Tips and tricks for better dialogue

I always think that writing good dialogue is something of an arcane art. Ever listen to somebody talking? You can follow them pretty easily. Now make a transcript and look at it as prose. Rubbish, isn’t it. We don’t even talk in full sentences. Phrases frequent intrude. But we understand each other perfectly well.

That’s because when we speak, usually, it carries a raft of body language, expressions and gestures with it. Or even if we’re on the phone, we’re following a line of thought. Humans are good at doing it. That changes when it’s written down, and the problem for novelists is making dialogue work.

Real dialogue doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to writing, because it is so fragmented. But written prose doesn’t ring true either. As always the answer is middle ground. It’s OK to write broken sentences. And the style of what’s written is a powerful tool for conveying character. The issue breaks down into layers:

1. The mechanics of writing compelling dialogue in the first place, with its broken sentences. Innovative punctuation helps, such as ending a fragment with a dash and close-quote.

2. Shaping the words to convey the nature of each character. How does their character come out in their speech? Are they terse? Verbose? Dreamers? Scientists? All these will carry very different speech patterns. Some characters may even have a particular speech quirk – I don’t mean impediment, I mean a structure of words or a repetitive filler such as ‘errrm’ – which characterises them for the reader.

3. Further shaping that speech to convey the particular emotion the character is showing at that time. Even if they are simply providing information, it will be done with some emotive content – and that is what readers latch on to.

The golden rule is to avoid ‘he said, she said’ enders – and qualifying adjectives.. Things like: “‘That’s a really exciting idea,’ Ronnie said happily.” If you’ve written the dialogue properly, you can show – not tell – the reader these emotions. We know Ronnie is happy from all these things.

Have you ever had trouble with dialogue? Got a favourite line? Found some dialogue that really sparks your enthusiasm?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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12 thoughts on “Tips and tricks for better dialogue

  1. I’m reading an old P.D. James mystery at the moment. Often her books consist of chunks of dialogue without indication of which character is speaking, yet the reader always knows. She doesn’t even distinguish their speech with idiosyncrasy. The difference is subtle but there.

  2. Dialogue is something I really struggle with. Specifically I find it difficult to write unique and believable dialogue for each character – something that I suspect building up my own vocabulary might help. I find it easier to write dialogue as if I was the speaker, but much more difficult to write believable dialogue for someone else.

  3. There’s no question, it’s very difficult indeed to write good dialogue – and harder again to write distinctive characterisation dialogue. Speaking it aloud is certainly an excellent technique for road-testing the results.

  4. I enjoy writing dialogue. I did some script writing for a creative writing course and that helped focus my mind to getting the voice of each character over. Hopefully 🙂

    1. I went to a book launch a while back in which the author was celebrating the different ‘voices’ she’d created for her characters. They seemed apt, but I didn’t read the book in the end – what put me off was the bongo drumming that accompanied the launch. Apparently intended to create some sort of punctuated ambience.

      1. LOL!
        Bongo drumming? HAHAHAHA.

        ::ahem::

        I enjoy writing dialogue more than anything else, though I always punctuate it with what the characters are doing.

        There was one scene where the MC was telling his best friend that his (the MC’s) wife was pregnant by another man. I had him sitting at a table in a diner, rocked back precariously on the two back legs of the chair. (I *didn’t* use the adverb! :D) I don’t know if anyone will catch the rocking back imitating what was going on inside him, but I enjoyed it… and I hadn’t planned it. I was living in the MC’s body while I was writing, and knew that he would have done that.

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