Better Dialogue, Step-by-Step

Dialogue enlivens the reader. All the white space which dialogue creates not only makes reading go faster, it energizes the reader too. Let’s focus on these aspects of writing effective dialogue.
Writing Tip for Today: Good dialogue begins with a good ear. Practice by listening in on conversations (discretely, of course!) and even jotting down pearls of dialogue you overhear. Consider these things when you craft dialogue:

  • Talking Heads? When you draft a chapter, you may end up with too much dialogue at first. I believe this is how many writers create scene, by first getting down the spoken component. The point is, you don’t leave it that way. Talking heads, which you’ve probably heard is a no-no, forces the reader into understanding only one sensory clue. On revision, you want to give the rest of the scenic elements.
  • Be Authentic. Use contractions! So many writers start off by not writing dialogue that sounds authentic.  Hardly anyone talks without contractions. By the same token, don’t write the ums, ers, wells and so forth of real speech. The key: Good dialogue sounds like real speech but isn’t.
  • Rule of Three. I’m sure I didn’t invent this, but it works for me. Until you develop a natural rhythm of dialogue, I suggest you only write three sentences of dialogue before you give us either body language, action or switch to another speaker. Don’t be a fanatic, but people like threes, and you can avoid long-winded speeches by keeping the Rule Of Three close by.

There are many other tricks to dialogue, but these three (!) will give a writer a lot more effective dialogue in a short amount of time. And while I’m at it, I’ll remind us all that the way we get better isn’t always reading, diagramming or analyzing. It’s writing, writing, writing. BIC, people.

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.

2 comments on “Better Dialogue, Step-by-Step

  1. Like your rule of three suggestion. Thanks! I know my characters tend to give speeches in the first draft, so this is a good rule of thumb to use.

    I think one of the harder parts of dialogue is capturing characters’ different voices to make them distinguishable, especially without adding those annoying filler words and trying to show accents that make for difficult reading.

  2. Kristie: The Rule of 3 helps in more ways. Use it to gauge the length of flashbacks (no more than 3 sentences or paragraphs), series (this, this and that) or speaking parts in scenes (you can get a 3-way dialogue going but after that it’s hard to manage.). I’m sure there are other uses too. Gloria Kempton’s Writers Digest book on Dialogue is also a good resource. Keep writing. ~Linda

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