Dialogue is usually my favorite part of a novel. The moments that make me laugh, gasp, groan, or cry are almost always spoken by one of the characters. So it could be said that good dialogue makes a good story, and vice versa.
But for some reason, dialogue is always low on my list of priorities. I’m fascinated with learning how to craft a gripping plot, better prose, stunning twists and surprise endings.
But dialogue? Hey, I already know how to do that. The words go inside the little squiggly marks.
Let's take a closer look at dialogue—and see how we can improve it.
1. Listen to people talk
It's tempting to write dialogue that sounds exactly like the last movie we watched or book we read. It worked for them, why wouldn't it work for us? So instead of listening to real-life conversations to learn how people actually talk, we read books and imitate someone else's interpretation of dialogue. The result? Dialogue that's already been chewed up by somebody else—secondhand storytelling!
There’s nothing wrong with studying literature to learn the techniques that experienced authors use when crafting dialogue. But if that’s your only source material, your dialogue will sound like a copy of a copy—because it is.
Start writing down real-life conversations. Next time you’re waiting in line or sitting in a theater waiting for the movie to start, listen to somebody’s conversation and write it down, word-for-word. You’ll start noticing where and when people finish their sentences, what kind of pauses and beats there are in the conversation, how their voice changes depending on what they say.
You’ll start noticing where and when people finish their sentences, what kind of pauses and beats there are in the conversation, how their voice changes depending on what they say.
The more you do this, the more your mental treasury of snappy dialogue will grow. Your brain will begin to get an ear for timing, sentence length, word choice. And your dialogue will begin to sound more and more lifelike!
2. Only Write Conflict
As a new writer, I learned a writing tip that forever changed my perspective on dialogue: See every conversation as a battle.
See every conversation as a battle.
When you write dialogue, each person should have a distinct viewpoint that contradicts the other. This applies whether it’s two enemies bantering back and forth or two friends having a chat.
If there aren’t a few sparks flying when two characters start talking, dig a little deeper. What do they each really want in this scene? If they both want the same thing, make sure that their ideas of how to achieve that goal are completely opposed.
Let’s say you’re writing a scene in which two characters are looking for a key piece of evidence that they know is locked in an old, abandoned barn. They both want the same thing, so we’re in danger of boring, useless dialogue. Skimming over the scene with a quick summary paragraph would be a wasted opportunity to develop these characters. Let’s try something else: creating conflict where there is none.
One way to do this is adding a controversial twist to the circumstances. Maybe there are signs posted all over the barn: Trespassers will be shot on sight. Uh-oh. Now the characters have a problem to overcome, and since they are human, they’ll each have a different solution in mind. This means their discussion will be not only interesting, but captivating—whose idea will they go with?
Another way to add conflict would be to give each character a different reason for wanting the evidence. Maybe one of them wants to steal the evidence once they find it, and he’s just using the other character. That will come through in the dialogue—liars have a particular way of speaking that never sounds right. As the other character begins to suspect them, the dialogue will grow tense, moody. Maybe neither one ever acknowledges what’s actually brewing, but they’re both on guard.
3. Cut out the fluff
I know how tempting it is to include all the “realistic details” in your story’s dialogue. The little mini-conversations about chatty subjects that have nothing to do with your story or characters, but are merely small talk.
It may be painful, but you have to slice all of that fluff out.
The truth is, most actual conversations are pretty boring unless you’re the one talking. Discussions about the weather, the latest football game, the price of gas … these are just ways we pass the time. They very rarely belong in a fictional story that’s designed to be interesting.
Here’s a key you can use when editing your dialogue—if it doesn’t have any relation at all to one of the plot points, cut it out.
All that said, there IS a way to include small talk:
4. Connect It to the Plot
Maybe you just really want to include a chat between two characters. It's a realistic story, and you feel like some small talk is justified. That's how people actually converse, after all.
That's totally fine. Just connect the conversation to the plot using one of these methods:
Add underlying tension. To borrow from Hitchcock, "put a bomb under the table." Even if the conversation is innocuous, there should be a reason to worry. Maybe one character notices a gun protruding from the other's jacket, but tries to pretend she didn't notice.
Use it to foreshadow a disaster. Small talk is intensely interesting if there's a double meaning. Just what did he mean by, "Looks like a storm's brewing"?
Create a false sense of security. If you're writing a thriller, sometimes the reader can be lulled into thinking everyone is safe. Small talk feels comfortable and familiar, letting you set up a powerful surprise for the reader.
There’s so much more to dialogue to this, but these tips will put you on the right track. Hopefully you found them useful!
What are some of your favorite ways to handle dialogue? Do you have any tips or tricks that you’ve learned?