As an editor, I often come across books that tell a compelling story but are marred through unconvincing or monotonous dialogue.
Dialogue can be a difficult thing to get right — after all, people don’t tend to speak in florid prose or with the drama fiction often demands.
Unfortunately, dialogue is also one of the most important parts of your book to nail — flat speech can completely cripple your characters and drain drama from a scene.
Here are eight ways to write better dialogue.
1. Flout expected patterns
It’s important to keep your dialogue fresh, interesting and unpredictable, and a good way to do that is to avoid falling into expected and conventional patterns.
If you listen to formal conversation between two people, or listen to two self-conscious people who’ve just met for the first time, you’ll notice they tend to regress into safe speech patterns.
These will be question/answer patterns characterized by turn-taking and vanilla responses.
Think of how we greet one another:
“Oh, hello there — I’m Fred, nice to meet you.”
“Hi. Nice to meet you too. How are you?”
“I’m very well, thanks. Yourself?”
You should aim, in your writing, to flout these conventions.
Avoid straightforward alternate question-answer patterns, and where they do appear, insert cryptic answers or answer questions with questions. Refer back to events that have happened and to past conversations or explicit character features.
2. Avoid repetition
If I’m editing a manuscript and I see a writer repeat in dialogue information that the reader already knows as some kind of clumsy reminder, you’d better believe I cut it dead.
“But Steven, remember that Jenny’s dead!” Well yes, she died a chapter ago; Steve was heartbroken, I was shocked. It’s pretty unlikely either Steve or I have forgotten this fairly notable plot point.
This sort of repetition can be jarring and reminds the reader that he’s reading a book and is being led along a linear plot.
Unless you’re crafting some self-consciously postmodern meta-commentary about the impossibility of meaningful communication, repetition in dialogue is something you should be watching out for.
3. Vary your characters’ voices
Just like your mum speaks in a different way to your doctor, your characters should have distinct and separate voices.
A good way of introducing some variety is to give each character a unique vocabulary that they alone draw from. Although try to avoid clichés and stereotypes — Professor Conrad doesn’t need to speak entirely in four-syllable words for us to realise he’s an academic.
Phonetic spelling and irregular speech patterns and tics can also help here. Don’t be afraid to defy regular grammatical rules if it’s believable that your character would do so. Have some characters tell jokes, have other characters quote poetry and have other characters swear every other word. It’s all about believable variety.
A good way to practice voice is to interview your fictional character.
I know this sounds mad, but hear me out: By interviewing this character with some stock questions, you’re strengthening his/her/its opinions, personality, history and temperament. You’ll be surprised by what you’ll learn from this process, and those lessons will find a happy home in your book.
4. Use contractions
If you listen to two real people talking, you’ll swiftly realize that we as a species are pretty lazy.
We like to speak in contractions and in abbreviations (though this will again vary with the character). Instead of “he has”, most of us will say “he’s.” Instead of “what are you doing?” we’ll mostly say “what’re you doing?”
Now, this all depends on context — if your character is a vicar reading out funeral rites then he probably won’t be speaking like this. But bear in mind that in contemporary contexts, contractions are the norm and can make your speech more believable and fluid.
5. Read out loud
The best way of judging your own dialogue is to read it out loud.
If necessary, coerce a friend or family member to help you out by playing the other character in the conversation. Hearing your speech brought to life in real conversation will help highlight any awkward or stilted sections and will improve the flow of your writing to no end.
6. Pay attention to speech tags
If you’re unhappy with your dialogue, but you can’t point to anything problematic inside the speech marks, it might be time to look at your speech tags.
Egregious speech tags can often prove to be the toxin polluting your dialogue. When I see speech tags like “guffawed,” “gruffed,” and “shrieked,” they’re cut ruthlessly and replaced with old reliable “said.”
“Said” is often stronger because it doesn’t draw attention away from the character’s utterance.
Climactic and dramatic pieces of dialogue should stand alone; don’t let an inappropriate and garish speech tag distract from what’s important.
7. Seek advice
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of solid dialogue guides published by a number of successful writers and critics.
Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the most well-known, but there are plenty of others too: James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, Irving Weinman’s Write Great Dialogue, and William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style are all well worth your time.
There are dozens of free writing courses you can find online too.
At the end of the day, one of the best ways of learning to write convincing dialogue is to simply watch (and I mean really watch) other people talk. Go and sit in a coffee shop and, like an investigator or a journalist, eavesdrop on a conversation nearby.
Listen to the patterns, the vocabulary, the turn-taking and the quirks and tics of each speaker. Buy into the rhythm of their speech, and then move on to a different conversation. You could even use their conversation as a prompt.
These tips are all well and good but they won’t write good dialogue for you.
Without hard work, discipline and concentration, they’ll amount to nothing. So get out there: watch others talk, share your work, listen to feedback and most importantly, write.
What other tips and tricks do you have for writing dialogue? Let us know in the comments below.