For some writers, an ear for good dialogue seems to come
naturally. For the rest of us, lots of practice and some writing tips can make
all the difference.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are three ways to start writing
better dialogue today:
Rule of Three
When I taught fiction writing at a local community college, I often saw students struggle with talking heads, encyclopedic responses or soliloquies. These are all standard things to avoid in writing good dialogue, yet many couldn’t understand how to avoid these pitfalls. I came up with The Rule of Three for Dialogue to help writers begin to write more compelling dialogue.
The Rule of Three is a simple guideline: For every three
sentences of dialogue spoken by one character, it’s helpful to then insert at
least a sentence (or “beat”) of action, emotion or thought or switch to another
speaker before the first character says more.
Of course, not every bit of dialogue should come in exact threes. Sometimes, fragments or longer sentences are the right choice. But if you tend to let your characters “speechify,” the Rule of Three is a great way to break that habit. Readers like things in threes and it feels satisfying to have this three-sentence rule sprinkled through a scene.
Another way to improve your dialogue is by eliminating what
I call Sentence Stoppers. When I’m drafting I don’t edit myself, but upon
revision I usually eliminate all throat clearing words such as uh, um, well and
so forth. You might think all these interrupters parrot real speech—and it’s
true we do a lot of hemming and hawing in life. But readers will only be slowed
down by including these things. Consider using a sentence stopper only occasionally
I also refrain from naming my characters as they speak to
someone. I do this to keep my ears from burning—after all, the only time I hear
my name in dialogue with my family is when someone is upset with me. Normally,
we don’t identify people in dialogue when they’re standing right in front of
A sentence stopper can also be a poorly written dialect. For
most of us, writing with dropped gs or lots of awkward spellings just slow down
readers and force them to fight for meaning. A better idea (unless you’re Frank
McCourt) might be to give both the English and foreign word in context or drop
a dialect or foreign word in every so often to flavor the dialogue. Readers
generally prefer this method over a page littered with odd spellings or
Keep it Real
A third way to write better dialogue is by avoiding letting
the speaker say things that the other character already knows. When we allow a character to say, “Uh, Hi Joe
Smith. Are you going to work the swing shift today at the Intel plant in
Portland, Oregon?”, we telescope information in a lazy way. In real life, the
person would simply say, “Going to work today?” Joe already knows his name, the
shift he works and where it’s located. The information feels obvious that the
writer needed the reader to know this. Again, readers are slowed by extraneous
information in dialog.
A variation on this idea is in what’s known as an encyclopedic response or the “you know” syndrome. An example might be when a child asks Grandpa, “Why do birds fly?” If Grandpa launches into a speech about aerodynamics of flight, it starts to sound like exposition. I’m sure somebody’s grandpa talks this way, but don’t do it to your characters.
Likewise, “You Know” dialogue puts into speech obvious info: In a story at a haunted house, don’t have your character say, “You know you must spend all twenty-four hours in this mansion in order to inherit your aunt’s fortune.” All these tips take practice. Try using the Rule of Three, avoid sentence stoppers and keep dialogue real.