Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, April 4, 2014

Writing Dialogue

Dialogue adds life to stories. It’s one of the essential ingredients of fiction. Some writers excel at it. Some struggle. However, whether you’re good at composing dialogue or not, there are many things you can do to improve your technique. Here are a few ideas...

To improve your dialogue skills:

1. Listen to real people talk. Go someplace where lots of people congregate and eavesdrop, but be polite about it. If you sit down with a notebook or a book and turn your attention to those around you, it’s easy to hear their unique ways of speaking without being overt.

2. Put in a movie or watch a TV show and close your eyes. Without the distraction of the visual media, you’ll be more attuned to the dialogue and can observe how it’s done.

3. Pick a book that you think has good dialogue and just read the dialogue. Skip all the other parts.

4. Read Shakespeare, who’s a master of dialogue, or other plays. Plays are almost all dialogue.

5. Write your own story with dialogue alone.

6. Write a play.

While practicing and observing, here are some important things to remember when writing your own dialogue:

1. Just as individual people have vocal habits and ticks, characters should too. Does a specific character have a key phrase or word he uses a lot? Does your heroine usually speak in simple or complex sentences? Does she usually speak in complete sentences? Is he terse or wordy? Does she use lots of adverbs or adjectives? Does he use contractions? Slang? Double negatives? You get the idea.

2. Dialogue doesn’t have to follow all the rules of grammar. Rather, dialogue is meant to reflect the characters’ speech, personality, and emotions, and that doesn’t always translate into correct grammar, however, do try and make sure that your dialogue is understandable, if not necessarily proper.

3. Vary the construction of dialogue and their tags. A dialogue tag is that bit that tells you who is speaking. They can come before the dialogue, in the middle, or at the end. Most often, they come at the end, but varying their placing helps keep the section from sounding repetitive.

4. In dialogue tags, use “said” or “asked.” Refrain from trying to vary these words with things like “inquired,” “interrupted,” “complained,” “uttered,” or “declared.” Dialogue tags are meant to be practically invisible. They are things the reader should not notice. “Said” and “asked” accomplish this well because they’re so common, but the more unusual or complex an alternate word to these is, the more likely it will pop out at the reader. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever use something other than “said” or “asked,” but make sure you have good reason.

5. Also, only apply dialogue tags when their absence would make it confusing about who’s speaking. If you have two characters talking, for the most part, only an occasional dialogue tag is necessary. When more than two characters converse, tags become more important.

6. Only include dialogue crucial to the story. Fiction is not the time for characters to idly chitchat about the weather. Like everything else, dialogue must add to the story. It can add tension, reveal a new plot layer, deepen characters, or help establish setting. If it doesn’t do something like these, cut it.

7. Once you write your dialogue, read it aloud. Your ear will catch problems that your eyes would miss. Better still, get a friend to read it aloud with you. Together, you’ll catch even more. If the dialogue sounds natural and engaging, you’ve done well.

What other tricks have you found that help when writing dialogue?

Be sure to swing by on Monday for the next segment of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.


  1. I say it. Thinking dialogue is so different from saying it, and I put a voice to dialogue as often as possible. It helps, especially when writing from a guy's POV.