Writing Great Dialogue – 10 Key Elements
A key element in writing a great story, whether it be a novel, short story or a comic book is the dialogue.
This is sometimes overlooked and mistakes writers make when penning dialogue can cause it to come across as clunky, have it carry the weight of the story or sound wooden – as opposed to just flowing off the page and complementing the narrative.
When writing dialogue you are writing a dramatised version of how people talk and not a carbon copy of how people speak in real life, so be mindful that dialogue is there to compliment the story and engage the reader and the following points will direct you clearly on this path.
As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “What is Drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.” And this little gem of advice is great to bear in mind when writing dialogue.
See below for the 10 key points to writing great dialogue. This info is a summary taken from a workshop run by the Writers Initiative.
If you wish to attend the workshop and take part in the interactive discussions and exercises, hear in-depth details with quotes from writers such as Elmore Leonard, Lewis Carroll and Stephen King to name some of those referenced – then please do get in touch through the contact page or see the product page here.
- Dialogue must carry meaning
- Don’t put the weight of the storyline into the dialogue
- Less is more – Infer all you can
- Humans Talk in Slang
- We apply stories to what people say
- Dialogue shows us a person’s character
- Speak and Imagine the Conversation in Action
- The Invisible Layer
- Technical Notes on writing dialogue
- Most of all rewrite and don’t stress
1. Dialogue Must Carry Meaning: Dialogue must carry meaning that relates in one form or another to your story. It is often said that dialogue should carry the story forward, which is true in many cases, but as a general rule, this does not apply and is perhaps a misleading piece of advice. Dialogue of course is and can be used to move the story forward, but the key is that dialogue is much deeper than a simple tool to move things along. And this idea can become a bit of a crutch in your writing, so be careful to avoid this pitfall.
Dialogue has an array of meanings and can be used to wonderful effect without just carrying the narrative along. It can create mystery or tension, reveal little details, show the relationship between two characters, tell jokes or have fun. But whatever it does it should have some connection to the story.
2. One mistake that a lot of writers make is putting the burden of the story into the dialogue. Having your character speak chunks of exposition about what has or is happening, can slow down the pace, sound clunky and unrealistic. This is also known as the dreaded information dump. So avoid using dialogue to explain the story. A simple way to look at this is to demonstrate and show what is happening as opposed to telling the reader through the dialogue. So as your story progresses you should reveal subtle clues and hints towards events and plot points.
For example: Listen to the dialogue below
“James, I’m bored, what are we gonna do today? You wanna go to the old abandoned fairground?” said Paul.
“You know I avoid that place, it gives me the creeps and the last time I was there was a traumatic experience. I got chased by a crazy guy, who was dressed up in a mouldy old clown suit. Even worst I think he may be the one that carried out that double murder last week,” replied James.
This statement is a little clunky and holds the weight of the storyline. – Instead, consider the below.
“Wanna go to the old fairground?” said Paul.
“You know I don’t go there.” said James.
“Come on, it was like 2 years ago.”
“I don’t care – I ain’t ever going back there.”
“Please, I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Okay, don’t then.”
This is concise, flowing dialogue that provides all the necessary info and also shines a light on just a little part of the back story whilst creating suspense. This suspense has been added through the mystery as to what James is so bothered by and in turn this is another way to keep your reader engaged. The part about the clown has not been revealed yet, but will be over the next couple of chapters. As this story develops the events of the past can be pieced together and revealed in a far more engaging fashion through rumour, gossip, flash backs, reference, hints and so forth.
Lewis Carroll: “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
3. Less is more – Infer all you can
The writer Jerry B Jenkins said:
“You should cut text to the bone and although some writers have said that this does not represent real life, whilst this is true if you represent real dialogue it sounds like a court transcript and includes huge repetition and ar’s and um’s.”
In your writing make your dialogue count, have meaning behind it, make it playful or powerful, or subtle and mysterious. – And the best way to do this to only have what’s needed and leave out the rest.
4. Humans Talk in Slang
People talk in slang, clipped sentences, take short cuts, replace words with other words they forget, take pauses and often use metaphors. Along with using nicknames and not just for people, but also for objects and events in everyday life. Aside from this we banter a lot and make jokes with each other in light-hearted ways. Humour is a very important part of human interaction and it helps relieve stress and build bonds between people. So remember to add slang and humour into your dialogue where-ever possible.
5. We apply stories to what people say
We do not know what other people are thinking when they talk and people sometimes don’t say what they really feel. We all have an internal monologue that rattles on for most of the day and as part of this our brains are constantly constructing meaning from all the different input that enters through our senses. – Using this to make sense of the world around us, and create a narrative of all the things we think we know.
