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How to Write Dialogue in Fiction

craft tips novel writing process starting to write a novel Feb 20, 2022
How to Write Dialogue in Fiction

From the desk of Katie Khan.

Have you ever read a book with a fantastic story, only to wish the dialogue was – well, a little better written? ‘The characters all sounded the same.’ ‘Nobody talks like that.’ Writing dialogue is an art-form, but thankfully there are some tried-and-tested methods and techniques you can use right now to improve the speech in your novel.

Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.
—Stephen King

There’s a popular myth that dialogue in fiction must sound natural, ‘like how people talk in real life’. There are key elements you should listen out for in how people speak in the real world – flow, syntax, regional colloquialisms. But good fictional dialogue is crafted to sound entirely natural in a made-up place, in a well-plotted story, said by imaginary characters. It is crafted to move drama on. This means it must obey the rules of the world in which it’s spoken – and not necessarily in our world. Have you noticed on television nobody says hello or goodbye when using the phone? It seems a bit rude, doesn’t it – and yet we don’t need it. We all know in real life you would greet a caller, but in heavily minuted scripts for television where every second counts, we don’t need the throat-clearings of expected social niceties. Get to the point, keep it moving, and don’t waste words. The same is true when writing a novel.

Reading any piece of writing aloud is an acid test, particularly when it comes to dialogue. There were writers I’d always admired who suddenly rang false when I spoke their words in our living room.
—Anne Tyler

How to write good dialogue:

  1. Give each character their own agenda
  2. Avoid exposition dumps
  3. Leave dialogue left unsaid (subtext)
  4. Use contractions
  5. Differentiate character voices
  6. Don’t overwrite accents and patois
  7. Don’t overuse names
  8. Clip your speech
  9. Use clean dialogue tags
  10. Go easy on adverbs
  11. Get to the dialogue as soon as you can.

Let’s look first at what I call the character psychology of dialogue, and then the prose techniques for writing good dialogue.

1. Give each character their own agenda.

The day I started writing better dialogue was the day I realised every person brings their own agenda to a conversation. Consider us, you and me, right now: I’m a published author who worked for a decade in the film industry (a very dialogue-heavy medium), imparting some tips I’ve picked up on how to write better dialogue. I’ve got a mental bullet list of points I wish to make. And you, in turn, might have your own observations and your own tips you’d like to share with me. Or you might wish to heavily disagree with me. If we were speaking together in person, the conversation would be led by me, making my points, with your interjections because you also want to make your points, and the conversation might descend, if you heavily disagree with my advice, into a bit of a tussle (as some of the best conversations do) or even into a power play. We both have our own agenda, and that's ideal. That's drama.

What we DON'T want to see in fictional conversation is a ‘ping-pong ball of dialogue’ being passed between characters.

‘Hello,’ she said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine. How are you?’
‘Good, thanks, very good. Isn’t it nice weather today?’
He smiled. ‘Oh yes, lovely. Now, I have something I need to ask you, Jessica…’

At what point did you fall asleep? I did at ‘fine’. Not only is this boring dialogue (nothing is happening), it’s also exceptionally dull when characters answer everything the other person asks, passing the metaphorical ping-pong ball between them. There’s a reason why this type of linear, back-and-forth rhythm lulls us to sleep: it’s predictable. It holds no surprises. There’s no reason to sit up and take notice.

Inject a little zhuzh into your dialogue by interrupting the ping-pong flow. Cut yeses and noes at the beginning of replies, use non-sequiturs (which we all do in natural conversation), and have characters ignore some of the questions laid out for them by the other person, because each character is bringing their own agenda to the conversation.

‘Hello,’ Jessica said, as he approached her table in the middle of the restaurant. ‘How are you?’
‘How long have you been sleeping with my wife?’

Ooh, now you’re talking.

2. Avoid exposition dumps.

Nothing teaches you as much about writing dialogue as listening to it.
—Judy Blume

Be honest with yourself, the writer, about whether a character is saying something they would actually say to another character in your novel, or whether they’re saying it for the sake of the reader.

Exposition delivered in dialogue kills dialogue dead.

‘Remember when we went to this lake as kids, and raced each other to the opposite side, and your mum was waiting for us on the shore and looked so angry that we turned around and swam back the other way. My swimsuit was blue and yours was red, we were out of breath and…’

I mean, I suppose someone might recount an entire memory like that... But for me, a lengthy anecdote starting ‘Remember when…’ indicates to me that the writer wants to tell the reader. Because the characters were both there. They know. And people with shared experiences who know each other well use shorthand. So, if they were by the lake, they could simply say: 

‘This place makes me think about that race.’
They both laughed softly. ‘Mum was soooo mad.’
‘I won, though.’
Yeah,’ he said, turning to her. ‘You always did.’

