As With All Other Aspects Of Fiction, The Key To Writing Good Dialogue Is Honesty.
—Stephen King, On Writing
Well-written dialogue is a breath of fresh air. It can spark interest, spice up lengthy narration, give clues to a character’s background, and provide details crucial to the story. Getting it right, however, can be tricky, even for seasoned professionals.
We’ve discussed communication in fiction before, but today we’re delving deeper. Below are a ten simple guidelines to help you farther along the road to mastering the art of dialogue.
1. Dialogue must serve a purpose. If a conversation between characters doesn’t advance the plot, either fix it or remove it.
2. Separate each speaker by a new paragraph.
“After one person speaks,” the man began, “then what?”
“Then we move to the next line,” the woman answered.
3. Keep all punctuation inside quotation marks.
“Just like this,” she said.
“Or this!” he added.
4. Each character should have a unique voice.
a. If a character was raised in the South, an accent would be natural, so research the best way to convey that.
b. Was a character educated in Italy? Consider having Italian words infuse her speech.
c. Also remember that idioms change based on geography and slang changes with the time period.
5. Keep it natural. Let the setting and characters dictate the formality or informality of the dialogue.
a. Modern speakers tend to use contractions.
b. Victorian aristocrats spoke with politesse and less emotion.
c. Soldiers of all eras, locations, and even branches of the military have had their own jargon.
6. Don’t repeat. If you’ve said it with words, omit it in action (and vice versa).
Poor: “I’m so mad!” he said angrily.
Better: “I’m so mad!” he said, stomping from the room.
Best: He stomped from the room, slamming the door behind him.
7. Minimize the use of “said.” But don’t go overboard: no “opined” or “vociferated.” Rather, give the characters actions:
“Would you like dessert?” Anna asked.
“No, thanks.” James set his napkin on the table. “I’m done.”
8. Keep dialogue short. Almost no one speaks in pages-long monologues, and those who do rarely keep their audience’s attention.
9. Silence can be golden. Not every question requires an answer, and when a character doesn’t respond, that silence can provide more insight than even the best dialogue.
10. Break up conversations with narrative. This will keep the story moving forward. Jerome Stern, author of Making Shapely Fiction, makes the point that “dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouses, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs. When people communicate, they communicate with their faces, their bodies, their timing, and the objects around them. Make this a full conversation. Not just the words part.”
If these tips seem intimidating and you feel yourself becoming pessimistic about your ability to conquer dialogue, it’s time to look backward. Find a story you once set aside, incomplete, because you just couldn’t find the heart, time, or impetus to finish it. Compare it to what you’re writing today. Can you see how far you’ve come?
Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Gardens are not made by singing, ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.” Likewise, your capacity to create good dialogue can improve, but you must practice. Begin by becoming a student of conversation. Watch the body language of those around you when they’re speaking. Where do they pause? When do they stay quiet? What does their tone of voice tell you about their intent or emotional state? Look beyond the words; they’re only part of the story.
When you’re ready to tackle the self-revision process, be sure you’ve hit the mark with dialogue by reading it out loud. Does it flow and feel natural? Or is it forced and stilted? Listen. What do your ears hear that your eyes can’t see?