Writing Wow Dialogue

You’ve invented a great character. You’ve given that character grit, a great goal and stiff opposition, wowing your readers. But when the character opens her mouth, does her dialogue measure up?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some easy fixes to take dialogue from weak to wow:

Weave It

He said. She said. It’s an attribution thing, signaling the reader about who is speaking in a scene. These days, eliminating “said” and other atts or dialogue tags as they’re sometimes called, can get writers confused. While we don’t want to bend over backward to find “creative” attributions (he exploded; she cried anxiously), I think inserting the occasional said is fine, especially for varying your scene’s pace. Otherwise, learning to weave action, thought or emotion in and around your dialogue improves a scene’s motion and keeps readers reading. This one simple technique can lift your writing out of the ho-hum and into an engrossing read.

For example: Lord Grubstown said angrily, “Madam, are you always so unpleasant?” He paced the length of the drawing room. He glared at the object of his derision, who was helping herself to another of  Cook’s pastries.

Lady Succulent retorted, “Are you always so rude?”

“Now see here,” he expostulated, “You have had quite enough for one day!” What a gluttonous sow, he thought to himself.

Lady Succulent held her Danish in midair. “Honestly,” she said exasperatedly, “you are the unpleasant one, sir. She chomped into the flaky bun.

Now see how weaving the action, thought and emotion in and around the dialogue improves the flow and still makes the speaker clear:

Lord Grubstown paced the length of the drawing room floor. What nerve! Lady Succulent was trying to eat him out of house and home. He eyed her third helping of Cook’s delicious pastries. “Madam, are you always so unpleasant?”

Lady Succulent’s mouth dropped open. “Sir, are you always so rude?”

He wasn’t going to bite his tongue—not this time. “Now see here,” he said. “You have had quite enough for one day.” Gluttonous sow.

Lady Succulent held her Danish in midair. “Honestly, you are the unpleasant one.” She sneered. “Sir.” She chomped into the flaky bun.

As you can see, I’m having a bit of fun, but the second example eliminates unnecessary tags, instead using the actions, thoughts and emotions of the characters to identify speakers.

Waste Not Words

Speaking of eliminating words, creating tight dialogue also depends on not putting extra words into characters’ mouths, especially when it’s for the author’s convenience. While it’s tempting to reveal information via dialogue, it usually comes off sounding fake and wordy. Keep these things in mind: 1) You don’t want your character sounding like a walking encyclopedia: “Why do birds fly, Grandpa?” Well, birds fly because of the aerodynamics of their wings, which create lift by increasing air pressure beneath their wings, etc etc. 2) Avoid the “You Know” Syndrome: “You know you have to spend twenty-four hours in your rich aunt’s haunted mansion in order to collect the million dollars.” Remember that like real people, characters don’t say what both of them already know. So if your character asks his wife, “Are you going to work at the Motorola Company plant on Seventh and Main?” each of them likely knows the name of the company and its location. Real people would simply ask, “Are you going to work?”

The Rule of Three

The Rule of Three is easy to use in your writing. Three tends to be a pleasing number to most of us and it works beautifully in teaching writers to avoid “Speechifying” that is, allowing a character’s dialogue to go on too long. If you write three sentences of dialogue for one character, consider switching to the other person in the conversation, at least for one sentence. If you write three sentences of dialogue for a character, consider inserting a sentence of action, thought or emotion before the character says more. In scenes where characters are disagreeing, back and forth dialogue helps keep tension taut and speeds the pace. Don’t let your characters give speeches in their scenes. Instead, use the Rule of Three to break up the speech and show readers a more complete picture of what’s happening. Your readers will be wowed and want to keep reading.

Next time: Dialogue Part II

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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