Saying less says more. How characters interact with each other – the amount of shorthand they use – is quite revealing about their relationship. 'Your red swimsuit.’ No clues, no context. Doesn’t this say so much more than the lengthy anecdote? Is it a nice memory, a sad memory, or a longing? Who knows? The reader can infer whichever they wish!

When we hear people talking to each other quite intimately, it’s human instinct to lean in. To eavesdrop. To wonder what’s being left unsaid. So make sure you’re not writing out a ton of exposition in dialogue for the sake of the reader, and instead write dialogue for the benefit of the character who is hearing it.

3. Leave dialogue left unsaid (subtext).

Good fiction is as much about what's on the page as what it inspires in the reader’s mind. Leave dialogue left unsaid.

A character confronted by something terrible and upsetting, such as the death of a parent, who responds simply with ‘thank you’ – makes my heart bleed for them. No wailing. No self-flagellation. Because what are they not saying? How deep is that emotional iceberg? The reader will have an inkling.

Likewise, a character who is simmering with rage, who says something short and tight rather than letting rip with their true feelings, makes for a fascinating character study. This would be the best time to deploy an 'I'm fine.'

It’s what is left unsaid that frequently gives characters emotional dimension.

4. Use contractions.

Depending where and in which era your novel is set, you’ll most likely want to contract your dialogue. ‘I am’ to ‘I’m’, ‘I will’ to ‘I’ll’, and so on. Using contractions softens the delivery and makes it sound less formal and stiff. This is how English speakers, on the whole, speak! We’re mostly a colloquial bunch!

Older generations might not use quite as many contractions, so that’s a good way to differentiate people of various ages in your novel. And of course, if you’re writing historical fiction, you’ll want to observe the conventions of the decade – but my caveat here would be to bear in mind your reader is reading the novel in the 2020s. Don’t go crazy on your thees and thous.

5. Differentiate character voices.

People from different countries often speak the same words but in a different order. Can you vary the syntax of a phrase to indicate the characters’ different backgrounds?

I like to ponder what two characters might call the same thing: a living room versus a lounge, a sofa versus a (not so common anymore) settee. This is all impacted by where they grew up (in the UK: north or south?), their social class (a peculiarly British obsession), their parents and childhood, and more. Knowing your characters well should illuminate the words they would use.

6. Don’t overwrite accents and patois.

Watch out fo’ addin’ a whol’ heap o’ abbreviations t’ indicate an accent in yo’ dialogue. These are distracting as hell and have the undesired effect of drawing attention to the falseness of the speech, rather than making it feel authentic. Anyone who’s read the multi-million selling Where the Crawdads Sing might have arched a brow at the way Jumpin’s dialogue was written in this style.

Instead, look for a distinctive word or turn of phrase that people from that particular region say, and use it sparingly. This means no peppering the speech of your Scottish character with ‘wee’ this and ‘wee’ that! Find something distinctive – in my novel, a Glaswegian character refers to a person he believes is an idiot as ‘a zoomer’ – and, honestly, I wouldn’t explain or translate it. Just move on: the rest of the sentence, paragraph or scene should provide the context.

George Pelecanos, who wrote extensively on the award-winning TV programme The Wire, discussed back in 2009 how the writers on the cult classic show specifically didn’t over-explain the dialogue or language featured in the Baltimore police procedural. ‘We wrote it so audiences would have to work at it!’ he said in an interview with The Independent. ‘We were not going to compromise in making it immediately accessible for everyone.’ That might sound scary – accessibility is good, after all – but remember the human instinct to ‘lean in’ when we hear people talking in shorthand… We’re nosy. We want to know. And readers want to be immersed in a world, especially a world we’re not familiar with.

7. Don’t overuse names.

In real life, we don’t say each other’s names repeatedly throughout a conversation ('hi Paula', 'thanks Paula', 'all right then, Paula') – and people who do it are quite ingratiating! (My estate agent does it all the time!) We know who they're talking to without having to say their name over and over, and so do they – cut repetitions where you can.

