This is sometimes my favorite part of a story – the words that the characters say to one another. They’re usually the most quotable things in a book, and are the heart of your novel (don’t worry, narrative is the brain…just as important!).
But a lot of people have some difficulty with making their dialogue perfect. It might sound choppy or boring or lackluster.
If you love YouTube like I do, check out my companion video below! I say the same stuff but you get to make fun of how I slur most of my words together. Fun!
I’m going to go over exactly what’s so important about dialogue, how it relates to your characters, some of the technical aspects of writing dialogue and tips for the editing phase!
Why is dialogue even necessary to any story? I think the most important thing it does is it shows the relationships between your characters rather than telling them.
But dialogue also has another very important role: to move the story forward. But, that’s what narrative is for, right?
Yes. But if we’re studying for a test, we don’t just read our book once and say we’re done, do we? We watch videos online, we read articles, we make flashcards. All of these pieces work symbiotically to get you a good grade on that test.
Together, dialogue and narrative can make your story shine. Think of it this way: your characters, plot and setting are the path, and your dialogue and narrative are the vehicle. Dialogue is supplementary to narrative in that both move the story forward, so that each important piece of the story is covered.
Your dialogue helps add tension, reveal the personality of your characters, and provides pertinent information. If your dialogue just isn’t doing any of these things, then read on!
We’ve all got one in the family. Just kidding! You should have a ton in your writing because we’re all imperfect in our own way. I for instance, can’t seem to fold laundry. It’s not in my repertoire of zombie apocalypse knowledge, because that’s the only knowledge I keep these days! And writing of course…
Relationships matter – Do you talk to your significant other the same way that you talk to your grandmother? I would hope not.
Most of us tend to change our language up slightly depending on who we’re talking to. You might give more respect to a professor and speak more formally than you would someone you’ve known a long time.
This is a part of getting to know your characters really well. How would they interact with one another? Would one take the lead in a conversation while the others followed? Or would one take the lead and butt heads with another?
Some personality types just don’t get along well, and you need to welcome the idea of relationships influencing how your characters speak to one another – because let’s face it, we all do it! Ergo your characters should do it too.
Give characters a unique voice – If you’re a young adult reader like myself, you might have read the Beautiful Creatures series. In it, a character named Link is unlike any of the other characters.
This is best seen through his dialogue. He uses words that no other character would dare to use and delivers them in a unique way.
We all speak differently from one another. We all have favorite words that we like to use or our own form of expletive when we stub our toes.
Make a list of these things for each character so that when you can’t think of a response for your character, it gives you inspiration.
People aren’t perfect – and neither is their dialog! Have you ever watched a movie and realized that the actors are delivering their lines too quickly? It sounds like they’re just waiting for the other person to finish their lines before they dive in to theirs.
Everyone needs time to formulate a response and without it you have a conversation that doesn’t sound organic anymore.
Writing dialogue is the same. Give your character time to think every now and then. If they’re arguing with another character, have them stammer and slam something in frustration.
Because this happens in real life! No one knows their lines ahead of time, so make sure your characters don’t either! Make their dialogue perfectly imperfect, because that’s what it means to be human. And unless you have an alien race, you want your characters sounding human, right?
Summaries can be a good thing – Sometimes it’s easier to sum up the boring parts of conversation. Are two characters saying hello to each other? Don’t put it in dialogue unless there’s something else going on there. You would have to force this type of dialogue to be interesting, though, so sometimes it’s better to leave it as a narrative.
If you still really want to make it interesting, here’s some examples: A meeting between two teenagers who really like each other, both very nervous and maybe one stutters. A greeting between two people who don’t speak the same language – there’s some obvious difficulties there that would be great to point out via dialog.
How do you know when to put your dialogue into a summary? Is nothing exciting really happening? Is there a back and forth between two characters that would give the reader whiplash? Try to play with putting dialogue into summaries and see how it flows!
Tag, you’re it! I like to use deep POV most of the time through my writing, and one thing to avoid while doing so is the use of dialogue tags. I try my hardest to avoid dialogue tags at all costs, instead using action to mark which characters is speaking. You do this so that the reader is never pulled out of the story, and you become the invisible author.
But sometimes this can have the opposite effect. Using an action might become what pulls the reader out of the story. In this case, use your tags responsibly.
