When it comes to dialogue, there are two schools of thought. One school says that dialogue should be used to advance the plot and reveal character. The other school says that dialogue should be used to reveal the character and advance the plot. The truth is somewhere in the middle. To write good dialogue, you need to be aware of both what your characters want and how they’re going to get it. Dialogue can be a powerful tool for revealing character, but it’s not a very reliable way to advance plot. For that, you’ll need to look to other narrative techniques. By keeping an eye on these techniques, you’ll be able to write good dialogue and avoid some common pitfalls along the way.
- 1 Identify with your characters
- 2 Give each character a distinct voice
- 3 Mind who speaks what
- 4 Balance your dialog
- 5 Find a release rhythm
- 6 Begin sentences with emotions, not actions
- 7 Use subtext
- 8 Give your dialogue space to breathe above the surface
- 9 Good dialogue sounds like regular speech
- 10 Trust the reader’s imagination
- 11 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Identify with your characters
One of the best ways to write good dialogue is to first get to know your characters really well. Write at least a paragraph, if not a page, about each character and include specific details about their background, personality, preferences, and character traits. These don’t have to be world shattering details, but they should be things that make the characters unique. The things you include will help you develop your characters’ speech patterns in your dialogue. The more you know about your characters, the more natural your dialogue will flow when you start writing, and that will save you a lot of time and trouble as you edit later. And why wait until later to write good dialogue? Using a mix of speech patterns and characteristic details will immediately make your dialogue more interesting, fleshed out, and complex — which will make the reader think the characters are more realistic. Even though you know they’re fake.
Remember that dialogue, by definition, comes from characters acting and talking like themselves. If you write out your character’s speech patterns and details ahead of time, and as you use them in your dialogue, the reader will think it sounds “real.” If you do your homework ahead of time, then the characters don’t have to. Then, the reader can connect to your characters more easily, and will be more invested in your plot because they’re not sitting there wondering why you’ve written so much fake dialogue.
Give each character a distinct voice
When it comes to dialogue, as with any other element of your manuscript, you want to avoid falling into the trap of blending your characters’ voices together into something homogenous. That might seem obvious, but it’s incredibly common — even among authors who are very conscientious about their characters. Take a look at your work and see if your characters’ distinctive styles of speech seem meaningful. Consider how you would differentiate between them even if you weren’t writing dialogue. Can you try to exercise that same discipline even when you’re writing dialogue and see if it comes across? As you look over the tips below, remember that good dialogue is always about the struggle between characters.
Characters should have distinct backgrounds, desires, wants, and needs, and all of these should be detectable in their words. Their dialogue should hint at their next possible steps. But be careful of making your characters sound too distinctive. Your dialogue should never sound melodramatic — the characters should never pop into existence, looking for opportunities to reveal their dramatic sensibilities. Stick to what they’re saying right in the moment. If they’re like real people, sometimes they’ll say banal things, and sometimes they’ll be very philosophical.
Mind who speaks what
Good dialogue emerges as much from plot as from character. Real-life speech is more lax than fiction writing, especially when the people involved know each other well, and are good or gregarious conversationalists. The latter holds true for your fictional main characters as well. So, take care to establish that your fictional people are good talkers from the get-go. Good, natural dialogue emerges from good, clear identities that allow your characters to communicate fluidly and thoroughly. That means you should start by writing the protagonist and antagonist with a good base of identity, beyond what they say. What are their flaws? Their strengths? What relationships do they want and not want with others? Then, follow through on the obstacles you put up for your characters, insisting on certain words, or how things are expressed — even how your characters hold themselves and contradict themselves — to be consistent across your dialogue. Character beats out plot generally so these are stakes worth playing for.
Setting up your characters so that they’re easy to talk to — and easy to believe — also allows you to let them mellow out, because even very different people do want to reach common ground, and they do want their tensions to dissolve. If, for example, you have your antagonist reveal a fear and your protagonist empathize, they reach a natural, good-natured state in which the conversation can continue. Once you learn how to write good dialogue, your characters will stop stalling and get around to the things that really matter to them. Actually, it’s best to begin writing open-ended conversation that allows not just for momentary tension-relief, but genuine connection, before you even think about what the plot of your story will do next. Word about the how.
