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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Can you write the talk? – Tips on Mastering Dialogue

I’m on a quest to make the dialogue in my stories the best it can be. I hate reading stories where I feel like the dialogue is used to dump information on me or the dialogue does not move the story forward in any way. As we are all always trying to become better writers, I thought it might be fun to do some research and share the tips I came up with on how to write great dialogue. So here goes:

1. Listen to How People Talk.
    Having a sense of natural speech patterns is essential to good dialogue.

2. Not Exactly like Real Speech.
But dialogue should read like real speech. How do you accomplish that? Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was "life, with the dull parts taken out." Edit out the filler words and unessential dialogue --that is, the dialogue that doesn't contribute to the plot in some way.

3. Don't Provide Too Much Info at Once.
It should not be obvious to the reader that they're being fed important facts. Let the story unfold naturally.  You don't have to tell the reader everything up front, and you can trust him or her to remember details from
earlier in the story.

4. Break Up Dialogue with Action.
Remind your reader that your characters are physical human beings by grounding their dialogue in the physical world. Physical details also help break up the words on the page: long periods of dialogue are easier for the reader's eye when broken up by description.

5. Don't Overdo Dialogue Tags.
Veering too much beyond "he said/she said" only draws attention to the tags -- and you want the reader's attention centered on your brilliant dialogue, not your ability to think of synonyms for "said."

6. Stereotypes, Profanity, and Slang.
Be aware of falling back on stereotypes, and use profanity and slang sparingly. All of these risk distracting or alienating your reader. Anything that takes the reader out of the fictional world you're working so hard to create is not your friend. Read some examples of how to achieve the tone you want without stereotypes, profanity, and slang.

7. Read Widely.
Pay attention to why things work or don't work. Where are you taken out of the story's action? Where did you stop believing in a character? Or, alternatively, when did the character really jump off the page, and how did dialogue help accomplish that?

8. Punctuate Dialogue Correctly.
The rules for punctuating dialogue can be confusing: many writers need help getting them right in the beginning. Take some time to learn the basics. A reader should get lost in your prose -- not feel lost trying to follow your dialogue.  ** Provided by Ginny Wiehardt from About.com: Fiction Writing

9. Good Dialogue is Realistic but Has Meaning.
From Time to time, everyone will come across bad dialogue, and every writer is guilty of it. Bad dialogue may be completely sound grammatically, but readers will cringe anyway. Why is this? One of the most   common mistakes a writer can make with dialogue is by pushing their own agenda into it. The writer, working in the background, is concerned with creating a story. Too often conversations between characters are sacrificed for the furthering of plot. This mistake is so common in fact that it has its own name: Expositional Dialogue. Try to use character conversations to more subtly advance the plot. To do this, do not be afraid to add details and description to fill in gaps for the reader, restricting the dialogue to what would be natural for the character to say. This is actually more enjoyable for readers in the long run.  ** Provided by Rachel Shoemaker from Suite 101.com: How to write dialogue.

10. Vary the Length of Lines.
      Here is why it matters:
  • If Character A says something using half a dozen words...
  • Then Character B replies using a sentence of the same length...
  • Then Character A says something back using another short sentence...
  • ...it can all sound a bit same-ish.
    A better conversation would look like this:
  • Character A says something...
  • Then Character B replies using a longer sentence. Maybe a couple of them. Or even three...
  • Character A just shrugs here...
  • So Character B says something else, something long again that goes on and on and on...
  • Until Character A cuts them short with a quick line of their own.
11. One trick is to come up with a word or two that one character — and only that character — will use a lot. *** This is my personal favorite! *** Provided by Robert J. Sawyer from Speaking of Dialogue.

The best way to tell if it does or not is to always trust your ear!

These are a few simple tips. Hope you find them as helpful as I did. I would love to hear tips from all of you and if you have taken a great dialogue class please share it.

Happy Writing,
Julie Johnstone, Marchioness of Mayhem


  1. Great blog, Julie. The excessive use of non-said dialogue tags is one of my personal pet peeves. It is just annoying to read, and it tends to be more of a device of telling, rather than showing. Another thing that I don't like reading in dialogue is when characters use each others' names over and over in a conversation. If there are only two people speaking, you know who you're talking to. So does the reader. It just feels forced and unnatural.

  2. I enjoyed the topic and your blog, Julie. The other thing you might want to add is to have tension in the dialogue, and how it can be a great tool to show / increase conflict / tension without a lot of telling, and can make an otherwise dull scene interesting. Donald Maass talks quite a bit about this. Nice blog.

  3. Great points, very helpful. Thank you:)

  4. Great job! I would add that the ear is a writer's best friend. After you've written a scene, read it aloud. The dailogue should sound as natural as if you were talking to your best friend.

  5. Number 5 totally reminded me of a book on tape that my husband and I got on a trip. After 15 minutes of "she said." "he said." "She said." after every single line of dialogue, we stopped at the very next Cracker Barrel and got our money back. Come to think of it, that may have been when I decided that I could write a book if that was the drivel they were publishing...

    Great points, Julie :)

  6. What a great post on dialogue, Julie. Thanks for doing the legwork and bringing all these great tips together in one place.

  7. Shelly,
    I've been meanting to pick up Donald Maass' book, The Fire in the Fiction. And Erin, you had me laughing with your Cracker Barrell stop!

  8. Julie,
    Nice blog. I love writing dialogue. It is one of my favorite parts of writing. Of course, I like talking a lot too. ;)

    Also, I have Donald Maass's book and recommend it. I found the section on creating setting to be most helpful for me, because that is my area of weakness, only not so much now.

  9. See! I do like talking. :)

    Another great test is if I roll my eyes when I'm reading my dialogue. It's an involuntary reaction and always right.

  10. I'm trying to master my own dialogue Julie and this is an excellent post. Great advice! Thanks for sharing!