Dialogue is tricky-tricky-tricky! IMO, it’s the most important part of any story. It’s the lifeblood of a character. The beating heart. What comes out of a character’s mouth is more engaging than their internal monologue (for me, personally, as a reader). Not only that, it’s a true window into their soul. It’s weighty. It’s powerful. It’s EVERYTHING.
Dialogue can make or break a story. It’s important to get it right.
Dialogue can be used as a tool to emphasize a character’s personality. If a character’s dialogue doesn’t agree with who they are as a person, the character will come across as contradictory. And by this, I don’t mean the content of their words but how they present them, the style, manner of speech, etc. Because every character is different, there’s no “correct” way to write dialogue. It should be a reflection of the person speaking.
However, there are some general rules that can be followed when writing dialogue. These rules have more to do with the mechanics of it and not the content of what a character says. Content is specifically relevant to the book itself. That’s something I can’t help you with, since it’s totally different for every book.
He said. She said. He exclaimed. She shouted. He cried…
There are countless dialogue tags that can be used to illustrate the way a character is speaking. I would recommend using them sparingly. A simple “said” or “asked” usually suffices. You should TELL not SHOW. By this, I mean, let the reader know how a character is speaking by their choice of words, use of punctuation, and overall tone. Not by the tag (if you can avoid it). Word choice within a dialogue string can be far more illustrative than using “shouted,” “exclaimed,” “cried,” etc. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use those options. Just, don’t use them all the time. It can get too repetitive.
You might worry that using “said” can be repetitive. It’s actually…not. Most people’s eyes slide right over it and they don’t think anything about seeing it used more frequently in lieu of other more flowery descriptors. Yet, it still does what it needs to do. Think about the dialogue tags next time you read a published book. Think about how they’re used. How often your eyes slide over “said” without you thinking much of it, even though it’s still doing the job.
When should you use dialogue tags? They aren’t necessary after every dialogue string. Trust me, the less you use them, the better. But don’t cut them out so fully that it becomes confusing as to who is speaking. Firstly, changing paragraphs between each dialogue string when switching characters helps. Never, I repeat, never put dialogue strings with two different characters in the same paragraph. I’ve seen this done before, and if done properly, it’s okay, but usually only for a very short string, and I still recommend avoiding it if you can, especially if you’re a new writer. This rule, like all rules, can be broken. But you shouldn’t break it unless you’re experienced enough to know how to do it successfully.
If it’s a conversation between two characters, you can usually forgo most of the name tags. If it’s between three or more, start adding more tags, but just enough to avoid confusion. If you’re clever enough to give each character their own unique way of speaking, you can use fewer. I would argue that putting a character’s name after every single tag, denoting who is speaking, gets really old really fast. Like, annoyingly so. I’ve actually ditched books for this reason, when a character’s name gets written over and over and over to the point where I’m annoyed at seeing it so repetitively mentioned. It pulls me out of the story.
Now, when it comes to denoting a character through their dialogue strings without tags, you can give them unique speech trends. For example, all humans have words they tend to use a lot. Taletale speech habits are a great way to distinguish who is speaking. If you have a character that says “like” all the time, it’s easy to know it’s them speaking.
“Like, don’t you, like, want to get something to eat first?”
When I was a teenager, I many of my friends used “like” in every other word in their sentences. That was a speech element unique to them, that differentiated their speech from others. So if you hear a specific element in their speech, you don’t need to add their name and a tag after their dialogue string. Readers will know who it is.
This brings me to speech styles, which deserves its own category.
People have their own unique manners of speaking. I don’t mean accents. Though, yes, everyone has those too, and if you can incorporate certain accents into your dialogue, that’s great. Especially slang. Though, it’s not necessary. What I mean is, word choice. Go-to words. “Look here,” someone might frequently say when trying to explain their point. “And whatnot,” is another one. I used to find myself saying “and whatnot” a lot when listing things out.
Think about your characters. Think about the telltale speech quirks they might have. This will help make them unique. It helps differentiate them. One author told me she keeps a list of unique words her characters use, and tries to implement those when she can, to help differentiate character personalities. I loved that Idea and will try to start keeping lists for mine. Usually it’s just something I have in my head.
Also, wordy vs short. For characters that aren’t “talkers” and don’t hold long conversations, you can show this by using the “less is more” technique. Have those characters speak in shorter, brief sentences. I especially do this with my male characters because statistics show women tend to be more wordy than men. If it’s a wordy, long-winded character, longer sentences that have more comma usage might work. Avoid run on sentences though, as that will get tedious for the reader.
How much is too much? Should you have big blocks of dialogue? And then big blocks of action sequences? Should you mix the two? What about the characters themselves? Their emotions as they speak?
I like to have a good balance of everything. If you just have two characters standing still and talking, that can get boring and keep the action from moving forward! However, if there is something super important and weighty that they’re discussing, sometimes you want 100% of the focus on what they’re saying and everything else comes to a pause. It’s also important to TELL and not SHOW. If a character is upset, they will do things with their body language as they speak, not to mention that their manner of speech will probably chance to match their emotions. Make sure you incorporate these telltale signs of emotion in during your dialogue blocks.
