Monday, February 20, 2023

10 Tips to Write Better Dialogue

Good dialogue can elevate a novel from ho-hum to unforgettable. It's a crucial component of storytelling that helps bring characters to life and move the plot forward. But writing dialogue that's both believable and engaging can be a challenge. 

Here are 10 tips for writing better dialogue in your novel, with examples that employ all of them.

1. Less is more. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got on writing dialogue was:  “Good dialogue is real life conversation’s Greatest Hits.” In real life, conversations can be lengthy and filled with greetings, chitchat, and filler words. But in writing, lengthy conversations can slow down the pace and lose the reader's interest. Aim for concise dialogue that gets to the point and advances the story.  Unless you are purposefully trying to show a that a character is a bore or long-winded, dialogue should be short and bounce back and forth, like a ping-pong ball.

If two characters meet each other for the first time, for example, leave out the “Hi, how ya doin’, nice to meet you,” etc.  Just write, “They introduced themselves to each other.”  Better yet, apply the old Hollywood adage about writing scenes: “Start late, end early.”  For example, if you have a chapter in which the hero meets a helpful stranger, dive right into the middle of the encounter, closer to the key exchange.  Example:

Chapter 5

“Have you been to Spain before?” 

“No,” Bridgette said.  The elderly man, who was also from Ireland, had been standing beside her in endless Passport Control.  They had been casually talking for the past half-hour—he was as frustrated as she was.

2. Avoid dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are the words used to indicate who's speaking (e.g. he said, she asked). While they're necessary for clarity, overusing them can become distracting. Instead, consider using action beats or body language to indicate who's doing the talking.  Better yet, have each character’s use of language be so different that you can tell them apart with no tags. (An example of all this follows after a few more tips)

3. Know your characters: The way a character speaks says a lot about who they are. Before you start writing dialogue, take the time to get to know your characters and understand their backgrounds, motivations, and personalities. This will help you create dialogue that's true to each character's voice and authentic to who they are.

4. Show, don't tell. Dialogue is a powerful tool for revealing character and plot. 

Instead of telling the reader what a character is feeling or thinking, use dialogue to show it. This will not only make your writing more engaging, but it will also help you reveal information in a more organic and interesting way.  

Some authors take the “Show, don’t tell” rule too far—there are plenty of exceptions, such as in reference to Tip #1 above – sometimes summarizing is better than showing, as with introductions.  It depends on the situation, and you, the author, have to decide which is better.  For example, if two married couples meet and there has been a secret love affair between two of them…well, in this case it’s probably better to show the introductions in great detail, because the reader wants to know how they are going to behave in such an awkward and tense situation.  The phrase “Nice to meet you” is suddenly is no longer mundane.

5. Vary your sentence structure: Just as you would vary your sentence structure in your narrative, it's important to do the same in your dialogue. This helps break up monotony and gives each character a unique voice.

Here is an example from my Lust, Money & Murder series which demonstrates these points.  Notice not only the shortness but varying lengths of the sentences, the frustration and anger that are expressed, the difference between the way Elaine and the manager of the modeling agency use language, and the fact that few dialogue tags are needed - it’s very clear who is speaking:

 “What’s your name, dear?” the manager asked, just like she had in their many previous conversations.

She still doesn’t know my NAME?  Elaine couldn’t believe it.  “Brogan,” she snapped.  “Elaine Brogan.”

“Don’t get snippy with me, honey.  We have hundreds of girls at this agency.”

 “I’m sorry...I’m just a little upset.  You told me that when I finished the training classes, I would be able to get modeling jobs.”

 “I told you no such thing.”

 Elaine blinked once.  “You said that to be client-ready, I had to have training.”

 “That’s right.”

 “Well?  I’ve taken every training class you offer.”

“Yes, that’s right.  You’ve done all the group training.  To be client-ready, you also need individual training, one-on-one, with Mr. Eskew.”

Elaine fought the anger that was growing inside her.  “And how much does that cost?  Another two thousand dollars?”

“My, you’re the jaded one, aren’t you, missy?  It so happens that personal training with Mr. Eskew is free.”

6. Avoid exposition: Exposition is when a character tells the reader information that they already know. This can be tempting when you're trying to convey important facts, but it's often clunky and disrupts the flow of the story. Instead, try to find creative ways to reveal information through action and dialogue.

Instead of:

"Hey, Sarah, remember when we were in high school together? We used to be on the track team, and we won the state championship in our senior year."  

The above is known as ‘stilted dialogue.’  Instead, we could write:

Sarah raised an eyebrow as she spotted Jack across the bar. He was slimmer and less muscular than she remembered, but the way he moved still betrayed an athlete's grace. 

"You look like you've kept up your running," she said.

Jack smiled. "I try."

Sarah knew that Jack was being modest. He had always been the fastest runner on their team, and the one who kept them all motivated during practice. But she didn't want to make him uncomfortable by praising him too much.

7. Use subtext: Subtext is what's unsaid in a conversation. It's the underlying emotions, thoughts, and motives that drive the conversation forward. Including subtext in your dialogue can add depth and tension to your writing.

Instead of:

“You’re beginning annoy me,” she said, clenching her fists.


"I'm not mad," she said, her voice soft and even. She forced a smile and tapped her fingers on the table, trying to curb the anger simmering inside her. She didn't want to lash out, not again, not in front of him.

8. Pay attention to real-life conversations: To write better dialogue, it's important to be familiar with how people really talk. Listen to conversations around you, take note of common expressions, and incorporate them into your writing.

9. Read your dialogue out loud: Reading your dialogue out loud will help you catch any awkward phrasing or unnatural dialogue. It will also give you a better sense of the rhythm and flow of your conversation.

10.  Revise and edit: Finally, don't be afraid to revise and edit your dialogue. Good writing is a process, and it's important to be open to feedback and make changes as needed.

By following these tips, you can create dialogue that's believable, engaging, and helps move your story forward. With practice and patience, you'll find that writing dialogue becomes easier and more natural, and your novel will be all the stronger for it.

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