7 Secrets to Writing True-to-Life Dialogue
Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of being a fiction writer. It allows a writer to communicate a lot of information seamlessly, and it’s one of the best ways to get to know a character. The right dialogue can speed things up or slow things down, and it’s excellent for creating impact. Good dialogue can also help carry a scene when there’s not a lot of action taking place, while bad dialogue can ruin an otherwise great scene.
Whenever I coach new writers, dialogue is usually one of the areas where they struggle the most. It takes practice to write natural-sounding dialogue, but you can make great leaps forward almost overnight with these seven secrets:
1. Read your dialogue aloud exactly as written. This is simply the best way to create more natural-sounding dialogue, but it’s also the thing writers are most reluctant to do. Reading your work aloud is time-consuming, and many writers are embarrassed to act out a one-man (or one-woman) production of their work.
But I am such a believer in reading my work aloud that I never publish a novel without having read the entire thing to an empty room. Do yourself a favor and find a private place to work. Close the door, put on some white noise in the background if it helps, and read. Read your work exactly as you wrote it: pausing in the appropriate places, emphasizing italicized words, and treating ellipses and em dashes the way they were meant to be treated.
2. Allow for incomplete thoughts and interruptions. Human beings are terrible speakers. We trail off at the end of our sentences. We leave giant gaping pauses when we’re trying to find the right words. And we interrupt each other constantly. (If you don’t believe me, go sit in a restaurant or coffee shop and eavesdrop on the table behind you.)
To write believable dialogue, your characters shouldn’t all speak as though they’re reading from a teleprompter. Allow them to be human. Make them interrupt each other. Give them space to fall silent or leave the room if things get heated.
3. Let your characters use the vocabulary they would naturally use. Most new writers suffer from one of two problems: Either they make all the characters talk the way they talk, or they try to micromanage their characters’ conversations. Once you get to know your characters, it’s important to let them speak the way they would talk in real life.
Do not insert vocabulary that would be inappropriate for a character’s station in life, and be mindful of the balance of power between two characters. (Two people vying for the same promotion might snipe at each other, but a low-ranking soldier would probably not mouth off to his commanding officer.)
I often get criticized for my use of swearing in fiction, but I refuse to censor my language. It’s not that I’m being stubborn. It’s because I write dystopian literature about the end of the world. (If a horde of zombies were after you, I guarantee you would not say “shoot!” or “gosh darn!”) Of course, if you’re writing for kids or a squeaky-clean audience, you will have to watch your language. But for the love of god, nobody says “dangnabit!”
4. Use “said” for 90 percent of dialogue tags. Use “asked” the other 5 percent. You’ll notice I only gave you 5 percent to use all your mystery verbs as dialogue tags. “Growled,” “exclaimed,” “suggested,” “replied,” “whispered,” “murmured,” “mumbled,” “grumbled,” and “retorted” should only be used in situations where they are highly, highly appropriate. In other words, you should allow your character to get worked up for about four or five lines before you write “he growled.”
Don’t worry if “said” starts to sound repetitive. As readers, we are trained to completely skim over this word, while fancy descriptive adjectives at the end of a piece of dialogue actually pull us out of the writing.
And remember, you don’t have to use a dialogue tag if it’s clear who’s speaking. In exchanges between two characters, I will often go several lines with no dialogue tags at all. This allows the reader to really “drop in” to a scene without interference from the author or narrator.
My motto? Dialogue tags are meant to be seen and never heard.
5. Don’t qualify with adverbs. If you learn nothing else from Stephen King’s On Writing, it should be this: Never ever use an adverb after a dialogue tag. Every time you write “he snarled angrily,” or “she whispered sadly,” an angel loses her wings. Most of the time, these adverbs are completely unnecessary. Your character’s words should speak for themselves. If a character’s emotional state is not clear, it’s better to show it with body language or facial expressions.
6. Insert action where appropriate. How often do we just stand face to face and talk? Not very often. Usually we are driving, washing dishes, eating, drinking, or walking while we have a conversation. I find that dialogue is always made more interesting when it’s done in motion: characters are puffing out witty retorts as they fight, a couple is arguing as they put out snacks for a party, or a mother is admonishing her daughter as she puts on makeup. Have your characters do something, and use their action in place of verbal reactions.
7. Do not make your characters explain things for the reader’s benefit. So often in science fiction and fantasy, we need a way to reveal rules of the world to the reader without succumbing to an “info dump.”
Many new writers try to avoid a lengthy explanation of magic or a piece of futuristic technology by “casually” having one character explain something to another. Don’t! When I see writers using dialogue to have characters explain aspects of the magical realm to characters who are native to that magical realm, it sounds a bit like me trying to explain to you that the iPhone is a tiny computer you carry in your pocket. Why would a character explain something that another character already knows? This sounds anything but natural.
A good workaround to the giant info dump is to insert a line of exposition as part of the narrative between bits of dialogue or action. Think of a story like making lasagna: dialogue is the pasta, action is the sauce, and exposition is the cheese. Layer and repeat.
What character have you struggled to write dialogue for lately? What was most challenging for you?
Photo by Yuya Hata