30 Jun 2020

15 Tips for Writing Good Dialog

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Dialog can make or break a book. Well written conversations are a pleasure to read and provide useful information that moves the plot forward or helps define characters or the setting. On the other hand, when it’s poorly done dialog can weigh down a story, make it dull and plodding, and push the reader out of the story and back to reality.

Remember when you’re writing your story that your dialogue (conversations between characters) should not sound like a conversation in real life. That’s because people use a lot of filler words, they jump from topic to topic, and they speak over each other. This makes dialogue difficult to follow and boring.

1. In conflict

Make sure your dialogue is in conflict. In other words, make it interesting.

“How’s the weather?”, Tom asked.

“It’s going to rain,” Jill replied.

Tom said, “that’s nice.”

This is boring and doesn’t do much to further the story. Instead, add some conflict to spice it up.

“How’s the weather?”, Tom asked.

“The weatherman screwed up again. I thought it was supposed to be sunny, so I could wear my bathing suit, but it’s going to rain.”

“That’s too bad. Does the weatherman ever get it right?”

You see how much better the second one reads? It adds a little conflict or opposition to the story.

2. Purpose

In a story, dialogue should always have a point. Does the conversation drive the story closer to resolution or does it advance the plot? If you took the dialogue out, does the story still makes sense? Does it shed some light on the situation, the feelings, the likes, or dislikes of a character?

Make sure they’re not just talking about something that’s not important. Filler dialogue should be removed, for the most part.

It is a good idea, however, to include a few conversation points in your dialogue to keep it authentic and add character and make the story more interesting. Just make sure your speakers get to the point quickly.

3. Provide Information

Your conversations demonstrate relationships between characters. Use it to communicate emotions and feelings and to demonstrate whether they like each other or not.

4. Characterize

Dialogue should add to the understanding of the personality of the character. For example, your vampire could talk about how he has feelings, how he hates werewolves, or how he wishes that humans understand more about him. You can also use this to add a little color to your characters.

5. Dialogue Tags

It’s important to tell your readers who is speaking. This is done with what is called dialogue tags – Bill said, Sally replied, and so forth.

Use enough tags to let the reader know who’s speaking, but once that’s been established you can leave them off. You don’t need to include the tags on every line of dialogue. If your dialogue goes back and forth between two characters, you can leave off tags from everything but the first couple of statements.

In another case, if your characters have different ways of speaking, and it’s obvious, you can also leave off tags once you’ve established who the speaker is.

You do need to include enough dialogue tags so that is clear who is speaking.

6. Adverbs

Avoid using tags such as “happily”, “urgently” and so forth. That’s telling the reader emotions and feelings; it’s far superior to show these with facial expressions, body language, and action.

7. Simple Tags

Keep your tags simple. For the most part, reader skip over them anyway as soon as they figure out who’s talking. Stick with “said”, “asked,”, “replied” and so forth and avoid tags such as “screamed” or “interrupted”. Instead, show those actions in your story.

8. Vary Line Length

Dialogue that’s all the same length is boring. Design your dialogue so that your characters talk in lines of different lengths.

9. Do Something While Talking

Generally, people don’t just have dialogue going back and forth. They’re usually doing something. So, add some actions between dialogue. You might have Sally ask about the weather, then have Tim stop watching television to answer her, then have Sally take her pizza out of the box before replying to Tim again. This makes it much more interesting.

10. Keep Dialogue Brief and Eliminate Unneeded Chatter

Keep your dialogue brief and to the point. Yes, add some social niceties and chitchat, to make your conversation sound normal, but don’t bore the reader with lots of details that they don’t need.

Sometimes a bit of idle chit-chat or small talk serves to add some realism. A few lines of introductions can be useful to set the tone. However, more than a small amount is boring. When you edit, chop out any unneeded dialog.

11. Dialogue Shouldn’t be Grammatically Correct

People don’t speak with perfect grammar, so don’t do it in your dialogue. Your grammar and dialogue should be imperfect – closer to real life. Perfect grammar is almost never true in great dialogue – unless, of course, your character is a grammar Nazi or a very proper, high level aristocrat trying to impress someone.

12. Act Out Dialog

Read your dialog out loud, acting out the various characters as you read. I like to change my voice and mannerisms.  This can make problems and errors in the dialog stand out so you can correct them.

13. Listen to Other People’s Conversations

Get a notebook and pen (or a tablet or something) and wander around. Eavesdrop on conversations and make notes about how people talk to one another. Watch their body language and facial expressions as well.

14. Read Books and Stories

Read books both in your genre and in other genres. If you are a mystery writer, for example, read some mysteries but also read romance stories, some science fiction, and perhaps a few fantasy novels. Different genres and authors use different styles of dialog.

As you read, make note of what seems to work, what feels awkward, and what threw you out of the story.

15. Nail the Emotion

When people talk to one another they express their emotions in their body language, facial expressions, actions, and words. Show these in  your dialog and related exposition.

Conclusion

The heart and soul of a book is the dialog. Spend the time to create great conversations in your story. Your readers will love you for it.

Richard Lowe Jr

Richard Lowe Jr

Owner and Senior Writing at The Writing King
Richard is the Owner and Senior Writer for The Writing King, a bestselling author, and ghostwriter. He's written and published 63 books, ghostwritten 20+ books, as well as hundreds of blog articles.
Richard Lowe Jr

@richardlowejr

Professional Ghostwriter, author and writing coach
15 Tips for Writing Good Dialog has been published on The Writing King - https://t.co/b333glGJC6 https://t.co/9PWbUidk1O - 1 week ago
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Bonnie Dillabough

Great article, Richard. I agree. Dialog should always move the story forward. Clever use of dialog can do your description for you and plant seeds for your plot. Here is an example out of the first book of my Dimensional Alliance series, “The House on Infinity Loop”: They moved from the living room into the dining room, which showed French doors looking out into a back-yard patio with a large, brightly colored, striped awning and many potted plants. From there they examined the kitchen with old-fashioned enamel appliances lots of cupboards and counter space and a large window over the double… Read more »

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