Top 12 Tips for Writing Dialogue
Realistic dialogue written well can advance a story and flesh out characters while providing a break from straight exposition. Writing realistic dialogue does not come easily for everyone, though, and few things pull a reader out of a story faster than bad dialogue.
It takes time to develop a good ear for dialogue, but following some simple rules and avoiding some obvious pitfalls can make a huge difference. For example, any good dialogue starts with speech patterns that sound natural to the ear. In keeping with using natural speech patterns, people don't provide every detail when talking to each other. If you have some voids in your dialogue, it will sound more realistic.
Listen to How People Talk
Having a sense of natural speech patterns is essential to good dialogue. Pay attention to the expressions people use and the music of everyday conversation. Note how people can maintain conversations without complete sentences and sometimes by even finishing others' sentences. Eavesdropping is not a crime, so go ahead and listen to how people communicate with one another.
Also, don't overlook the value of silence. Not responding to someone's remark speaks volumes—it connotes anger, disapproval, disdain, and a host of other negative feelings.
People talk in stops and starts, and they pause with nonsense words like "um" and "er." Frequently they talk over one another. As much as you're trying to emulate realistic speech patterns, the dialogue still needs to be readable. Alfred Hitchcock said a good story is "life with the dull parts taken out." This statement also applies to dialogue. A transcription of a conversation would be boring and confusing, so give readers only what matters. Edit out filler words and unessential commentary that doesn't contribute to the plot in some way.
Don't Give Too Much Information at Once
Don't make it obvious to readers that they're being fed important facts. Let the story unfold naturally. Readers can be trusted to remember details from earlier in the story, so you don't have to rush to tell them everything all at once. People who know each other leave a lot unsaid, so exposition still will be necessary to share some important facts.
Break up Dialogue With Action
Remind readers that your characters are physical human beings by grounding their dialogue in the physical world. Such details also help break up the words on the page. It can be as simple as referencing that characters are standing on the deck of a cabin cruiser. Long periods of dialogue are easier for readers when broken up by descriptions. The same holds true for long periods of descriptions: they need to be broken up with dialogue.
Don't Overdo Dialogue Tags
Veering too much beyond "he said" and "she said" only draws attention to the tags—and you want readers focused on your compelling dialogue, not your ability to think of synonyms for "said." You also need to trust that readers will be able to follow the conversation without attribution after each statement when it is part of a back-and-forth between characters.
Stereotypes, Profanity, and Slang
Be aware of falling back on stereotypes, and be sure to use profanity and slang sparingly or you risk distracting or alienating your readers. Anything that takes readers out of the fictional world that you're working hard to create should be avoided.
Pay attention to why things work or don't work when you're reading. Take the time to note examples of when you are taken out of a story's action and then try to identify why. At what point did you stop believing in a character—or when did the character jump off the page—and how did the dialogue help accomplish that? Try to identify what the writer did to have this effect. In other words, start reading like a writer.
Punctuate Dialogue Correctly
The rules for punctuating dialogue can be confusing. Many writers need help getting them right, especially in the beginning. Take some time to learn the basics. A reader should get lost in your prose. You may have written beautiful dialogue, but you don't want the reader stumbling over it because it's hard to follow due to missing, misplaced, or inconsistently used commas.
Cut to the Chase
Cutting greetings and other small talk is a great place to start paring down your dialogue. If you omit all the hellos and goodbyes, you get your characters into the scene faster and allow them to start telling your story through language and action.
Keep it Short
Try to keep each instance of dialogue to one sentence. When you get to the second sentence, it’s likely your character has become an “explainer,” delivering expository information instead of acting as a dynamic, believable character.
Any time you find yourself giving a character multiple sentences of dialogue, ask yourself if there’s a natural way to put all the important information into one sentence or see if it can be broken up and inserted into a few different places in the conversation. You can also try having another character deliver some of the information.
Let it Flow
When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. Pour it out like cheap champagne. You can make it sparkle like Dom Pérignon later on by adding the finest fresh strawberries—first you have to get it down on paper. This technique allows you to come up with lines you probably would never have thought of if you tried to get it right the first time.
Be an Improvisational Actor
In the privacy of your own home, improvise a scene as though you are both characters in the scene. If the two characters are in conflict, start an argument. Allow a slight pause as you switch, giving yourself time to come up with a response in each character’s voice.