Dialogue is an essential element of any story, but it can be difficult to do right. Even for a skilled writer, dialogue can be clunky, strained, over-dramatic, or unrealistic.
But it’s a useful tool for developing character, advancing the plot, establishing back story, revealing plot details, changing pace, and creating tension or mood. In any story, even high fantasy or sci-fi, dialogue adds realism and helps readers connect with characters. Most importantly, it enables characters to speak for themselves without a narrator’s intrusion, so they take on a life of their own.
Here are WriteMentor’s top five tips for writing good dialogue.
Give dialogue purpose
Alfred Hitchcock said a good story is “life with the dull parts taken out.” Apply this concept to writing dialogue in your book. Cut the small talk, the ‘awful weather today’ – unless, of course, it’s foreshadowing the weather’s role in the plot. Ask yourself: Does my dialogue move the plot along? Does it reveal something about the characters? Does it set the tone? Keep the dialogue tight, punchy, and to-the-point. On a similar note, start conversations at an interesting or important moment and finish it when all relevant things have been said.
Make dialogue realistic
Writing realistic dialogue – capturing the essence of how people speak, while making each character sound different – is difficult. There’s not enough space on this page to give enough advice, but consider the difference between “Are you okay?” vs “You okay?” or “Does anyone want pizza for dinner?” vs “Pizza for dinner?” Tuning in to how friends and family talk in real life can be a good way to fine-tune dialogue in your writing. Make note of quirks in their speech, how they form sentences, any particular words they use more often. Dialogue is fun to write because you can be creative with structure sentences to best reflect the cadence of speech.
Show don’t tell in dialogue
‘Show don’t tell’ is a common piece of writing advice, and can be applied to writing dialogue. In real life, people don’t info-dump like an over-expositional voice-over narrator in the opening of a film. Use conversation between characters, as well as narrative, to slowly tease out information for the reader. Part of the fun of reading is piecing things together, so don’t ruin that for the reader by including too much information in dialogue. Plus, don’t write information that the reader already knows. Dialogue should replace prose, not repeat it.
Avoid too many talking heads
Long chunks of conversation without narration can pull a reader out of the immediate action. Keep them anchored by interchanging dialogue with description of what the speaker or others around them are doing. It could be as subtle as body action or facial expressions. Just make sure the reader can see the action in their head, as well as hear the dialogue.
Silence is golden
Yes, the definition of dialogue is conversation. But sometimes, it’s the silences, or the things left unsaid, that can be the most powerful. Play around with how characters talk to each other to suggest nuances in relationships. Writing first person or close third person? Try contrasting what a character is saying to what they are thinking. Are they being nice out loud, but hateful in their head? Are they lying to a character, and the reader is reading the secret through their thoughts? Dialogue is a fun way to add layers and depth to the story, so enjoy writing it!