Don’t use redundant tags! Saying someone grunted after an “ugh” is unnecessary.
Don’t use tags that don’t make sense. Someone can’t gasp words or sigh them. A physical, non-speech related action should never become a dialogue tag.
Don’t be afraid to use “said.” Yes, it’s simple. But guess what? If you really need a dialogue tag, “said” blends in pretty well to the narrative. We’ve read so many books throughout our lives that “said” has become like “it” and “the.” We may read it two hundred times in a chapter, but we don’t realize it!
Name drops – I’m so incredibly guilty of this. When you’re talking to your best friend, how often do you use their name? I can say that I never do. I say “girl” way more than I say “Mel.” So it would make sense that your characters wouldn’t name drop with one another, right?
Yes, but I still find myself doing it all the time. Why? I think because sometimes I want it to be clear who’s speaking. In that case, I go back and make sure my action tags are clear.
If I’m trying to add some drama to the scene by name dropping, I make sure I haven’t name-dropped the same name in a while. If you do it a lot, it gets a little less dramatic (a lot less…let’s be honest).
Remove the drab
Cut it! Alll of it! Muhahaha.
But not really. If you’re in the editing phase of your novel, it’s time to polish up that dialogue. If you started a conversation between two people on the phone and included all the “Hello, how are you doing?” and the “Great, and how’s the kids?” stuff, then your reader is probably going to drop your book and run. That stuff’s boring!
Yes, it may be how people talk in real life, but you also don’t include boring action in your writing. The same rule applies to boring dialogue! We’re just better off without it.
Another drabbish thing to cut is information that two characters wouldn’t really say to each other. These are usually things that said simply for the benefit of the reader and are really not beneficial to anyone.
This can be a very difficult thing to avoid sometimes, particularly with Science Fiction or Fantasy genres.
If two characters know that eating murberries makes you go to sleep for ages, don’t have them explain that to one another. They already know it! Instead, show someone slipping some as a practical joke to someone else. The murberries knock that character out and then you’re spared the awkward moment when you point directly at the reader and explain things to them.
Note: if no one has ever heard of murberries and one character has, it’s totally fine for them to explain it.
Have someone read the dialogue aloud – You might have heard before that you should read your work out loud, but for dialog, it’s incredibly helpful if someone else reads it out loud. You already know how you want the dialogue to sound so sometimes you’ll make it sound that way when the words don’t really read that way.
Grab whoever you can grab and bribe them in whatever ways that you need to so that they’ll do this for you! Preferably it should be someone that hasn’t read your story yet, but it’ll still be productive even if they have.
Tell them to be goofy with acting out the words and have fun with it (this is especially fun if you get your significant other to do it). Even if they read the dialogue without any embellishments, you’ll be able to hear how they place their inflection. If they get stuck on a certain sentence and have to start over, sometimes that means your wording sounds awkward.
Also try to listen for the balance between narrative and dialog, any sentences that don’t sound realistic, and choppy dialog. This last one can sometimes mean that your characters unique voices aren’t coming through, or the dialogue simply isn’t needed .
At least I hope you think it does. Let’s get into the nitty gritty here. I promise, it’ll only take a sec.
- When a new character starts to speak, start a new line for them! We don’t want the reader confused when we stitch together two pieces of dialogue. There’s no mad scientist Frankensteins allowed for dialogue. You gotta keep ’em separated!
- Punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks. I remember my teachers always told me the punctuation would fall off into a black hole of nothingness and I just never wanted that for my punctuation. Be kind to them and keep them from falling for eternity.
- The UK uses single quotes for their dialogue. The US only uses single quotes when quoting something inside something that already has quotations. It’s quotation inception!
- End your dialogue with a comma if using a dialog tag, or a full stop (ellipsis, period, exclamation mark) if using action. If someone is cutting someone else off, use an em dash – where they got cut off, and again if they resume their thought.
- “Marcus, did you do any of -“
- “Yes, mom! I did all of my chores.”
- “- your homework…”
Alright, that’s all I have for you guys today. I hope that was oh-so-helpful!
Have any tips or tricks of your own? Or perhaps a question? Comment below and let’s start our own dialogue!
Remember to check out my YouTube channel. Every writerly post on my website has a companion video!
Also, I’m releasing my prologue to you guys tomorrow! *pees pants*
Check back so you don’t miss it!