How to Write Better Dialogue

file0001934509658Last week, Big Al treated us to his vast experience on what not to do with dialogue and dialogue tags. That got me all excited to talk about one of my favorite topics: how to write better dialogue. Here are just a few tips:

1. Get a stronger handle on how people talk to each other. This is your best tool in your dialogue toolbox. Dialogue isn’t an exact replica of human speech. We’d have to contend with a lot of verbal tics and repetition if it were. But spending some time listening will improve your ear. I like to do that by eavesdropping on conversations. Legally, of course. Listening will also help you learn to craft dialogue that will differentiate one character from another.

2. Know what you want your dialogue to accomplish. Dialogue is best used to define a character, define relationships between characters, and to advance the plot. Misused dialogue can easily slow down your story and push your reader away.

But, as Al pointed out, be careful if your intention is to reveal backstory in your dialogue. You can thank soap operas for leading some writers to think they need use dialogue to catch readers up on every last detail of backstory. As in, “Well, Mary, as you remember, when our brother Sam turned forty last April, and his new girlfriend threw him a surprise party, that horrible Josabeth, who cheated on him with Thor, her personal trainer, canceled her ski vacation to attend, even though we didn’t invite her, and…” Augh! Way to slam the brakes on the story! First, it sounds fake. Both parties know this information, so why are they repeating it? Also, how much simpler, and intriguing, to write: “Can you believe that wench crashed Sam’s party? No wonder he’s drinking again.”

3. Put the goods into the exposition and the dialogue…not in the dialogue tag. I see variations on this pretty often:

“I hate you,” Suzie said angrily.

Yeah. Kind of just sits there, doesn’t it? It makes me wonder what it looks and sounds like to say something angrily. Or thoughtfully or carefully or whatever other adverb you want to throw in there. Kicking off the adverb training wheels can make your writing stronger.

Check out the difference if we do something like this instead:

Suzie pulled herself up to her full height and shot Oscar with a laser-sharp glare, her jaw so tight he feared she’d crack a tooth. “I despise you,” she said.

4. Go easy on the set directions surrounding your dialogue. By “set direction,” I mean all those little motions we like to load around our dialogue tags to tell the reader what our characters are doing.

“We need to go before all the good seats are gone,” Suzie said as she crossed to the dining room table and grabbed her sunglasses and car keys, hoping Oscar would follow her lead even though he never did what she wanted, which she found totally frustrating.

Okay, the above is a bit of an exaggeration. But look what we can do instead:

Suzie grabbed her sunglasses and car keys. “We need to go before all the good seats are gone,” she said. As usual, Oscar didn’t even flinch. What did she have to do to light a fire under his couch-potato ass? Threaten to leave him again?

5. Use set directions and gestures to add rhythmical “beats” to your story between lines of dialogue. All of our little nods, facial expressions, and sips of coffee can help break up long stretches of conversation. Why, look, here’s a conversation now:

“What’s on your mind?”
“That party on Sunday afternoon. Do we really have to go?”
“Yes, we have to. Look, I don’t like Josabeth either, but she’s marrying my brother…”
“Football’s on Sunday.”
“Seriously? You’d miss out on seeing Aunt Sheila just to watch a bunch of overpaid muscleheads give each other concussions?”
“Aunt Sheila’s coming?”
“With baked goods.”
“What kind of baked goods?”
“You’ll just have to come with me and find out for yourself.”
“Okay. But I’m only doing this to make you happy.”

