People Don’t Talk Like That: Mastering Dialogue

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This post is the third in a five-part series on the elements of fiction writing, in collaboration with the Ice Colony.

Dialogue is one element of fiction that stands apart from other components of storytelling. From the author’s perspective, writing dialogue is an entirely different experience than writing prose. It’s essentially screenwriting—quick, high-impact, and (hopefully) meaningful. Characters’ speech can tell the reader a lot about who they are, and important conversations move the plot along. Bad dialogue can weigh the story down and make it less realistic, while good dialogue draws the reader in. And if you’re doing it right, IMO it’s also super fun to write. My top tips on writing dialogue…

Number one rule of writing dialogue—everything your characters say should have a purpose.

Specifically, it should either add to the reader’s knowledge or further the plot. It can be tough to cut unnecessary but fun conversations between characters, but your story will be better if you do. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having some fluffy dialogue—but it should be carefully pre-planned to help develop characters and relationships. It’s actually good to include some banter and happy moments even in a mostly serious story because it keeps the reader invested in your characters. It helps me get into character to write a few fun exchanges that don’t actually make it into the book—like deleted scenes. But as far as “on camera” dialogue, cut everything that isn’t essential to the story.

Keep small talk to a minimum.

I might even say you should include next to no small talk in your story. In the vast majority of cases, it adds NOTHING to the narrative, makes the whole thing more cumbersome, and bores readers. So if you find yourself with a lot of discussion of things like the weather or mundane routines of daily life, you should probably get rid of it. Unless you’re trying to tell the reader something—that two characters are superficial acquaintances, for example—there’s simply no need for it.

Be careful of putting too much exposition / infodumping in dialogue. It’s lazy, and it makes characters’ speech seem stilted.

Don’t use characters’ conversations to impart large, undiluted chunks of plot information or character development. Absolutely use dialogue to develop plot and character, but do it in a way that seems natural and doesn’t overwhelm the reader. If you have a character introduce two people to each other, don’t have them list both characters’ top ten personality traits and give full descriptions of their backgrounds. This is knowledge that should be imparted little by little throughout the story. There’s no rush. Any plot or character development that comes through in dialogue will be more natural and memorable if there’s a digestible amount of information given.

Make sure your dialogue is realistic.

On a related note—dialogue that doesn’t reflect how real humans talk is probably the most common amateur mistake when it comes to writing dialogue. It’s incredibly important to the story to make sure that exchanges between characters aren’t stilted, melodramatic, or cliched. You don’t want your characters’ conversations to read like an episode of Leave it to Beaver (Gee, Mom, do I have to take a bath? That kind of thing). There are some concrete rules to this. For example, in real life, people don’t usually call someone with whom they’re speaking by name unless they’re trying to get their attention, emphasize something, or express certain strong emotions. That’s a pretty simple, hard and fast guideline. But writing realistic dialogue is more an art than a science. Seriously, just use your brain. It’s unlikely somebody would walk out to the kitchen in the morning and greet their roommate with, “Hey, Joe, how have you been?” One big part of being a good writer is having a good grasp of how human beings behave. As discussed extensively in my post on the mess that is Midnight Sun, the Twilight saga is a good example of unrealistic behavior from characters, particularly in the dialogue department. To avoid writing like Stephenie Meyer…

Study!

I spend as much time doing research for stories as I do actually writing. Literally. Observing people and reading how writers you admire handle dialogue can help you learn how to craft realistic character interactions. I’ve also found my psych major super helpful in writing realistic speech and behavior—psychology texts / research can be a great way to identify and familiarize yourself with speech patterns and social behavior. But the best source of information on realistic dialogue? Real life, obviously. I can’t tell you how many times part of a conversation I’ve had has ended up in one of my stories.

Don’t use too many tags, and be wary of using “creative” ones.

Some people will suggest trying to avoid using “said” too much, but in my opinion this is bad advice. Stick to “said” in favor of things like ranted, exclaimed, implored; unless the meaning or intensity of what is being said relies on an alternative tag. Even then it’s usually best to stick to simple tags like whispered, or yelled. But it is true that too much he said, she said can be annoying; the solution to this is not to get more imaginative, but to use as few tags as you can without confusing the reader. More often than you’d think, people can tell who is saying what, especially in a two-person conversation. Giving each character a distinct voice can also help in differentiating between them in dialogue. If you want to check whether it’s always clear which character is speaking, either have a friend read the scene or put it aside then read it back to yourself in the editing stage—can you tell what’s going on? If the answer is yes, you’re good.

