Some writers love dialogue. They find that they have a natural ear for how different characters speak, and that the dialogue races along, carrying the story with it. Others struggle over every word of a dialogue-heavy scene, feeling that the characters sound stiff and unlifelike.
Fortunately, there’s a huge amount of great advice on writing dialogue; I’m going to be quoting from three authors and books:
- Nigel Watts – Teach Yourself Writing a Novel (and Getting Published)
- Elizabeth George – Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life
- Robert Graham – How to Write Fiction (and Think About It)
The function of dialogue
I’m sure you know what dialogue is – spoken words between two or more characters. What I want to look at here is what purpose the dialogue serves within a story.
Watts writes that all dialogue should accomplish at least one of the following three things:
- Moving the story forwards
- Giving information
- Contributing to characterisation
George agrees that “in the most basic kinds of writing, dialogue serves the interests of moving the story forwards.” She believes, too, that better writing involves dialogue that contributes to characterisation, where “what [a character] says and how he says it tell us as much about who he is as do his actions”.
For George, however, really good dialogue goes far beyond this. She suggests that it can:
- Foreshadow events which are to come
- Make these events more vivid when they do arrive
- Give characters, and the relationships between them, life
Both Watts and George agree that dialogue shouldn’t only exist to give the reader information. This sort of speech invariably sounds clunky and unnatural, as characters often end up telling one another things that the reader knows they’d already be aware of. (“Your wife, who you married ten years ago…”)
Making dialogue sound natural?
One of the major struggles which many writers have is writing natural sounding dialogue. Characters often end up sounding stilted, wooden and unreal. George suggest that a good author “gives [dialogue] the look and sound of natural speech even while he knows he cannot make it a reproduction of natural speech.”
Here, George is saying that dialogue should have a certain verisimilitude – it should seem real to the reader, but it shouldn’t have all the umms, errs and false starts of real speech.
Try taping two or more people talking, or reading a verbatim transcript of a live show. You’ll find that the result is almost unintelligible. You don’t want your dialogue to be this true to life, though; unless, as George writes, your character “has a speech impediment, low-wattage brain power, synapses misfiring, or psychological problems, and the dialogue is being used to define his natural limitations.”
To make dialogue seem natural – without boring the reader to tears or making them think that all the characters are blathering idiots – try some of these tips:
- Use contractions (“don’t”, “shouldn’t”, “can’t”) unless a character is very stuffy or speaking in a very formal context.
- Let characters break off sentences, or speak in phrases rather than sentences. (You might think of these as verbless sentences – they’re great for dialogue.)
- Have characters interrupt one another.
- Use the occasional “um” or “er”, if a character is being particularly hesitant.
Giving characters distinct speech patterns
When writing dialogue, it’s important not only to make the words sound natural but to distinguish (and characterise) your characters by the way in which they speak. Graham writes that “dialogue is characteristic of the person speaking it”, and emphasises that the words a character says must seem “in-character” for the reader to accept them as real. Watts emphasises that “as your characters have different physical and emotional characteristics, so too should they speak differently.”
Some factors to consider when finding each character’s “voice”, as well as their personality, are:
- What sort of educational background does the character have?
- Where are they from (geographically)?
- How old are they?
- What do they do for a living?
All of these will affect whether your character is terse or long-winded, whether they use technical terms or layman’s ones. They’ll also determine the sort of slang that your characters use (none at all? Out-of-date slang? Offensive slang?)
One area to be cautious about – something which Graham, Watts and George all mention – is the use of dialect. If your character has a very strong regional accent, the reader will quickly get tired (or confused) if you attempt to spell everything out phonetically. As Graham says, “You don’t want your story to grind to a halt while readers work out syllable by syllable just exactly what has been said.” Try using a couple of regional words to give the dialogue the right flavour: a Scottish character, for instance, would use words like “wee” (meaning “small”) and “bonnie”.
Do you find dialogue easy to write, or is it one of your weak areas? Do you have any tips on writing realistic speech that reveals character, moves the story along and makes characters come to life?
21 thoughts on “Dialogue Writing Tips”
I love dialogue. It’s my favorite thing to write.
Good article, thanks!
I find that it can help, when writing dialogue, to write it without punctuation first, especially without awkward punctuation like inverted commas. That’s because they need thinking about and it’s a real left-brain thing to do. If I free myself from those, and just ‘listen’ to the characters as they interact in the scene, it can often flow for me. I just write what I hear, and go back and tidy it up for punctuation afterwards.