Balance your dialog
One of the most easily distinguishable signs of amateur writing is dialogue without balance. This occurs when one character is dominating the other. If that character is in a position of leadership — either in the military, or as a father or husband — their dialogue should be balanced with the rest of the characters. The best way to achieve this is by interrupting one-sided dialogue with back and forth. This alternation will also develop your characters for the reader.
Dialogue is not just two characters talking back and forth for the entire scene — dialog should be crafted in such a way that it focuses on the main plot points of your story and illustrates the natural growth of the characters. Writers achieve this by breaking up the dialog with actions, emotions and descriptions of physicality. To write good dialogue, you must learn to navigate the intricacies of its flow and keep the reader’s attention by demonstrating a character’s various qualities and how they compliment the world they inhabit.
Find a release rhythm
The rhythm of your dialogue is one of the easiest places to create an effective release technique. It can also be difficult to master. To figure out your release timing, read your dialogue aloud. You’ll want to try to find a natural way to create pauses in your speech. Do characters finish each other’s sentences? Do they manage to say so many words at once that it takes you a moment to figure out who’s actually talking? Pay close attention to how frequently that happens and adjust your release timing accordingly. Be careful — release timing is like salt and acidity. A little goes a very long way and you can easily overdo it.
If you struggle with finding an appropriate release rhythm, try writing dialogue as speech rather than as sentences. This will throw you out of your comfort zone, which can often pull more natural rhythm out of your subconscious. If you have a hard time hearing intonation when writing dialogue and you struggle with writing it, try talking with somebody and writing what you say. Starting with them and writing down what they say will create a comfortable speech pattern to play with for you to echo in your narrative.
Begin sentences with emotions, not actions
In most writing circles, this is known as beginning with a “Chekhov’s Gun.” Essentially, it’s a logical end to a character’s speech — a gun they had previously mentioned, either in dialogue or in a narrative description. It’s a simple sentence, yes — but it means that your reader will be more likely to expect an action, when the speaker slips into a seemingly incidental action that can’t be a Chekhov’s Gun because it’s not mentioned beforehand.
Beginning with emotions for an ending sentence is also not a bad approach, as the end of any sentence usually has a punctuation mark that affects other sentences. The sentence doesn’t have to be long for it to be important — just be mindful of foreshadowing, and you’re guaranteed a surprise wherever you need one.
Subtext refers to what your characters are hiding from their audience — from their best friend, their beloved, or their boss. Remembering that subtext is as important as text in your conversations will keep your characters and their relationships feeling authentic. It will also have the added benefit of keeping a reader invested in what is truly happening under the surface while you’re maintaining the illusion that all is well on the surface. That creates dramatic, page-turning tension that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Tension between two characters can sometimes interrupt the flow of a conversation or a scene. You need to express these feelings to keep your novel feeling authentic, and to keep the plot and the reader’s engagement on the right track. But you should never resort to cheap, overwrought dialogue and blandly rote exchanges. Your characters shouldn’t need to preface all their sentences with, “I’m angry about _____,” “You used to care about _____,” or a detailed recount of their grievances. Instead, remember that tension shows up in subtle body language, in sighs, in the set of the mouth, the drawing of eyebrows, the tossing or tugging of hair, or the way your characters get into an argument quickly, and then work quickly to patch things up.
Give your dialogue space to breathe above the surface
Too often when young writers begin to produce dialogue between their characters, they treat every sentence that a character utters as if it had been shouted for the purpose of creating drama. While that’s certainly one valid way to go about it, if that’s all your characters ever do, it won’t make for a very interesting conversation. Like the prose before it and the prose that follows, dialogue has to make sense semantically.
The characters in your story should be talking naturally, which means they have a particular rhythm to the way they speak. Characters are allowed, although not required, to stumble upon the right words from time to time, but absurdly comic-book-style dialogues where the character gets the name of the person they’re speaking with in the midst of an argument with them, then turns around and uses the right name immediately, without being prompted, is going to look awkward. Create space between lines, avoid excessive variations in font weights, use capitalization sparingly, cover up unnecessary words like “that is”, and read the dialogue out loud.
