Once fiction writers have mastered Urgency (parts one and two) and creating realistic characters, the next major stumbling block is usually portraying effective dialogue. The biggest mistakes inexperienced writers make are including absolutely every single word or sound someone might say in real life (things like uh, duh, hmmm, etc.), writing dialogue so wooden and lifeless that no human on earth could ever possibly talk that way, or attempting to imitate Voice artificially through incorrect punctuation, for example, rather than through vocabulary or dialect patterns. That kind of dialogue can end up looking something like this,
“Uhn-uh, NO. You did NOT just say that. Oh, noooooo, you are NOT realllllly ser-i-ous, ARE you? Because. I. Do. Not. Believe. This. Uhn-uh. Not. At. All. I am NOT going to stand here and take any more CRAP-OH-LA from YOU, buster,” she shrilled like a cockatoo, waggling her eyebrows at him in defiance and disbelief.
That kind of dialogue is so distracting, the readers notice more about the way the author wrote the scene than about what’s going on between the characters. With only a few tips — and lots of practice — you can learn to write dialogue that is more effective than many real life conversations, and that’s essential for successful fiction.
Aim for Artistically Natural Dialogue
Unless you are already an accomplished in the area of writing dialogue, I recommend that you speak all your dialogue into a tape recorder or smartphone’s voice memos before writing it. Say everything as naturally as you normally would, that is, at the speed and in the tone that you would use if you were actually having that conversation. If your character is angry, then raise your voice and shout. Make sure you do all the parts of the dialogue. In other words, pretend you’re all the characters and pretend you’re acting out all the parts.
After you have the scene’s dialogue, play the recording back and try to write out the dialogue as closely as you can — except for the uhs, duhs, etc. Putting in every single word or sound people might say in an actual conversation might seem like the best way to write fictional dialogue, but that type of presentation can be deadly. Fiction is not life, after all, but an imitation of it for artistic purposes. That means authors are making compromises to keep readers interested. Dialogue should seem to be natural without actually being a real-life conversation. Dialogue should never bore readers. Don’t put any tags (he said/she said) when transcribing the recording: just start a new paragraph each time someone new is speaking.
After you have written scenes with dialogue, you should read any spoken passages aloud, doing all the characters’ parts as if you’re in a play, aiming for natural speech patterns. Even better, you could have someone else read the dialogue aloud to see how it sounds coming out of someone else’s mouth, and this would work best if the person were not intimately familiar with your characters. Be sure to modify or delete whatever doesn’t work. You’re aiming for artificially natural dialogue: this is fiction, after all. Presenting realistic yet effective dialogue is trickier than it seems, but eventually, with enough practice, you’ll be able to do dialogue without recording it, and without reading it back to yourself aloud.
Have Characters Talk Only to Each Other
When people speak to each other, they often leave things out since the information is already known to all the parties involved in the conversation. One of the deadliest dialogue mistakes writers make is including information the characters already know, such as shared events from the characters’ past or the full names of acronyms with which they’re already familiar (e.g., having FBI or other law enforcement characters say each individual word of VICAP in a police procedural). If the characters were real people in these situation, they would never say such things to each other. This type of dialogue is written to convey that information to the reading audience since the characters themselves already know it. Having your characters talk only to each other, not to your readers, is not only more effective, but it can also increase Urgency by maintaining the readers’ interest.
Include Silence and Action
Often, beginning writers forget that not everything has to be spoken aloud. People do not always respond to each other verbally, even in heated arguments. Actions and silence sometimes do speak louder than words. Silence and gesture on the part of your characters can be very powerful. One-sided dialogue interspersed with silence or with description of behavior rather than with verbal responses can be an interesting way to show the relationships, history, nature, and conflicts of your characters.
Show Characters’ Nature, Relationship, History, and Conflict
Dialogue should be important to the novel’s Urgency and character development. If you have dialogue that can be skipped over, take it out. Dialogue itself should have Urgency; it should reveal the nature of the characters’ personalities and their history together; ideally, it should also have conflict. Dialogue can be used to include any information from the “back story” or the characters’ past that you haven’t included anywhere else. No matter what genre you write, your dialogue should sound natural while it reveals the relationships, natures, history, and conflicts of the characters.
Delete Inconsequential Dialogue
Too many times, authors put in dialogue that doesn’t convey any important information. That makes some readers skim or even skip dialogue because they’re not expecting anything of consequence to be there. If readers can skip anything in your work without missing something, that is a strong indication that you can delete that scene, chapter, or dialogue. Of course, if, like Hemingway and other literary masters, your dialogue is intentionally banal at times because it’s revealing a particular character’s nature, then by all means, leave the banality in. As long as it works symbolically and the readers don’t get bored, then it will be effective. However, if the readers can skip a section of fiction without missing anything of consequence, it needs to be deleted, even if it’s dialogue.