I went out today and recorded some conversations incognito to see how they would look after I transcribed them. Interesting exercise. I like the inspiration I find in your column.
Where are they from (geographically)?
I like this piece of advice, but for some places, it just doesn’t work. Take Kentucky as an example, then narrow down the field to, let’s say, Harlan County. Harlan is very small. However, if you take the time to stand (or sit) and listen to how the people speak there, you find very quickly you learn which parts of the county the people you meet come from — almost right down to which road up which “holler” (and in some cases that’s possible, too; I’ve done it).
I thought I was going to “be smart” and write “in dialect” when I started working on Midnight in 1996. Then I got out and explored the area where I lived a little more and learned the above. Writing in dialect would have been impossible. Besides, I know I find some dialect difficult to read – and what I was hearing would have been nigh on impossible to transfer to the written page. I had to learn how to be creative in describing “his slow country drawl” and such, and the whole dialect/dialog bit ended up being a pain in my rear end. I gave up on it. I ended up saying nothing about drawls or accents and leave it up to the reader to figure out how X character sounds.
This was a really useful article, just wanted to clarify my doubts, like when you give in a lot of dialogues, it just spoils the flavor of the story and it just moves you away from the story, but also it can just ease up reading a lot of text in the story, but just to do it the right way and natural way is really a tough job, for example could anybody give an example of the first set of dialogues between two young people who have had an arranged marriage, since it mostly happens in some parts of the world still, just could anybody help on this aspect any examples on such a dialogues?
If found this blog useful. today I recorded some conversations, was nice
it’s nice i mean it’s a very good & informative.
My first draft concentrates on dialogue as I “hear” the characters. Often I find the conversation starts to tell me more about the characters and creates plot points. The challenge is then to decide what parts tell the reader nothing useful and cut away or interupt the dialogue in the next draft.
1.discussion b/w mother and father regarding their child’s careless towards his academic front.
2.career counselling of a student by a counselor.
One line at a time.
I am currently doing a correspondence course in writing and am really passionate about writing. I am only starting out and find it a bit hard to SHOW my readers instead of just TELLING them what the characters are feeling, seeing etc..
Do you have any tips to overcome that?
I want to write a dialogue about………
you are a member of a space crew originally scheduled to rendezvous with a mother ship on the lighted surface of the moon. However, mechanical difficulties have forced your ship to land at a spot some 300 kilometers from the rendezvous point.
During landing, much of the equipment aboard was damaged. Survival depends upon reaching the mother ship. You must choose 5 most critical items available for 300 kilometer trip.
5 most critical items: one case of dehydrated milk, two 50kg tanks of oxygen, steller map of moon,s constellation, magnatic compass and first aid kid.
I enjoy writing dialogue, even if I may not be very good at it. For some reason I enjoy looking up words, phrases and syntax of various dialects for my characters.
My best piece of advice for writing dialogue is to read it out loud to see if it sounds natural. Even better, if you’re not to shy about it, get a friend to read it out (they won’t know the exact meaning you intended for it, so it may show you if you have been unclear).
its an pleasure for me to have this site it helps me in my negative points……..
write a dialogue between two friends about uses and abuses of exam?
i wanted a dialogue writing between me and my servant talking about various problems of my servant
Thank you very much for this, it has helped so much, but i need help to figure our how to get a man to sound old and have a posh accent. thank you again for the tips!
I love you!! This helped a lot. I also love that you posted this at 12 am.
It is a really distinguished subject. And I think that writing adialogue is not a difficult matter but the difficult is to be creative in your writing. Salam
Sorry don’t shoot me – A typo: Contributing to characterisation
it’s spelled: characterization
I find thinking about my characters and how they are different from each other helps too. Like Merryn doesn’t say much, but when she does it’s important.
Parcival he talks more, he’s also a bit if a closet perv so his internal thoughts on occasion (I make shure I don’t do it often.) can be kinda funny. Well, to me at least I don’t know what others think yet. Anyway, He is more chatty.
Han likes to mull things over, and also doesn’t talk too much.
Maxwell one of the antagonists is hard to shut up. xD
Cory she is a bit aragant and has a temper.
They are all fun characters. I really think things got better with their dialogue when I let them say what they wanted to say. Lol I know that sounds nuts.
Dialog went from stiff and lame to hard but fun. 🙂 I like doing dialogue now, and have to be careful not to have a chapter of nothing but. :p
I’m here to refresh on these tips as a writer friend is having problems with their dialogue as it’s way to stiff and formal for a teen character!