See how that feels sort of…skeletal? We don’t know who is talking. We don’t know where the characters are. And the rhythm’s off. We somehow feel that we want more space or character reaction between some sentences than others. But the back-and-forth of a conversation, even on a telephone, is punctuated by all manner of reactions, gestures, and internal thoughts that can reveal more about characters than simply their words. Even better, you can use those little “beats,” as they are sometimes called, to break up your dialogue, improve the flow and rhythm of your writing, develop character, and help the reader identify who is speaking. Thus:

Suzie curled up next to Oscar on the sofa. “What’s on your mind?” she asked.
“That party on Sunday afternoon,” Oscar said, making sad puppy eyes. “Do we really have to go?”
She huffed out a breath. “Yes, we have to. Look, I don’t like Josabeth either, but she’s marrying my brother…”
“Football’s on Sunday,” he grumbled.
If looks could kill, he’d be dead. “Seriously? You’d miss out on seeing Aunt Sheila just to watch a bunch of overpaid muscleheads give each other concussions?”
As she suspected, this got his attention. “Aunt Sheila’s coming?”
She sweetened her smile. “With baked goods,” Suzie said.
“What kind of baked good?” Oscar said, practically salivating.
“You’ll just have to come with me and find out for yourself.”
He pulled her closer. “Okay. But I’m only doing this to make you happy.”

6. Or ditch the dialogue tags altogether. As long as we can tell who is talking, and this can be accomplished by set directions or by making sure each character speaks in his or her own distinctive way, you might not even need dialogue tags.

Suzie curled up next to Oscar on the sofa. “What’s on your mind?”
“That party on Sunday afternoon.” Oscar made puppy eyes. “Do we really have to go?”
She huffed out a breath. “Yes, we have to. Look, I don’t like Josabeth either, but she’s marrying my brother…”
“Football’s on Sunday.”
If looks could kill, he’d be dead. “Seriously? You’d miss out on seeing Aunt Sheila just to watch a bunch of overpaid muscleheads give each other concussions?”
As she suspected, this got his attention. “Aunt Sheila’s coming?”
She sweetened her smile. “With baked goods.”
“What kind of baked goods?” Oscar was practically salivating.
“You’ll just have to come with me and find out for yourself.”
He pulled her closer. “Okay. But I’m only doing this to make you happy.”

7. Make sure it passes the readability test. Read your dialogue out loud when you’re writing or revising. If you’re tripping over words or if it feels like a mouthful, odds are that most people wouldn’t speak that way.

Any dialogue tips you’d like to share? Or maybe recipes for baked goods? I have a sudden craving for white chocolate raspberry cheesecake.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “How to Write Better Dialogue”

  1. Great stuff, it really brings us back down to earth. It’s so easy to get carried away with trying to make dialogue original and different. It’s just talking, after all.

    1. Thanks, Jim. Right. It could still have some pop, depending on your characters (tossing them into an argument can bring up some interesting stuff) but like nearly anything, too much can be…too much.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne. I think I’d have a hard time imagining dialogue between characters in fantasy, because their world is so different from the one we’re accustomed to hearing.

      1. True but the emotions are the same. The grammar and rules of etiquette may be different, but aside from that it’s pretty much the same. People are people. And we have to ‘write’ it in a way that readers will not be put off by, so it can’t be TOO different.

    1. Nope. Just different aspects. Al, when I posted this on FB groups, they went back to your post and started debating the “said” and “yawning” things.

  2. You had to weave baked goods in there didn’t you? I’m reading a fantastic book set in a old fashioned bakery, and I’ve been drooling for two days. Now I’m going to need a bib. Oh, and I hate how even your middle of the road dialogue sounds so great. What’s worse, now I want to know more about Josabeth and the brother. 😀

  3. This is an excellent post, Laurie. And you write excellent dialogue. Listen to the lady, people. 🙂

  4. I’m all in favour of example number six, since I don’t use dialogue tags.
    “She sweetened her smile. ‘With baked goods,’ Suzie said.” The “Suzie said,” is a complete waste of ink, and breaks the rhythm of the line as well.
    However, you have to be careful with that technique. It’s worth mentioning, since you set it up as an example that “Oscar was practically salivating” is a POV slither. How does she know how he feels? It’s easy to just tell the readers what you want them to know, but if you give them the evidence that she sees, and let them make up their own minds, you get more buy-in.

    Great article. Thanks

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