Good dialogue is one of the most crucial ingredients for a well-written story—and, to the frustration of many a would-be author, one of the easiest to bungle. Writers often commit the sin of overwriting dialogue in their zeal to draw in the reader. Whether you’re an editor trying to curb your client’s excesses or an author looking to improve your craft, the following tips will result in dialogue that is both more natural sounding and more engaging.
- Conversation is no place for exposition. Characters should never stop to lecture each other on things that they both already know or on things that are considered common knowledge within the story. If a conversation can legitimately open with the phrase “As you know,” get rid of it. Narrative summary is usually a better place for such details. Even in situations where one character has asked another to explain something unfamiliar to them, the explanation should not read like an excerpt from a textbook.
- Make it sound realistic, but not too realistic. In real life, most people do not politely take turns speaking in complete, grammatically perfect sentences. Details that will make dialogue sound more natural include using short phrases; slang or idiosyncratic language; more commas and dashes in an utterance, rather than periods; and occasional interruptions or trailing off. However, real-life conversations also contain lots of tics that make for difficult and boring reading when transcribed to paper. These include filler words like “uh,” “well,” and “you know”; repetition and self-correction; affirmations from the listening partner, such as “uh-huh,” “right,” and “go on”; and the dreaded small talk. Your goal as a writer or editor should be to keep dialogue tight and concise—see Rule 7.
- Each character should sound distinct. A character’s choice of phrasing should reflect their own personality and history, not the author’s. Is the character confident or shy? How much formal education have they received? Where did they grow up? How do they try (or sometimes fail) to portray themselves to others? Also keep in mind that characters will address their boss, family member, lover, child, etc., in different ways.
- Keep the tags simple. You’re probably haunted by the Ghosts of English Teachers Past exhorting you to use more descriptive language and avoid repeating the same word. When it comes to dialogue tags, tell those ghosts to take a hike. A majority of the time, you only need to use “said,” “asked,” “answered,” or “replied”—these tags help keep track of who is speaking, but they are practically invisible to the engrossed reader. Let the dialogue speak for itself as much as possible. Only use words like “grumbled,” “shouted,” or “whispered” where the context doesn’t already make it clear, and keep in mind that it’s physically impossible to “smile,” “giggle,” or “nod” a line. Throw out adverbs entirely—they scream “lazy writing.”
- Don’t overemphasize. Italics, bold text, exclamation points, and all caps draw attention to themselves, often at the expense of the surrounding text. When overused, they make a character sound like either a cheerleader on Prozac or Brian Blessed. The context of a conversation often makes written emphasis unnecessary; for example, if it’s clear that two characters are having an argument, peppering the text with italics, exclamation points, and all-capped phrases will only give the reader a headache. And why capitalize an entire line when you can simply add the tag “he shouted”? This is much simpler and much less annoying to your audience.
- Avoid funetik aksents. Spelling out an accent different from your own not only comes off as insulting to real-life speakers in most cases, but it’s also difficult for readers to slog through. Instead, use word choice and phrasing, or maybe the very occasional alternate pronunciation, to indicate that a character is not speaking the story’s standard dialect. A note of caution about this approach: avoid stereotypes, like nonnative speakers sounding like Tonto or Australians prefacing every statement with “Crikey!”
- Dialogue should be purposeful. If a line doesn’t advance the plot, provide characterization, establish conflict or provide resolution, then the story doesn’t need it. As stated in Rule 2, dialogue should be kept tight and concise, so cut all the waffle where characters exchange salutations, talk about the weather, or banter about nothing in particular.
- Good dialogue is layered. Very few people in real life say exactly what they mean all the time, and your characters should be no different. A character may twist their words to evade a difficult truth, omit information, or outright lie. A statement as innocuous as “I wasn’t expecting you” will have all kinds of subtext to it depending on body language, the context of the conversation, and the participants’ history with each other. A character’s choice of words may reveal something about themselves that they didn’t intend. Characters who know each other well will have inside jokes, references to shared experiences, or turns of phrase that are rich in meaning to them but opaque to outsiders. Well-written dialogue should say much more than the surface meaning of the words would indicate.
For further advice on creating good dialogue, check out these links:
So You Want To / Write Dialogue (TV Tropes)
9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Authors Make with Dialogue (Creative Penn blog)
9 Rules for Writing Dialogue (Novel Writing Help)