For incorporating emotional signs, I recommend using The Emotion Thesaurus. I keep it next to me as I write. It helps keep physical reactions fresh and unique. You don’t want a character running their hand through their hair every time they get frustrated. That gets old, even if it is one of their go-to behaviors. You don’t want a character frowning every time they’re upset. That gets old, too. There are other physical signs and The Emotion Thesaurus has lists and lists of them. It’s my go-to book. I keep it with me as I write, sitting on my desk.
When writing dialogue, be aware of the tone; that’s part of your balance too. If it’s a heated, rapid-fire conversation, don’t pull the reader out by dumping other stuff like internal monologue and explanations in between dialogue strings. That brings down the intensity. You can use a single sentence here and there to help with any back-fill, but use it sparingly. Only the most important facts at this point.
If it’s a slower conversation, something weighty and detailed, you can use a bit more explanation in between dialogue strings, to back-fill. But don’t get so long-winded that the reader forgets what’s being said in the conversation. That is one way I judge if it’s “too much.” I don’t like dialogue interactions where a character says something, and then it’s followed by a whole paragraph of backstory, and by the time the next character speaks, I’ve already forgotten what the other character asked. I noticed this is done in the From Blood and Ash series. As much as I love that series, I found myself flipping backwards by the time the next character would speak, just to remind myself what question they were verbally answering.
You want a good balance of “doing” and “speaking” and “thinking” and “back-fill” when it comes to dialogue. But you also need to be aware of the situation your characters are in, and the kind of tone or mood of the scene. Are the characters sitting around the fire having a chat? Are they in the middle of slaying monsters? Are they out for a walk? Are they eating a meal? Are they exploring a secret location?
Use the events of the story to help guide the type of dialogue techniques you employ.
With my own writing, I prefer dialogue-heavy. What I mean is, I don’t like a lot of internal monologues inside a character’s head. I’d rather have my characters SAY what they’re thinking to illustrate my points to a reader. It’s more engaging that way. So my balance tends towards more dialogue and less paragraph blocks. I also write dialogue a lot faster than I write context. Context is slow-going for me.
Context can get boring really fast.
But, this is just my own personal preference.
No one can tell you what content to use. There’s no recipe for it. You can master the mechanics and still struggle to have powerful dialogue, or dialogue that doesn’t quite hit the mark. This comes down to practice, life experience, and wittiness. Most of us know someone who always has the perfect comeback, or the perfect thing to say during a conversation. Whether it’s witty responses that make us laugh, or heavy statements that make us think.
I love Elizabeth Bennett’s dialogue in Pride and Prejudice. Everything out of her mouth is so smart and witty, so thoughtful. She always has great things to say. It’s part of why I love her character so much!
The best way to improve dialogue content is…dun dun dun…through practice! There’s no substitute for doing something repetitively until you’re better at it. Over and over. Not just writing it down. Speaking it in your head. Have conversations with characters inside your mind. I love doing this. It helps me to get to know what my characters might say or think.
Another way to improve is through reading!!! You can better understand how to craft good dialogue when you’re learning from other authors. Find your favorite authors and read through their dialogue. Study how they balance it. Study what words they use. Study their dialogue tags, how often they use them. Study the content discussed in the dialogue.
You can also improve by paying attention to dialogue in movies and TV, studying character interactions, what they say, how they react during conversations.
Finally, if you’re really struggling with dialogue content, read your dialogue out loud. As you’re saying it aloud, think about the content. Does it sound like something someone would actually say??
The Act of Writing Dialogue:
My recommendation is, try not to over-think it. Write out your dialogue. Do it. Get it down on paper. This first stage, just get your point across. After that, go back and enhance it. The most straightforward way to judge your dialogue is reading through it. Once your draft of it is written, you can remove or add dialogue tags. You can tweak dialogue strings. You can add or remove context. You are your own editor here.
Don’t worry about getting it perfect on the first round. Dialogue takes soooo much tweaking, massaging, and thought. I prefer to get it down, then think about what I wrote later, while I’m doing chores, think about what the characters said. Then I open my dialogue the next day, read through it, and see if it aligns properly. I make tweaks. Then I let it mellow some more. Maybe I’ll open it and fuss with it a third day in a row.
If you want to know whether your dialogue is good, simply read through it! Give yourself some credit! You can definitely judge what you’ve written, but do it in an unbiased way. Does it sound good? Does it sound like something you’d read in a published book? Are you engaged while reading it? Are you bored?
Maybe you’re still unsure??
If you’re not certain whether your dialogue lives up to other books, whether it’s “good,” then maybe you need to hone your skills a bit more. That’s okay! Writing is all about growth. If you’re uncertain about your dialogue “sounding good,” that’s a sign you aren’t reading enough books. It’s often the case that aspiring authors aren’t reading enough, but reading great dialogue is how we LEARN to write great dialogue. Most of us learn by example. How can you solve a math problem if you’ve never seen the equations used in examples during lecture? Stephen King says that aspiring authors should be reading 70+ books a year. *jaw dropping moment here* That’s a lot. I know. But this is what will saturate your brain and program you to read and think and write like an author! Isn’t that what you want? You learn how to write good dialogue by reading good dialogue. Over and over and over and over and over until it’s literally engrained in your brain.
Okay, that’s about it. I really hope you gained some insight here. I absolutely LOVE writing dialogue. Character dialogue interaction is my absolute favorite aspect of writing. Hopefully as you practice it, it will become yours too!