The Fundamentals of Dialogue

Keys to Writing Good Dialogue

When writing fiction, dialogue is a useful technique for showing rather than telling, for getting into the character’s head, and for letting the reader in on some information. Dialogue can show eagerness, hesitation, confusion — just about any human trait or emotion.

Also, readers like dialogue. Looking at a page highlighted with white space rather than a wall of text draws in the reader.

How, then, do you write good dialogue that does everything you want it to do for your story?

First, make your dialogue realistic. Learn to listen to patterns of speech. Listen to live TV interviews. Listen to scripted words in sitcoms and dramas. Listen for colloquialisms or expressions that might liven up the speech of your character. Notice that most people use contractions in conversation. “I don’t know” rather than “I do not know,” which sounds like your Mama using your middle name.

I must say here that often you see the suggestion that you position yourself in public places so you can eaves drop on strangers’ conversations. You can try this if you like, but sooner or later you may be considered either weird and/or a stalker.

As you write the dialogue, don’t edit as you go along, just let the words flow like a natural conversation. After you’re finished, read it aloud. It might be helpful to record yourself reading. Listen to the flow of the words. If it doesn’t sound right, edit it, make it better. Read it again and keep that up until it sounds right.

Writing in dialect, with all its dropped letters and apostrophes, is considered passé and not recommended. It’s distracting to read because it tends to be a bit much after a few sentences. In addition, it might be offensive to a minority or ethnic group.

So, unless you just enjoy seeing a screen full of red lines, say something like he’s from Ireland and speaks with a thick brogue. Trust the reader fill in the blanks.

Don’t be too trendy. Slang changes so often it’s easy to date your piece with the street talk your character uses.

Don’t use “soap opera” language. Don’t have one character remind another of something they (and the reader) already know. “Your uncle, who was once a CIA agent, had a traumatic brain injury last year.” See above: make your dialogue realistic!

Many writers think they need profanity to show characterization and situation. But please let me discourage you. I’m not saying it’s not done, but in doing something entirely unnecessary you are eliminating a large segment of the population as potential readers. You can say, “His speech was laced with obscenities,” to explain the sort of person he was. Again, trust your reader to follow along.

I mentioned earlier a “wall of text.” A wall of dialogue is even worse. Unless your character is giving a commencement address, his speech shouldn’t be more than 5 or 6 lines long before he takes a drag off his cigarette (action) or the other character responds (that’s why it’s called dialog).

Don’t be afraid to use an attributive if it will make things clearer, especially if there are more than two people in the conversation. The best attributives are “said” and “asked”

“I can’t believe you said that,” Joe cringed. That sentence doesn’t really make sense, since it’s hard to cringe any sort of a sound.

Use dialogue to move the story and action along and to engage your reader.

Let dialogue in your stories be your friend. Make it sharp, clear, and believable.


Dot HatfieldDot Hatfield is the author of six books, including 3 novels, a collection of short stories and essays, a one-act play, and a memoir.

Comments

  • a thought by Gary Rodgers

    I’m really needing to learn the proper way to use dialogue. I believe this will be very helpful.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Name and email are required