Quick tip on avoiding excessive speech tags when writing dialogue

I frequently use this formula to help make it clear who is talking while trying to keep tags to a minimum—before a line of dialogue, mention the character who’s about to speak and either a behavior or moment-specific physical description. For example—Sarah tucked a stray curl behind her ear, still staring at me with a trace of a smirk, “You seem nervous.” Using this structure, it’s quite clear who is speaking, and you’ve avoided yet another “said”. It also feels natural, and provides subtle characterization.

Reduce adverb use.

This is a piece of writing advice I will give time and time again because it’s so helpful in improving your writing. It’s especially relevant in dialogue. So many authors, even decent authors, lean too heavily on overused descriptors when trying to communicate the mood of a conversation, or the tone of a character’s voice. She asked suspiciously. He answered shyly. Not only do these kinds of tags sound awkward—they usually aren’t necessary. It’s very possible to communicate how a character says something using their non-verbal behavior in the scene, or other characters’ reactions. Instead of, “He answered shyly,” try, “He shifted in his chair and answered, eyes still fixed on the ground.” As usual, show rather than tell. Heavy adverb use usually indicates more telling than showing.

Write dialogue first.

This is probably my favorite dialogue tip. I got this advice from a creative writing professor I had at NYU, and it changed my life as a writer. You’re essentially writing a script for your scene—an outline which you’ll later fill in. Writing dialogue on its own to start is honestly just easier, and makes the entire process go faster. I’m constantly imagining conversations between my characters; writing dialogue first, all I have to do is put those conversations down on paper. It’s a good place to begin when I’m not in the mood to write. Writing dialogue first also allows you to fully immerse yourself in the conversation. It’s more visual, which helps bring a story to life.

Real life “dialogue” is imperfect. We use filler words, stop in the middle of a sentence and start a new one, etc. Dialogue in fiction should be a slightly more polished version of the way people actually talk.

Basically, include some awkwardness in your dialogue but not as much as there tends to be in real life. A lot of people will use “like” or “um” at least a couple times a sentence. This is just annoying in written dialogue, but it’s important to strike a balance. A well-placed “like” every now and then can develop a character’s voice, and makes the writing altogether more believable. Just try to land short of irritating, while making sure your character doesn’t sound like a robot (unless they are a robot, of course).

Avoid including too many yes or no questions in a conversation.

It reads poorly. There’s also a better, simpler way to do it. When you have several responses of “yes” or “no” is close succession, you don’t need to put quotation marks around each one. You might consider “keeping the camera” on the person asking the questions—don’t start a new paragraph for the other person to answer in the affirmative / negative. Make use of non-verbal behaviors. For example—“Were you at home last night?” He nodded in response. “Did you hear screaming outside?” Another slight downward tilt of his chin. She continued her interrogation. Much smoother without all the back and forth.

Only write humor if you’re good at it.

Straight up. As previously stated, every story needs lighter scenes to make the reader care about the characters and their relationships. But don’t actually try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally. If you’re not funny, trying to make readers laugh will probably get you the same response as any bad comedian. Your jokes will fall flat, and the whole set will feel awkward. And even if you are funny, make sure humor fits the mood of a scene; the way characters joke around should also be consistent with their general personalities. In short, make ‘em laugh, but please don’t make it weird.

Make use of pauses in the conversation.

In any conversation, real or imaginary, there are pauses and non-verbal actions that heavily affect the tone of the exchange. In those little spaces in between what’s actually being said, there’s room for a ton of plot and character information. It’s all in the details. Is there an awkward silence? A comfortable silence? What else are the characters doing? What kind of movements and gestures are they making? Truly picture a conversation as you write it; people don’t sit completely still, with no facial expression as they speak without pause in a monotone. People are constantly doing other things while talking. Make sure your writing reflects this. Here’s a useful list of things a character might do while talking, and a looooonnnnng list of physical gestures.

Make sure you’re constantly developing characters through dialogue.

One of the two primary purposes of dialogue is character development (the other being plot development). Dialogue is by far the easiest way to develop character, because it makes it super simple to show rather than tell. And when you’re telling rather than showing, your character is the one doing the talking. Think about how much we reveal about ourselves in our conversations, especially emotional ones. Before every dialogue-heavy scene, I plan out exactly what I wish to express through the character’s words and actions. A character’s personality, motivations, and background might be evident in what they say, the way they say it, or what they’re doing when they aren’t speaking. Try to really focus on relationships when writing dialogue, because dialogue really is the best way to communicate how characters feel about each other. Relationships are all about person-to-person interaction, as is dialogue.

Bottom line, (good) art imitates life. Realistic dialogue with a purpose is good dialogue. Delete everything else. 🤘🏻

In next month’s Ice Colony post, I’ll get into my favorite element of storytelling—setting. Every play starts with an empty stage.