Dialogue is a powerful writing tool. It can help your writing in endless ways–build your characters, further the plot, spice up boring descriptions, develop empathy, draw in your reader. Honestly, if you aren’t writing dialogue, you should be.
That said, several people have told me they feel dialogue is their weak point–they can’t make it interesting, it doesn’t work, their characters sound stiff, it’s too much effort, etc. This isn’t how it should be! Dialogue isn’t that hard once you figure it out, and written well, it brings so many bonuses, you owe it to your writing to figure it out.
Here are my tips.
1. Do not let your characters talk like people in real life do.
And I don’t mean make them speak Martian–hear me out. Imagine you run into a friend “Hey! How’ve you been? I’ve not seen you in so long… yeah, I’m doing great thanks. Uh… Not been up to much.” Does this sound accurate? Do you see what I’m getting at? We humans talk all the time and say all sorts of nonsense. We use a lot of filler words, too–“Um”, “Like”, “Er”. If a character uses these words when talking in a book, it’s for a specific reason. It must highlight their character, their mood or their forgetfulness, which brings me to my next point…
2. Cut out the crap.
If your characters are rambling when they talk, it should be for a reason. Get rid of the formalities, cut straight to the chase. What is this conversation really supposed to say? When a conversation in a book is boring, it’s usually because it’s stuffed with useless sentences. Let’s use greetings again to demonstrate:
“Hey, Sharon!” I called from across the road.
“Hello Mika,” she said back and came over. “It’s been two weeks since I saw you. How are you?”
“I’m good,” I said. “What about you? I know, it’s been ages. We should really hang out more.”
“Pretty good,” she said “Did you hear about my new boyfriend?”
“I did! How exciting! Is it going well?” I asked.
Same information but rearranged:
“Hey, Sharon!” I called from across the road.
“Hello Mika,” she said back and came over. “Where you been hiding?”
“Not me–you. Where you been hiding, girl-with-a-boyfriend?” I said.
Yes, it’s not so formal. But unless that’s important, don’t let your characters use formalities. Don’t save the interesting stuff for last–put it in as soon as possible. Even “Hey, lover girl!” could have been used and the “point” (yes it’s a stupid, boring point, but sometimes those are important too, so bear with) would have been in the first sentence.
3. Please, just use ‘said’.
Maybe your English teacher goes on at you about ‘varying’ the words you use, or your Pinterest is filled with lists of “50 words to use instead of ‘said'” like mine. Unless you plan to have that English teacher grade your work, don’t listen to them. Just use said unless you feel you really need a different word and even then, keep it basic (asked, shouted, panted, etc.) Our human brains are rigged to ignore monotony–‘said’ becomes invisible, and you want that. We use it to tell the reader which person is talking, so they can imagine it in their head. The reader doesn’t need to have the characters “iterate” or “paraphrase” or “question”. It’s a necessary part of dialogue that doesn’t need extra attention (if it’s just two people talking, you can cut it out a lot, so long as it remains clear who’s saying what. But don’t let your reader get lost). Unless the specific type of saying feels needed, just use said.
4. Break it up with descriptions!
“Hold on,” you say. “We’re doing dialogue–people are talking. What do you mean, use descriptions?” Descriptions make your dialogue. They make your writing stand out and they make character speech believable. Usually, you either describe the character, the actions they’re taking, or use the actions to describe the character.
The easiest way to figure this out is to just watch people talk. Do they move their hands? What faces do they make? Where are their eyes looking? Do they move their eyebrows, bite their lips, shift about awkwardly? Use all of it in your dialogue. Try not to just fling it in, though. Vary it–you can have several lines of no description and then several with, etc. If it’s used every other line it can seem awkward, like it’s just there because it’s “supposed” to be. It also helps to vary which types of descriptions you use (body, voice, inner thoughts, face):
“Hey, Sharon!” I called from across the road, jumping up and down so she’d see me.
“Hello Mika,” she said, coming over to me, her long braids swinging like happy snakes. “Where you been hiding?”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Not me–you. Where you been hiding, girl-with-a-boyfriend?” I knew my voice sounded accusing, but I couldn’t help it.
Sharon blushed a deep cherry purple. “Shhhhh, someone might hear.”
“What do you mean? Is something wrong?” I lifted an eyebrow.
Sharon just gave a tiny nod.
The more specific and easy to picture your descriptions are, the better. If it helps, close your eyes and imagine your characters talking to each other, then transfer what you see into words. I cannot stress the importance of description in dialogue enough. They will bring it to life, make it more interesting, and also show what the character is actually saying. How often do we humans say what we mean? If a character in a novel says “Hi, I’m so glad you came,” but their posture is stiff and their lips form a flat, thin line across their face, then we know something is up.
5. A word on punctuation and structure.
When I started writing I had no clue how this worked. I knew paragraphs were involved, but where? How? Why? And those pesky commas come in somewhere right? You probably know this already, but I thought I’d mention it because little-me would have found this useful.
Turned out it was real simple. When a new character talks, give them a new paragraph. Character 2 can have a physical reaction in the middle of character 1 talking, but if they interrupt, there’s a paragraph break. If character 1 reacts to what character 2 says right before character 1 says something, that can come after the paragraph break too:
“You know we can’t.” His face shone in the firelight. “What if–” (break!)
“There’s no other way,” she snapped over him and then stopped, taking a long, shaky breath. “Sorry.” (break again!)
He rubbed his hands over his knees. “It’s okay, I know how you feel.”
Notice the commas and the periods–if it’s just an action, then it’s a sentence break. The dialogue tags–he/she said–are part of the sentence as a whole and have commas separating them. (If it’s clear who’s talking, cut out the ‘he/she’ said. The description can often make this clear.) This tends to be what’s generally accepted as “dialogue grammar”–dialogue tags are part of the sentence with the speech, and descriptions are their own sentence.
Now go read some dialogue and pay attention to how the writer does it! Do they roughly follow what I’ve said? Then practice, practice, practice–it will come naturally very quickly. Don’t avoid dialogue–embrace it.
Also, if you know an author who writes wacky dialogue that seems to break the “rules”, tell me so I can go read their work!