Writing Better Dialogue

When it comes to fiction, writing your dialogue right is an essential skill. Readers want to experience the story as if they’re watching a movie, so it stands to reason that what your characters say is important.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some easy ways to improve your dialogue:

Know Thy Character

One of the most common mistakes I see is dialogue that sounds more like the author or an unseen narrator. Readers prefer hearing authentic voices over being “told” what the character says. If your character is a child, a teen or the opposite sex, it’s even more important to write dialogue in words the character might actually use.

For instance, if your character is a child or teen, chances are this person will speak few three-syllable words. Many times, I’ll hear an author defend “big” words by saying the youth is precocious or some other excuse. Overall, I think it’s a lazy way to write dialogue.

Listen to real-life people speaking. Note that most of the time, people don’t use big or formal words, and often use sentence fragments. You should be careful about slang, sure—trends change quickly. But in your child or teen’s mind, certain slang words seem enduring. Cool probably is the most common word. The point is to let the character speak as if he/she is real.

Sharing Information

A second area where writers can misuse dialogue is by trying to relay information to readers. If you as author must set a scene about where your character works, resist the urge to explain that place through dialogue. Characters don’t say things to each other that both already know.

If your characters know each other and are conversing, one wouldn’t say to the other, “I’m going to work today at the steel-making plant on the corner of Third and Main.” Both already know this information, so the character would be more likely to say, “I’m going to work today.” Trying to slip in info to readers only succeeds in making the dialogue sound wooden and dull.

The same “You Know” rule applies to other critical information. Placing critical info into dialogue can sound foolish—“Darcy, you know you must stay overnight in your aunt’s haunted house in order to inherit that million dollars.” Or it can sound encyclopedic: “Little darling, birds can fly because their bones are hollow and they are aerodynamically designed. A bird’s wing provides lift . . .” blah, blah, blah. Resist resorting to any of these attempts to share formal information.

Resist the Urge to Explain.

Incorporate Attitude

The best dialogue comes infused with emotion. Ask, “How does this character feel about the words he is saying?” Different characters in the same story will inflect their dialogue with attitudes that mirror their slant or take on the subject. For instance, in Gone with the Wind, when Rhett Butler says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” readers can interpret the dialogue because the words reflect a specific character.

Before you write your character’s dialogue, think about their perspective, their likes/dislikes, their longings and their frustrations. Let these things be evident in what that character says aloud. For instance, if Mom asks her daughter to go to the store for bread and milk, a compliant girl might reply, “Sure, Mom. I’ll bring back the change.”

A frustrated or angry teen might use body language (eye rolling) short, terse sentences (Fine!) or launch into a victim stance (I can’t believe this! You’re ruining my life!).  Effective dialogue laced with emotion provides excellent micro-tension to keep readers reading.

And a word about too much vs. too little dialogue: I always suggest to new writers that they try using the Rule of Three to prevent Talking Heads or Speechifying. After every three sentences the character speaks, insert a “beat” or sentence of action, narrative, the other person speaking or interior thought.

The idea is to give readers a sense of cinematic fluidity and prevent skipping over dialogue to get to the next big conflict. Use the Rule of Three as a guideline to integrate all these elements.

Here’s a free pdf about dialogue:

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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