Quick Fix: Dialogue Dos and Don’ts

If Goats Could Talk

If Goats Could Talk

In my experience, writers either “get” dialogue instinctively or else they struggle. If you’re struggling, or you just want to make your dialogue smarter, read on.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some easy ways to write better dialogue?

You Are Not Your Characters

One of the easiest ways to improve your dialogue is to keep in mind that you are not the characters. If all the dialogue sounds like YOU, it will be hard for readers to differentiate (and root for or against) characters in your story. Whenever you’re out in public, keep a keen ear on the conversations around you. Some writers even secretly record or jot down snippets of the things people say. Take special care to note the differences in how men and women, kids and seniors, white-collar workers and laborers speak. They say writers must be perpetually noticing, so allow your noticing to extend to the speech you overhear. Then apply these gleanings to your fiction. You’re more likely to paint a vivid picture of your character if readers believe the way a character speaks makes sense.

No Fair Info Share

A second easy way to pump up dialogue is to avoid the temptation of stuffing characters’ speech with convenient information, info both characters already know and yes, speeches. I preach the value of The Rule of Three to avoid “speechifying–” that is, after a character speaks three lines of dialogue, either switch to the other speaker or else break up with a sentence or two of action, emotion or inner thought. And think about how people who know one another seldom speak words of info both know. An example might be two guys who work at the Los Angeles Aviation and Widget Factory. Would one say, “Are you going to work today at the Los Angeles Aviation and Widget Factory?” More likely, he would say, “Are you going to work today?” They both know where. And if you use dialogue to reveal crucial information about the story, beware. Info dumps, the “you know” syndrome (You know you have to spend the night in your aunt’s haunted mansion in order to collect the million dollars) and other author devices are easily spotted by readers and take away from the suspended disbelief a story must maintain. Instead, look for more natural ways to disclose important points.

If It Talks Like a Duck

Last, your dialogue will take a quantum leap if you avoid making characters speak as if they are British royalty. Use contractions! Slang is OK if it has stood the test of time (e.g. “cool,” “neat,” “super.”) Avoid dropping g’s or too many phonetic spellings, though. Dialect is difficult to get pitch perfect and words spelled differently are often hard to decipher. By putting words in your characters’ mouths that they might actually say, readers can identify with the speakers and be carried along with the story. So use words appropriate to the characters’ status, education and environment. Sometimes even sentence fragments lend realism. But a caveat: I always eliminate hesitations such as well, er, uh, and the like. They don’t do much except to slow down the read. Instead, use the speaker’s mannerisms, actions and thoughts to convey hesitation. And if it talks like a duck, let it quack!

Your Turn: What dialogue areas, if any, do you wish you could improve?

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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