Writing Authentic Dialogue

For many, writing dialogue is as natural as brushing teeth. Others struggle to produce authentic dialogue.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips for improving dialogue skills:

Point to Tension

I’ve published many posts about basic dialogue mechanics: Use “said” as attribution or tag, avoid encyclopedic or longwinded dialogue, use first names sparingly, don’t shoehorn critical info from the plot into dialogue and many more. As you write dialogue, keep these things in mind.

Yet what really sets dialogue apart is much more subtle. The most effective dialogue has tension built into every line your characters speak. The old saw, “good dialogue sounds like real speech, but isn’t” might confuse some people, but the key is to inject conflict or tension into every word your characters say.

Think of your scene as a boxing ring. At least two characters climb into the ring. Each wants something the other is unwilling to give. Who will win? With every line, readers lean into escalating conflict over the object or attitude the boxers fight for. If the Main Character is down as the referee counts to nine, readers will wonder if she’ll win or lose.

Losers Try Again

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.  In fiction this adage should be turned on its head. The words your characters use to try to “win” a round (scene) should make it clear that 1) the thing in question is worth fighting for and 2) the opponent is worthy.

Your Main Character should probably lose a lot in these early scenes or rounds. But in losing you can give readers a more intimate picture of the motivation and emotions your character will use to regroup and try harder next time. No matter what your character’s goal is, by losing or being blocked, you can make readers root even harder for winning that goal.

Allowing readers to experience your Main Character’s retooling after a loss, they are more likely to identify with your character. Every word your character utters shows readers whether that character is doubling down efforts or rolling over and conceding. If you give your character sufficient motivation and emotions, readers can better relate to the dialogue you write.  

Let your character’s motivations and emotions shine through every line of dialogue.

Channel Motivation

Writing effective dialogue means forbidding your characters to chat, natter, or shoot the breeze. Although we do a lot of empty talking in life, pleasantries don’t translate well to the page. Why? These niceties have zero tension, unless readers understand that the character has an ulterior motive or is being sarcastic.

The best reader experience arises from immersing oneself in the character and story, and good dialogue should reflect this. Think about what your MC can say that ups tension or gives that character some advantage. In dialogue, readers are watching for signs that the character they’ve pledged to follow will keep fighting for the goal.

Before you write a word of dialogue, think about your MC’s deeply held emotions and motivations. Let those things that produce fire in your character’s belly be the starting point for every scene’s conflict. Readers love to be in on a character’s hidden reasons for acting, and they expect the character’s dialogue to illuminate their hero (ine)’s hopes and dreams as they fight for the goal.

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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