If you wish to read move on this subject, there is a good book called ‘The Science of Storytelling’ that goes into detail about how human beings are natural-born storytellers and use stories as a way to understand the world. But, in turn, it is natural human behaviour to often read further into what people say and try to extract meaning from their words. Often this is done incorrectly and can create the wrong idea about what someone else is saying or thinking. So always consider this when writing dialogue, and add into your story misunderstandings and people looking for hidden meanings in dialogue that are not there.
6. Dialogue shows us a person’s character
Dialogue tells a lot about a person’s character and the things they say are often dictated by their past, present or ideas about their future.
Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ – puts across the key notion that dialogue is what characters say and this, in turn, distinguishes who they are. Whether they are clever, mysterious, aggressive or passive to name just a few character traits. – Their vocabulary and communication style indicates and shows the reader the type of characters they have. Use dialogue to show character traits – as opposed to just telling the reader. So instead of writing that a character is drunk – you can write it so they slur and stumble on their words. Or if they are clever or optimistic – this will come across in the words they say.
7. Speak and Imagine the Conversation in Action
Perhaps one of the easiest exercises to follow that will help improve your writing of dialogue is speaking it out loud.
When you are writing or if you have written a section of dialogue make sure to read it out loud. By reading dialogue out you can detect errors, unnatural sequences of words and just get an overall feel for the writing. It can be very beneficial in doing this and make sure to get into a habit of this practice.
Dialogue after all is spoken word, so speaking your dialogue out loud should be one of the ways you refine and review your work.
Also, play out the scene in your head, and try to get in the mind of your character or characters. Feel how they feel and think what they would be thinking. Experiencing the world through their eyes can be a powerful tool for writing good dialogue.
8. The Invisible Layer
When writing dialogue and you wish to remember all the little details about how to effectively pen what your characters say to each other then this is a good statement to bear in mind.
This invisible layer in our minds dictates and navigates how we talk to one other and put simply, is our behavioural traits, our habits and our past.
All such things dictate how our characters should talk to each other in fiction (and also how we talk to each other in real life).
So whenever you come to writing dialogue think there is an invisible layer in the character that defines what she or he may say.
Do not approach dialogue logically and write it in a formal language with no emotion or meaning behind it. Dialogue at times can be illogical and driven by human nature. Instead, think of the invisible layer – this is where you find your characters and their dialogue.
9. Technical Notes on writing Dialogue
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Perhaps this rule can be broken at times, but it was first coined by Elmore Leonard and does make a lot of sense. Using other verbs can make the dialogue sound cheesy and is not necessary when you are showing emotions and action in your description.
- For example, don’t write: “I know,” she piffled out with little exuberance. Instead, write “I know,” she said. Her eyes dull and the words mumbled.
- Another piece of advice from Elmore Leonard. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
- For example: “That is not how you do it,” he said angrily.
- Instead write something like: “That is not how you do it,” he said and his eyes like needles pierced into me and his face was as stern as a frozen statue. This showing of emotions is far more powerful.
- Only use dialogue tags when the reader doesn’t know who is talking. This reduces the repetition of using he said or she said.
- Don’t have characters address each other by name too often as it sounds false.
- Always try to end with ‘said’ as starting with said can sound like a children’s book. Unless of course, you are writing a children’s book.
- Remember clear and good use of Grammar. Always use quotation marks when a character speaks and always start a new paragraph when the speaker changes.
- Finally, you can probably break all these rules and still write great dialogue, but the key is you break these rules knowingly.
Some of the rules above are learnt from Elmore Leonard and if you wish to see his 10 rules of writing then please see the page here.
10. Most of all rewrite and don’t stress
Do not stress about writing dialogue, and do not spend too long reading it over and over again. Once you have written it, and reviewed it and then rewritten it – Leave it for a short time and then read it over again and make any further changes. Then get other people to review it and also read it back to some listeners who will give you constructive feedback.
Elmore Leonard said, each day he was writing he would try and get something on the page as soon as possible, I believe he mentioned he would not put on a coffee until he had written at last a page and was getting into this writing. So he used this as a way to get over any initial resistance to start his writing each day.
Remember the more fun you have writing your dialogue the more engaging it will be to read. So keep it captivating and your writing will be great. Most of the writing is done in re-writing. So get your work down on to the page as soon as possible and then get to the task of refining it.
For an informative and short video on writing dialogue please see the video here from Jerry B Jenkins