Eliminate Dramatic Dialogue Tags
I know you’ve probably been instructed to use strong verbs in your writing, and I completely agree with that. But the one place you don’t need strong verbs is in dialogue tags. If you use only the essential tags — he said/she said — and use them only to prevent readers from mis-reading the dialogue, you’ll be forced to make your dialogue more important and relevant to the fiction.
This tip is the one that has always caused the most vociferous objections and rebellion in creative writing classes because it means using no tags like he shouted, he yelled, he implored, etc. It means no tags like she laughed, she whispered, she crooned,, etc. And it most definitely means avoiding tags like he intoned, she pontificated, he menaced, she growled, he enunciated, she elucidated. It means you don’t even put a tag like he asked; instead, use he said/she said even if the character is asking a question. As long as you have the requisite question mark, the readers will understand. Further, dialogue tags should be presented only to help readers understand who says what. Tags should be eliminated whenever possible, and otherwise virtually invisible. That will keep the readers concentrating on what the characters are actually saying to each other rather than on how the writer is putting down the scene.
Strong verbs make the readers do the work in the dialogue, not the writer. Tags like he shouted, she screamed, he cried, they whined, etc. are all dependent upon the reader to interpret how the dialogue is supposed to be read. Instead, the author needs to put the shouting, screaming, whining, etc. into the dialogue itself. Showing is more effective than telling, even in dialogue. In this example, all the whining is in the dialogue itself, not in the tag.
“But I don’t understand why you don’t want to see me anymore,” he said. “Why? Can’t you at least tell me that? Please, just tell me that. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Please, just answer the question. Why can’t we be friends? Why not? Please, just tell me. Please.”
Similarly, adverbials — phrases or words that tell how, why, when, or where, and which modify verbs — can cause dialogue problems. A manner adverbial tells how something is done, and it’s the how adverbials that weaken the dialogue because the writer is depending on the adverbial to to convey the emotion rather than on the dialogue itself. Combined with strong verbs, this can lead to some pretty melodramatic dialogue tags: he shouted venomously, she snarled as viciously as she could, the child whimpered piteously, etc. Basically, the writer is telling the readers how to interpret the dialogue rather than writing strong dialogue.
In the examples below, there is only one word spoken, yet the readers are expected to interpret that one word in wildly disparate ways based on the verbs and the manner adverbials (how) that follow, which I’ve intentionally exaggerated to make a point.
“No,” he shouted.
“No,” he laughed.
“No,” he whispered.
“No,” he growled.
“No,” he whined.
“No,” he begged.
“No,” he implored.
“No,” he snarled.
“No,” he giggled.
“No,” he pleaded.
“No, he whimpered piteously.
“No,” he hissed angrily.
“No,” he shouted venomously.
“No,” he whispered erotically.
“No,” he moaned with pleasure.
“No,” he begged like a whipped dog.
“No,” he implored like a cold, starving beggar in ragged clothes, all alone and homeless on the blustery streets.
One of the deadliest things that can happen in a piece of fiction is to have the readers unintentionally laugh at dialogue, which most often happens when they’re reading the tags rather than the dialogue itself. To avoid jarring readers out of the fictional world, an author should include dialogue that portrays how it is said by the word choice, sentence structure (not through arbitrary or incorrect punctuation), repetition for emphasis, and other good writing techniques.
Though strong verbs and adverbials may be good for showing a character’s action in other areas of fiction, they tend to weaken dialogue, especially if the author relies on those things to tell how the dialogue is to be interpreted, rather than to show the manner in which the dialogue is said in the dialogue itself.. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have your characters doing something as they’re talking. In this example, “I never loved you,” he said, turning away before she had a chance to answer, the tag is he said, and the next phrase shows his action as, or immediately after, he says it. There’s nothing wrong with showing what your characters are doing as they are saying something. Just don’t depend on verbs or adverbials to convey how the dialogue is being spoken.
Further, you can show the volume of the character’s voice in other ways besides putting verbs or adverbials in your tags. You can have he began to shout in the text before the character’s dialogue appears, or, more challenging for you and rewarding for the readers, you could make his dialogue resemble shouting by your word choice. For softly spoken dialogue, you could have another character ask the person to repeat what was just said, implying that it was whispered, mumbled, or otherwise unintelligible to the character who requests clarification. There are many inventive and effective ways to show your readers how the dialogue is being spoken without using melodramatic tags.
Summary of Guidelines for Writing Dialogue
Here’s the summary of my suggestions and tips for writing effective dialogue in any genre.
• Aim for artistically natural dialogue.
• Have characters talk only to each other.
• Include silence and action.
• Show characters’ natures, history, relationships, and conflicts.
• Delete inconsequential dialogue.
• Eliminate Dramatic tags
Remember, these are tips and guidelines, not rules or injunctions handed down from Mt. Sinai. Take what you need, my Lovelies, and leave the rest.
Mastering Fiction and Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded, 15thAnniversary Edition © 2001, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. (Shorter excerpt formerly included in Mastering Point of View: Using POV to Create Conflict, Depth, & Suspense. Story Press: 2001.)
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