Your style is also important here. Are you writing in first person, dropping dialogue in the midst of the story? Or are you telling a story in the third person from one character’s perspective? Are each of your characters distinct enough that their dialogue will be regularly distinguishable from others? In particular, think about the personality, the background, and even the name of your character—one you’re writing in first person, or about whom you’re telling a story in third—and how those all contribute to their voice . Listen to their words and actions the same way that you would people that you’re around in real life — is what they’re saying logical? Is it plausible? Are they formal or relaxed, businesslike or informal in their demeanor? Does their tone or register match the content of the conversation? Does the meaning of their words change depending on the sentence’s tone and register?
Good dialogue sounds like regular speech
In-depth research is a key component of fiction writing, and that certainly applies to dialogue. Listen to people’s conversations and you’ll probably notice that regular speech doesn’t sound like it comes out of a novel. People got irritated long ago by the stiff, unnatural dialogue that was common in fiction — but where did this style of speech come from? It’s largely a remnant of the nineteenth-century novel, stylized for the page by writers who didn’t actually know how people really talked. To write great dialogue, you want to steer clear of this artificial style — but you also have to avoid the other extreme, the one that dismisses the literary tradition and lets people make jokes and use contractions in literary fiction. Somewhere in the middle is an objective realist style, one that shows how people really talk, but presents the universal truths inherent in language rather than the minor back-and-forth of a specific conversation between specific people.
The tone and register of each kind of fiction is different, and all the more complex because it can vary from character to character. In realistic fiction, you should aim for the tone and register of a specific person. In fantasy or sci-fi, you should aim for an ideal device to express the tone of your story. Regardless of which tone and register you decide on, to write good dialogue, you should memorize and know by heart one paragraph of dialogue from an old-fashioned novel, and one from a new-fashioned more realistic one. Read your chosen conversation aloud to a friend or even to yourself and pay attention. Pay attention not only to the content of what the people are saying, but the rhythm of their speech, and know that the mix of rhythm and content and the balance between the realistic and the stylized all reflects the mood of the writer relative to the content of the story.
Trust the reader’s imagination
Too much dialogue is bad. This is a secret that a lot of writers fall into—they slap their mouths onto their characters’ lips, and the characters start to blather. To stop this from happening, you have to trust the reader’s imagination and let much of the dialogue stand as action. Even if that means you have to delete some tempting and entertaining exchanges to be sure what you leave in will be strong, trust that your readers will imagine what’s missing. If you have to have characters talk, show them talking—you don’t need to describe every bit of their conversation with lengthy, comprehensive accounts of what they say. Instead, pick a detail or two that you think will matter later, and summarize the rest. The typical exchange won’t—and shouldn’t—work in every book or story, but in general, it’s a good practice to keep things short. It keeps the conversation flowing and the action rushing. So let characters say a few words at a time, and let the reader imagine the rest.
Conversely, too few words are bad as well. Shuriken-pinsetters. Tin-eared. Give the readers more. Reader engagement happens from several points of novel action, but one of them is witty chatter, especially when it’s part of a larger pattern of memorable dialogue, inflected tone, and particular character history. Let a character have more to say than you initially intend—as you revise, you can cut what doesn’t work in the final story, but don’t start by cutting too little at first.
While you do want to make your dialogue style consistent, always remember that the purpose of your characters’ words should mostly hinge on the context of your story. You can’t sacrifice storytelling for style. Use your mastery of dialogue as a tool, not an end. Then your characters’ words will help illustrate their character and move the plot — not just imitate real-life speech. When you do read something and fall off your chair laughing, or chuckle appreciatively even if you are reading alone, it’s hard to say that dialogue isn’t an important part of a story. The task of writing good dialogue is often one that many aspiring writers hear about being a challenge, and have to learn along the way. The most important thing to remember is that you just need to trust your instincts. After all, it was your story idea in the first place – so it’s only right you have some say in what it will ultimately sound like.
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