with it. If it ticks all the right boxes and you are ready to move on, don’t start searching for a problem to fix.
When you write a line of dialogue, there is a natural air to what you have written. You haven’t spent so much time debating on whether a character’s words are the best ones they could say. Which makes sense, because your characters don’t have that time in the dialogue to find the perfect words to say.
There will be flaws in what they say, but if that adds to the character realistically rather than detracts from your story, leave it alone. It is a flaw in what they say, but not a flaw in your dialogue.
I’ve always enjoyed writing dialogue from a character perspective rather than a writer’s perspective. I want to show what my characters are thinking, to say what makes sense in regards to their situation.
When it’s done right, you can almost see all the pieces fall into place. You see your characters become friends, or enemies or fall in love. When I have that feeling when writing dialogue, my head has no problem finding the next words. I understand the characters, I know what they would say and what they should say and I find where those two things crossover.
You don’t need to keep these tips with you as some checklist for writing dialogue; in fact, I don’t recommend that you do. Instead, I hope these tips give you a better idea of what works in dialogue and what doesn’t. With this understanding, you can approach dialogue the way you naturally do, but now write dialogue you can be proud of!
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!