Not too long ago I was asked what advice would I give to writers struggling with dialogue. I have discussed dialogue a long time ago, so this request’s timing is perfect, as I need to update that piece. I have learned some new techniques that proved better than the old, but some classics will always work.
With that said, here are 7 tips for writing great dialogue!
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1. Have a Purpose in Mind
The first tip relates to the plot you have in mind.
Dialogue is an excellent tool to create breaks in narration, develop characters and slip the slightest exposition when developing the plot. Yet, most beginner writers don’t know this and use dialogue at the wrong times and often without good reason.
That is why you need to have a purpose for your dialogue.
It requires additional time to find purpose with dialogue, but most likely you won’t have to look far. Your reason could be to have the characters discuss what comes next, or discuss what just happened. It could be that dialogue is a core element of the genre as it develops the characters, such as in romance, and the scene requires dialogue.
By having a purpose in mind, you avoid those unnecessary conversations that can be excluded or dealt with in a single line of narration.
Yet, you also establish in your mind what you need to include in that dialogue. Your instincts can only carry you so far, but with that additional goal, your instincts are unstoppable. You understand that the dialogue needs to explain something, focus on a particular character, or create an argument.
With something to aim for, your instincts will have a better time creating a dialogue.
2. Establish a Format
Tip 2 is to establish your dialogue format early on and stick to it. Dialogue formats vary from writer to writer. It largely depends on what you grew up reading, where you are from in the world and what you prefer.
I have encountered all forms of dialogue formats and each one is comfortable enough to read and enjoy.
However, in-consistent dialogue formats lead to both confusion and frustration. The reader will settle with the format early on, but when that format changes, it's a stumble to make sense of the writing. Sometimes this is down to poor editing, but most of the time, the writer is just inconsistent, making the writing appear amateurish.
Now, my dialogue format is as follows:
“I have the first sentence in quotations, followed by the character tag,” Matthew droned. “If I have any additional information, I provide that in a second set of quotations straight after the character tag, without starting a new line. If I am leading into a little storytelling, I usually break the quotations, start a new paragraph and continue narration in that character's words.”
“When I introduce more characters, I include their tags as well,” John interrupted. “And from there I can establish a back-and-forth.”
“Which allows me to exclude name tags and maintain clarity!”
“Because I have already established the two speakers.”
“Until I break that pattern with an action or when I introduce a third character,” Emily said, stepping into the room.
“And with three or more characters, I can still establish a back and forth excluding tags, as long as it is between the last two characters that spoke.”
“But anytime I break that back and forth, I include the character tags to ensure the reader knows who is speaking,” Matthew explained. “It’s all about maintaining clarity. I want to make sure the dialogue is easy to follow, especially if it is about a complex plot point.”
That is the example and explanation of my format.
3. Write Instinctually, Edit Slowly
Writing dialogue can be a slow process for some, but that normally comes down to overthinking. When writing dialogue, trust your instincts.
When you trust your instincts, it’s like a conversation plays out in your head. The characters are speaking to each other and you are simply taking down what they are saying. The real problem you might encounter in the beginning is your dialogue not fitting the characters.
Typically, a writer doesn’t have such a great connection to their characters in the beginning. It’s much like getting to know someone in real life. After enough time, you can hear their voice and even use the words they would use. Yet, you can’t do that with a stranger, as they will always surprise you.
Yet, it still comes down to following your instincts. Once that connection between the writer and character is made, the writer will be able to play that character better and convey their emotions better.
Of course, there will still be problems with the dialogue here and there, but nothing is perfect in the first draft. What you can guarantee is less awkward or broken dialogue when you stop forcing the words and let them come naturally as you write the scene.
This is why the second part of this tip is to edit the dialogue slowly.
4. Use Actions to Emphasise Emotions
We can show our character's personality in several ways. We can show it in the words they use, use their expressions or the tags after they speak, but very few take their actions into account.
Most characters will be doing something while they speak. It could be they are fidgeting with something, eating something, looking at something while they walk, you get the idea. These actions can also be used to illustrate their emotions wonderfully.
For example, a surprised character might have wide eyes and they might stammer, but they also might stumble while walking or fumble with something they are interacting with. It’s something so simple, but the action already provides the imagination with all the other elements.
Let’s examine that example.
A character is sipping a cup of tea when they receive shocking news. The character can inhale, cough, and splutter. The cup could shake, or if they are so dramatic, they could drop the cup. In these cases, a reader can imagine the tone of their next words, the expression they wear.