When it's fine to repeat a name is when a character meets another for the first time. There’s a reason ‘The names Bond. James Bond’ is so iconic: it’s a human habit to only grasp someone’s full name after two goes. ‘Do you mean Jim? Jim Hopkins from the bakery?’ Listen to how people talk to each other and mimic some of the natural flow and thought patterns. 

8. Clip your speech.

We all know the adage about scene writing: ‘get in late, get out early.’ The same is true for dialogue.

Remember, nobody needs literary throat-clearings and social niceties. Hellos and goodbyes: dispensed with. Any words you can cut, do. The reason ‘textspeak’ became popular with the advent of mobile phones is because we generally like to use as few words as possible. Humans are lazy.

My personal watch-out in dialogue is the word ‘that’. I don’t know what it is: perhaps a British school education drilled into us the need for the word ‘that’ as we drew conclusions in essays and science experiments? Not only do I chop the word ‘that’ from wherever I can in the narrative, I fervently snip it from every single place it appears in dialogue. Listen to how people talk. Say it aloud. We rarely say ‘that’! It creates a stilted rhythm.

9. Use clean dialogue tags.

You can’t talk about writing good dialogue without talking about dialogue tags. When reading early drafts, I’m sometimes distracted by the writer’s use of ‘she screamed’, ‘she yelled’, ‘she whispered’, ‘she mumbled’ and so on. They come thick and fast, and boy, do they detract from what the character is saying. 

It’s classic advice, but true. Use ‘said’. The repetition of ‘said’ doesn’t register for readers, it disappears. Use all others only sparingly. (In adult fiction, I mean once a chapter or less! Very sparing!) 

When the words of dialogue are well-chosen, the reader should be able to infer how they are delivered. ‘I hate you’ carries its own weight, doesn’t it? No need to shout, scream or yell it in the dialogue tag. 

Don’t go overboard in avoiding ‘said’. Basically, ‘said’ is the default for dialogue, and a good thing, too; it’s an invisible word that doesn’t draw attention to itself.
—Diana Gabaldon

Put a dialogue tag in the place where you would naturally take a breath, where a speaker would pause for emphasis, and don’t break up the flow of words or attributives that need to stay together to make sense.

Sometimes you don’t need a dialogue tag at all; you can break up chunks of dialogue with a character action, for example sitting down or looking up, so we know it’s them when they next speak. And in well-written exchanges, with differentiated character voices, it should be relatively easy to follow who’s speaking with a few sections with no attributions at all. Throw in a dialogue tag when you’ve had a couple of back-and-forths, so the reader knows who’s who, and drop them again until the next ‘she said’.

10. Go easy on adverbs.

A word, here, about adverbsshe said, softly. Did you catch that in my example above about the race across the lake? Did the fact they laughed ‘softly’ make you cringe? Some readers despise adverbs; how many your readers can tolerate is mostly defined by your genre. We tend to see more adverbs in commercial thrillers and romance, children's and YA; less in upmarket and literary fiction. But just as the use of ‘shouted’, ‘yelled’ and ‘screamed’ can become redundant if the words of dialogue indicate the delivery, an adverb, too, is often unnecessary – she shouted, loudly.

The best time to deploy an adverb is when the manner in which the character is delivering the line is surprising. Thus, in the middle of a loud argument:

‘I hate you,’ she said, quietly.

Much more menacing!

And finally…

11. Get to the dialogue as soon as you can.

Nothing makes me more claustrophobic at the beginning of a novel than an interior scene or uninterrupted monologue inside a character’s head which goes on for pages on end. I start chomping at the bit for some action: an external voice to break through the inner monologue. Where does the first character speak in your novel? On page one? Two? Or… page three or beyond?

Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.
—P.G. Wodehouse

I’d like to end with an addendum to Stephen King's quote right at the very top of this piece. Yes, good dialogue is an art form, for which some writers have a natural gift. But I want to assure you it can also be crafted. Writing great dialogue is a skill that can be learned. So have fun with it, watch films with fantastic dialogue and pop the lines you love into your phone notes; eavesdrop in cafes and out on walks; copy out sections of dialogue by your favourite novelists and try to break down why it flows so well.

Fictional dialogue isn’t real life, but when it works inside your story world, it sure sounds like it is.

Happy writing,
Katie 

 


 
 
 

Katie Khan

Author Tutor at The Novelry

Katie Khan is the author of two speculative fiction novels. Her debut novel Hold Back the Stars was translated into 22 languages and is being adapted for film by the producers of Stranger Things. Katie tutors writers tackling speculative, science fiction and fantasy as well as YA fiction at The Novelry.

 

 


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