Writing advice blog: Writing great dialogue

Susie Helme

Photo by Dima Pechurin on Unsplash

Dialogue is crucial to make your plot and characters come alive, but how do you get it right? See some of my top tips for effective dialogue below, then next week, Elaine and I will be analysing some of our favourite bits of dialogue to see how they work.

Tips for writing great dialogue

Skip the chit-chat (Enter the scene as late as possible. Don’t bother the reader with ‘hello, how are you?’ etc. Jump straight in to the emotional meat of the conversation. If you need to put it in, de-emphasise it by putting it in indirect quotes)

Serve a purpose (like any other part of your work, every line of dialogue should be there for a reason)

Make voice unique (each character should have their own voice, use different expressions, mannerisms, etc.)

Use action beats (use body language, expression, description, movements or internal thoughts to convey meaning, create pace, reveal character)

Get messy (real people say ‘um’ and ‘you know’ and make grammar mistakes. But don’t do this too much)

Change the subject (when the speaker doesn’t want to discuss the question for some emotional reason)

Use ellipses and dashes to pace conversation, but use sparingly (can indicate hesitation, embarrassment, unwillingness to answer, etc. It can also indicate interruption, which happens all the time in real conversation.)

Lie – and call attention to it (people don’t always say what they really think)

Use witty or sarcastic retorts (speakers can respond to boring questions—how are you, etc.—with wit or sarcasm to indicate character, mood or attitude)

Play with power (The more dominant character can have more lines to say. Tension can be increased by shifting the power dynamics throughout the conversation)

Said isn’t dead (use adverbs and verbs other than said sparingly. You want the reader to be paying attention to the conversation, and you want the import of the conversation to be Shown in the line itself, without Telling us using a tag. Instead of she said softly, write he leaned in closer to hear her. You don’t always need the said, as it will be understood who is speaking.)

Use realistic action tags (when you use action tags gasped, whispered, make sure they are realistic. e.g., A person can’t gasp and say something at the same time.)

Cut redundancies (e.g., Ugh, she groaned; Damn you. Karen was angry. Use one or the other.)

Avoid name drops (real people usually only insert the other person’s name into conversation to draw attention)

Break up the narrative (dialogue can be used to quicken the pace or to break up large chunks of narrative)

Limit lines to three ‘dialogue beats’ (a realistic line of dialogue is usually no more than three breaths long)

Vary your style (use some indirect quotes, some lines without saying said, some lines finished with an action beat)

Avoid excessive exposition (revealing backstory via dialogue is one way to avoid info-dump. It’s helpful to have one character who is new to the scene and needs explanation. Don’t use dialogue to reveal info the character would already know, unless the speaker is expressing some emotion about it or correcting information)

Understand the emotion (reflect each character’s emotions and goals and the tensions in the relationships via dialogue.)

Less is more (Not everything needs to be expressed. Readers can read between the lines. Instead of we’ve talked about this many times increase tension with I can’t believe we’re doing this again)

Repetition conveys emphasis (if a character says something more than once, it can show that they are upset, angry, etc.)

Rewrite infodumps as arguments (this can kill two birds with one stone, providing exposition and creating tension)

Rewrite as a comparative conversation (two characters are checking whether their information is correct)

Consider the subtext (Lines can have an implied meaning as well as an expressed meaning.

Consider the underlying themes. An argument about bacon and eggs can really be about a deteriorating relationship.)

Foreshadow future plot reveals (a conversation can hint to something which the reader is going to find out pages later. This builds suspense)

Portray conflict (deepens characterisation, illustrates the underlying causes of the conflict [desires, values, goals], acts as a catalyst pushing the story towards a new development. Using gestures and description can deepen the conflict.)

Foreign or regional accents (depicting accents can round out your characterisation, but use the words and grammatical mistakes a new learner would use, don’t mimic pronunciation no speeka ze English, which is hard to read and can be offensive.)

Vary your pace (when action or emotion is high, use shorter sentences with more interruptions and fewer dialogue tags. When the plot is slower, use longer phrases and insert more description, action beats and internal thoughts.)

Anchor dialogue with setting and narration (set the scene, give it a place and time, and describe your characters’ movements while the conversation is happening. Use physical props.)

Read it aloud (to check whether your dialogue sounds exciting and natural, read it aloud to yourself)

One thought on “Writing advice blog: Writing great dialogue

  1. This is great advice for writers struggling with dialogue! I hate to admit that I’m really not as good as I once thought XD Lately, I’ve realised that I do several of the things you’re warned not to. So this is a great reference for me to use in the future when editing my first draft. Thank you for making this so clear and accessible.

    Liked by 1 person

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