Of course, even a non-reaction works. Some people when they are shocked are frozen in place. Either they are so cool under pressure or they bottle their emotions well, their non-reaction will be read as such by the reader. A solemn face, relaxed movements and an even tone of voice.
You won’t use an action for every piece of dialogue, but when you do, it will emphasise emotions and add a lot to the scene.
5. Keep it Short, Simple, Impactful
Unless you have a character that likes to rant or a story that involves several characters being trapped in the same room together, your dialogues need to be brief.
A story involves many events, many scenes and thus, many dialogues. There will be plenty of necessary interactions between your characters. Your dialogues will serve as a great break from the narration, allowing your characters to show their personality and development.
The best dialogues are ones where the characters say all they need to say to show who they are and what they are about. Anything more will only be seen as padding and detract from the important statements they make.
As a result, most dialogues will be short and simple.
What makes a dialogue short and simple?
Generally, the dialogues that are less than two pages long. Any dialogue that extends past this limit is nearing the point of boring the reader with conversation. The dialogue will have to be separated by several paragraphs detailing actions and emotions to maintain interest.
I can safely say that most writers don’t write dialogues that are that long. Most will have several scenes in between if necessary, switching to different characters or including small stories to break it up. Clever tactics that maintain reader interest.
It’s a small piece of advice, but it’s good to keep in mind if you feel your dialogues are dragging on. If it’s more than two pages, see what you can cut out or simplify with small bursts of narration.
6. Read, Speak, Act the Dialogue
Some scenes will be tougher than others. For some writers, it is difficult to write a more casual scene that explores a character's personality and desires. Other writers struggle with emotional scenes, where characters are conveying their love or their suffering.
The difficulties one can encounter are unique to the writer.
This is one of the reasons why some writers work together to write a novel. If they work well together, the novel will be a well-rounded read as most shortfalls will be addressed by the right writer.
Yet, other writers prefer to write a novel that simply doesn’t include the scenes they might struggle to write. Again, this is not a bad thing. The novel will be written in their style and it can work well in their chosen genre. This is another possible method for avoiding those difficult dialogues.
However, if you are interested in facing your fears, then there is one method that will help you write these scenes. You need to place yourself in the scene the same way an actor would. You need to read the lines you write, speak them aloud, and even act at the moment, pulling the faces and expressing the emotions.
In doing so, you translate something from the page into real life, making it easier to spot aspects of the conversation that could be improved. For example, a line might seem right, but when read aloud, it simply doesn’t fit the character, or it doesn’t come off as natural dialogue.
It’s a method that has worked for my students, it is a method that has worked for me. It is most likely a method that professional fiction writers have used in the past. It seems so simple, ridiculous even, but it is effective.
If you have the confidence to truly place yourself in a scene and act it out, it will be an invaluable method for writing believable dialogue.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Inspirations
The final tip is short and simple; use inspiration.
Whether the inspiration comes from a book, a movie, or real life, that dialogue can help you write your dialogue. Almost everything that can be said has been said. If you find yourself writing a dialogue similar to what you have heard before, then don’t be afraid to look at that dialogue and turn it into your own.
You can always make it your own by considering your style and the personality of your characters, but the essence of the conversation will be much the same.
Of course, some dialogues you might not have researched or experienced. Natural inspiration can hit you, an idea for a dialogue that must be written. That much inspiration should also be used, or the core elements noted before you forget.
Dialogues are something I enjoy writing most days. It gives me an opportunity to have fun with my characters; show their strengths and weaknesses. One might be witty, cracking jokes at the right time for maximum effect. Another might be stern and down-to-earth, offering great advice or putting an egotistical character in their place.
There will always be those days where a dialogue just doesn’t work. I might lack the words or the scene feels forced. I look at some of my past works to this day and those scenes stand out like a sore thumb.
With what I have learned over the years, I write better dialogues or avoid those difficult dialogues if I can, keeping the story intact and the characters consistent.
Of course, it always helps to get a second opinion. If you are looking for writing courses or someone to review your work, then check out my Writer’s Workshop. No matter which tier you choose, you will have access to all my past and future writer courses forever. If you choose the higher tiers, you get access to the Writer’s group and even private lessons where I provide advice tailored to your novel.
I also have a free course available right now, you can check that out here!
Thank you for reading! Let me know what dialogues you like writing in the comments below.
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!