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The Do’s and Don’ts to Writing Successful Dialogue

Without strong dialogue, your story will crumble. That is, to borrow from Jane Austen, a “truth universally acknowledged.” Another universally acknowledged truth is I used to suck at dialogue, and I didn’t know it. Let me give you some examples.

My first finished novel had gems like this:

“There’s his car! I hope we’re not too late,” Henry said with panicked pace.

And then who could forget beating the word passion to death? Seriously, I wrote it 37 times in the novel and occasionally in back-to-back lines:

Doug took her hand to shake as she leaned in next to his ear. “She also says that you can be very passionate on the floor.” Her voice was sweet with suggestion.

“You have no idea,” he said passionately into her ear.

And here is my all-time favorite:

“You can’t return a call?” Henry demanded.

“I was working, and when does not returning a call result in an armed intrusion into my business?”

Mabel looked back into the hall. “Boys, we don’t have time for witty banter. We can explain back on the road.”

My long-time editor still teases me about that line, because, let’s be honest, if you write the words “witty banter” on the page you haven’t written any. Working with her gave me a better grasp of where I was as an author and what I needed to work on.

That’s what’s so great about art: we are improving our craft one line at a time. Each year we continue to get better and maybe even feel a little sheepish about our previous work.

So now that we’ve all had a good laugh at my delightfully horrible prose let me show you the do’s and don’ts of dialogue.

DO Make Dialogue Genuine

young people on phones walking like robotsApart from a few exceptions (mostly from sci-fi), you don’t want your characters to sound like robots. But it happens a lot. The problem stems from the way we write. Apart from an occasional creative writing class most students are required to use professional writing styles to complete their papers. And that’s not how we talk, or want our characters to sound.

I’ll admit, you might write characters who speak formally or maybe use phrases unheard by humans in over a hundred years. My question is always why. Why should your character, set in current time, talk that way when no one else does? Unless you have a great reason, like they grew up listening to Peter Turley on the wireless, change it.

DO Listen to Real Conversations

unhappy couple at table with drinksThe easiest way to improve your dialogue ear is to pay attention to conversations found in daily life. Listen to how people interact. Hear the words they drop in the beginnings or ends of sentences. Note how they often interrupt and interject. Consider the amount of filler words being used like um, ah, uh, like, er (but promise me you’ll only use filler words in dire emergencies, like your protagonist’s mom walked in on him and his friends during the only bad scene of a movie).

If you don’t have a lot of daily integration with people, because you work in a cave like me, go out to a crowded restaurant at lunchtime and just listen.  By observing new people around you, your fictional dialogue vocabulary will fill to capacity, and become more genuine.

And if improving your dialogue skills wasn’t enough, I’ve made you a Conversation Bingo card. Hear the style of dialogue and mark it off!

DO Read Aloud

Reading your dialogue aloud is an easy way to catch the problems. Ask yourself, does it sound natural? Would real people say this? Does this interaction from character to character make sense? If it doesn’t, rework the line. Drop the big words, use contractions, and be careful of your “passion” word.

 DO Make Every Character Distinct

As the author, you can see the uniqueness in each of your characters. They all have different backgrounds, childhoods, loves, dislikes, relationships, etc. With this variety, no character should ever sound exactly the same as another, sometimes they do. If you have this problem, it’s an easy fix. Just look at sentence structure, vocabulary, and the character’s favorite word.

The easiest way to gain unique voice from your characters is by assigning a word count. Your protagonist is a less-talk-more-action kind of woman. To show this you never write more than five words a sentence for her. On the other hand, your sidekick likes to take words around the block a few times before stopping, so you never write him less than ten words.

man with letters coming from his mouthSimilarly, one character may possess an advanced vocabulary, while another character may often misuse words and terms. When thinking of the character’s favorite word(s) go deep. What kind of jargon does the character use at work? Do they always explain life in sports metaphors? Maybe their outlook is like a rectangle of cocoa confections. Now that you found the favorite word assign it.

Have a favorite word that is only used by one character. This is a fast way for the reader to recognize them on the page, and will allow you to drop dialogue tags when the word is used. For example Rachel Ricks is the only character to use the word dude in Another Day Another Name. So when readers see dude in quotation marks they know it’s Rachel talking. It doesn’t have to be slang like dude, just a word that only one character uses on a regular basis, like assuage or dilemma.

DON’T Write Mundane, Everyday Conversation

For the most part, you want to skip over the boring, everyday conversations in your dialogue. Small talk such as exchanging greetings and discussing the weather will bore your readers. Writing this type of dialogue could probably even bore you, and lead to extreme creative trauma. On the rare occasion, you may choose to write these conversations for some purpose. For example, demonstrating a character’s social anxiety or an awkwardness between two ex-friends. With that being said, you still want to avoid this type of dialogue if you can. Even if you have a specific purpose for it, you can brainstorm better ways to show it to readers.

So you have some questionable dialogue, how do you know what to treasure and what to demolish?

Here is a list of questions to ask yourself when you’re uncertain whether or not to keep dialogue.

  • Does it advance my story?
  • Does it build my character and help the reader identify her?
  • Does it deliver information the readers must know?
  • Can I remove it and have the scene still make sense?
  • Should I use this time for some other conversation between my characters?

DON’T Make it Hard to Read

You may argue with me on this but using misspelled words to demonstrate dialect is a bad idea. I know, there are high earning authors doing this, but they can do what ever they want. When you are building your platform and courting the attention of readers, agents, and publishers, don’t give them any reason to close your book. Misspelled, or phonetically spelled words make the mind stop and decipher.

woman and man in silhouette against sunsetDON’T Use Dialogue to Force Information or Agenda

Maybe at writing workshops or in your own daily practice, you have noticed dialogue that has nothing to do with the character and everything to do with the reader. For example, Sue  may tell Bob about a bad breakup a few months ago, going into every little detail and word said. Not a big deal, right? It is when the reader learns that Sue and Bob experienced this breakup together.

Sue has no need to retell the story to Bob. He knows it, he was the one getting yelled at. In situations like this, the dialogue is being used to tell readers information. This type of dialogue backfires because it will feel false and forced on readers.

Remember dialogue is designed to advance the story, build and identify character, and inform the reader. If your dialogue isn’t accomplishing one of those three areas, feel confident to cut it.

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