Writing dialogue that really works

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Dialogue can be amazing in a novel. It can make the characters feel closer, it makes the pacing more immediate, and it can reveal all sorts of things about characters without you having to work too hard.

But dialogue can also be terrible. Boringly, yawningly, cringingly terrible. So how do you make your dialogue work for you rather than against you?

Here's the question you have to ask: does my dialogue advance the plot or help reveal the characters?

If it doesn't do either of these two things, and ideally it should do both at once, hit the delete button as fast as you can. 

Here are some common dialogue problems to watch out for:

(Read below, or you can watch this first point on video.)

1. They're not saying anything new.

In this problem, the dialogue is simply the retelling of a lot of background information that the characters already know. It might go something like this:

Joe: "I can't believe you aren't unhappy about the way Tom is treating you. I mean, after everything you've been through together, and the fact that he married your sister, and you've practically been family for the last 30 years."
Sam: "It has been hard. And, although he and my father were very close for the ten years before Dad died, I still couldn't believe he was left so much money in Dad's will."
Joe: "Half of everything, wasn't it?"
Sam: "Yes, and as you know, he's now trying to cut me off from getting my share."

Yuck. Boring, boring, yuck, yuck. Don't use dialogue as a place to dump facts, back story or information you want your readers to know. And especially don't do it in full sentences.

Nobody talks like that. Okay, yes, doing this might help the plot, but it will do it at the expense of revealing the characters, who end up being shown as cardboard cutouts who don't have real conversations with each other.

How to fix it: Allow your characters to have a natural conversation about what's going on. Set them up in their scenario, and then sneak in the back to listen to them and write down what you hear. You won't get all the details, but you'll get hints, and sometimes, hints are enough.

 

2. Your characters indulge in small talk and greetings

Joe: "How are you, Sam?"
Sam: "Great, thanks, Joe. Yourself?"
Joe: "Yeah, good, mate."
Sam: "Alright. Well, see you around."
Joe. "Sure thing. Have a great day."

Are you bored yet? I am. This dialogue doesn't advance the plot. It also doesn't reveal anything about the characters. 

How to fix it: If the small talk and the greetings are important and serve a very particular purpose, perhaps to establish a manner of speech, or to make some kind of point, put them in. If not, cut to the chase and delete, delete, delete. Get the crucial part of the conversation on the page. We don't need the rest. 

More: How to write internal dialogue 

3. Speech tags are clunky

In school, we're taught to write using all sorts of substitutes for the word 'said'. 

"Oh no," he cried.
"Oh yes," she chortled.
"Never," he sobbed.
"Definitely," she cackled.

Sorry, kids. Things are different out in real-writer-land. It's 'he said', 'she said', 'they said' and 'I said' all the way, or no tag at all.

But, um, not like this.

"Oh no," he said, in a frightened way.
"Oh yes," she said, wickedly.
"Never," he said tearfully.
"Definitely," she said, horrendously.

But how are we supposed to indicate the way in which the words were said?" I hear you ask? Well, it's simple. We just put it in as a sentence. Watch.

"Oh no." His voice was high and shrill. She could hear the terror.
"Oh yes." She smirked as she moved closer to him.
"Never," he said. He shrank back into his chair, almost crying now.
She cackled with delight. "Definitely."

How to fix: Get rid of all the verbs that take the place of 'said' and swap them out for descriptions of your characters' tone of voice and body language as they speak. 

 

 
Writing dialogue that really works

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Like this post? We have a whole section on writing dialogue well (and other ways to keep readers turning those pages) in our Write Your Memoir course. Check it out here.

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