Dialogue is an incredibly crucial piece when it comes to storytelling, and this is certainly no exception for people who want others to recognize them as true writers.
In her article “Razor Sharp(ening) Dialogue,” freelance editor and literary agent Janice Hussein reveals what audiences want when reading dialogue.
“Dialogue should communicate and entertain,” she begins. “It should be dynamic, brilliant, and fresh. It should seem authentic, and have variety, great pacing, purpose, and conflict. Dialogue is both what is said and how it’s said. It is a means to an end (emphasis in original).”1
Understand up front that the communication that takes place within a book will not be exactly the same as in real life. People stutter. They start saying something they didn’t mean to and go back and correct themselves. They clog up their speech with interrupters like “umm” and “uh.” While this may seem like obvious advice, don’t include these particular characteristics unless they will somehow add to your story in some way. Dialogue in your story should have a sort of balance to it between reality, entertainment, and education. Your dialogues need to drive your story forward, so make sure you don’t try to be too realistic, but also make sure your characters are talking about something important (which is another thing people in real life don’t always tend to do).
What else should you remember about dialogue? Hussein continues with eight keys points to consider:1
- TO MOVE PLOT FORWARD: As was said before, make sure your dialogue isn’t stalling your story.
- CHARACTERIZATION: Dialogue can reveal a lot about your story’s characters. Is he/she softspoken or blunt? Dynamic and extroverted or shy and reserved? Is he/she deeply religious or skeptical? Does he/she have an extensive or simple vocabulary? What kinds of values do your characters have and how do they react to the people to whom they are speaking? How do they feel about the conflict happening within your story and what do they want to do about it? These and other questions are important to consider in dialogue.
- TO PROVIDE BACKGROUND INFO FOR READERS: What has already happened to your characters in your story (or even before it)? Do they have family and/or friends? Are they educated, and if so, from where? Is one character from a different region than your other characters? If so, what’s the region like? Individually consider factors like these as well.
- FOR DESCRIPTION OF OTHER CHARACTERS: How does one character perceive the others?
- TO CREATE SUSPENSE AND BUILD TENSION: What’s worrying your characters throughout your story? What are their priorities? Why? Do they know an important secret that they share with someone else? Do they have certain questions about what’s happening and encourage another character to investigate further with them?
- TO DESCRIBE THE SETTING: Is there something unusual one character notices about where he/she is that reveals something to draw on readers’ intrigue?
- FOR PACING: Truly good dialogue is meant to speed up the pace, not slow it down.
- TO SHOW, RATHER THAN TELL: This might seem contradictory, but seeing as your whole story is one long narrative, the way to draw it out is not to reveal everything at once, and certainly not in a boring, straightforward way. Where’s the fun in that?
Hussein also continues with ten other points to consider about what NOT to do:
- DON’T REPEAT THE NAMES.
- DON’T OVERDO DIALECT. You want variation in your speakers to make them interesting, but not too much. Still be straightforward enough that you don’t confuse your readers.
- AVOID ADVERBS WHEN POSSIBLE. There are a few circumstances in which adverbs may be necessary (like when the speaker’s intent is unclear without further clarification, i.e. “You insolent jerk!” She said, fearfully), but otherwise, let the context of the scene and dialogue do the work. Substitute adverbs with powerful nouns and verbs.
- REPETITIVE ACTION AND NARRATIVE TAGS: Keep alike tags few and far between.
Consider these examples:
“Don’t toy with me!” She snapped, pursing her lips at him.
“Why not?” He said, his facial features contorting into a twisted smile.
“Because I don’t like it!” She retorted, gritting her teeth.
The same could be said for “as” phrases:
“Don’t toy with me!” She snapped as she pursed her lips at him.
“Why not?” He said as his facial features contorted into a twisted smile.
“Because I don’t like it!” She retorted as she gritted her teeth.
Eve rolled her eyes and sighed. “You’re such a coward.”
Brandon looked at her, wide-eyed. “What makes you say that?”
Eve frowned and crossed her arms. “Because you always back down whenever things start getting rough.”
5. DON’T OVERDO THE DIALOGUE ITSELF. Your story should be a balance between characters’ actions and words, and not too much of either.
6. DON’T HAVE UNINTERESTING CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN YOUR CHARACTERS: Unless it somehow reveals something in the story, don’t have your dialogue filled with just your characters talking about the weather or what they thought of the baseball game over the weekend.
7. DON’T LEAVE OUT A DIALOGUE TAG BETWEEN THE ACTION OF ONE CHARACTER AND THE DIALOGUE OF ANOTHER.
“Is there any purse in this store that doesn’t look like a cheap knockoff?” Kevin sighed and went to the counter to talk to an associate.
Is Kevin really going to ask an associate about purses? Unless it’s an unusual fetish for this character, it’s more natural to assume the writer is referring to someone else. And make sure that as the writer, you make that clear.
8. DON’T HAVE TWO CHARACTERS SPEAKING IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH. With the exception of two characters speaking at the same time, start a new paragraph whenever someone else starts to talk.
9. DON’T WRITE A BUNCH OF MONOLOGUES. Dialogues are meant to be between two or more characters, so unless you are trying to convey silence from one character for some reason (which you should somehow specify anyway) don’t fill your story with monologues.
10. DON’T FILL THE DIALOGUE WITH BORING, UNNECESSARY ELEMENTS. Maintain good pacing and focus on what’s important to keep your story moving.
So what all can you do to improve your dialogue? Hussein suggests:
- Balance gestures and facial expressions in with actual words. This not only makes the dialogue more realistic since people tend to have reactions of some sort to what others are saying, but it also makes your dialogue more interesting and exciting to read.
- Pay attention to how people of your intended audience speak in real life in order to appeal to them better.
- Create conflict. Conflict builds intrigue, and piqued intrigue keeps readers flipping through your pages, even several pages of dialogue.
- Keep your speech realistic with how each character tends to talk.
- Keep your dialogue as short and sweet as possible.
- Read what you’ve written out loud and make note of how natural (or unnatural) it sounds to you. Keep in mind the setting for which you’ve set your dialogue scenes and the unique attributes of your characters themselves.
- Hussein says that dialogue is better than narrative for explaining background, history, and descriptions, though I would say it depends on the individual demands of your story. Some things would be better to explain through narrative (as long as you don’t go overboard) and some through dialogue.
- Input insinuations and foreshadowing. Oftentimes what isn’t said is just as important as what is, and sometimes even more so. Plant hints in one form or another along the way to help your reader follow along better.
- Make your characters say what is necessary to them, in the way they would say it. This is a bit of an extension off of point two.
- Go for straight dialogue as opposed to dialogue filled with tags when possible. Unless you want a slower scene, straight dialogue tends to pick up the pace-and the tension-in your story. And if you input tags, experiment with their placement first (beginning, middle, or end) to see which is best.
- Keep your dialogue tags simple and don’t put in too much variety with them. Typically, writers use the tag “said” the most frequently, and for a reason. Because of its simplicity, readers tend to overlook “said”, and therefore it doesn’t distract them like other tags such as “exclaimed,” “protested,” “demanded,” etc. The exceptions to this rule usually apply in the same way as with adverbs: if the speaker is conveying something other than what the words imply, or another exception is to emphasize a certain attitude, such as sarcasm.
- Balance dialogue in with narrative and action. Your writing, when finished, should be a perfect storm of all three of these elements.
Tag. Straighten. Hint. Inflect. Downplay. Have fun.
Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.
- Hussein, Janice. (Year unknown). Razor Sharp(ening) Dialogue. In Scott Francis (Ed.) 2013 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (pp. 26-32). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2012.