Straight-talking Tips on Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is a confidence thing when it comes to the writing craft. I mean we all talk right? How is it that when it comes to putting words in characters’ mouths, some writers become a choking mess?

Dialogue is important, not only for the basics of storytelling, but to show how your characters react, sound and view the world, to move your story forward or reveal emotion. It enhances the reading experience, it breaks up text on the page, creates some white space and therefore draws the reader’s eye. How many times have you read a book and found your eyes skim reading towards a section of dialogue. Dialogue reads fast. When it’s done well, it’s a joy for readers and there is no better way to get them turning pages.

 So, firstly: Get to know your character. How can you know what they sound like if you don’t know who they are? Every individual person I know speaks differently, we all have our particular verbal tics. In order to write good dialogue you need to know what your character’s tics are. Then when you do, don’t overdo it, because, you know, too much of a good thing and all that.

Next, read your dialogue out loud. If the dialogue is difficult for you to say without passing out from lack of oxygen, then it’s probably not right for your character!

Try to avoid using verbs in your dialogue tags, such as: she barked, she sniped etc. If you’re feeling the need to use these, my opinion is that your dialogue is not doing enough work for you or that you are not trusting that it is. An example: ‘Look at you. You’re a mess. Whatever made you think you’d be good enough,’ he sneered. In this instance, ‘sneer’ can be removed, the sneer is evident in the dialogue. Trust yourself, ‘said’ is good enough. And if you can, try no dialogue tag at all.

Another common mistake is using dialogue to info dump or have a character explain a tricky plot point for the reader. This is dull, dull, dull. Don’t do it! I watched a movie over the weekend where the main character was trapped at gunpoint. He had a phone in his pocket that was connected to his would-be rescuers. As he was threatening his captor, he spoke loud enough so that his rescuers were able to hear his plan. We, the audience, were also able to hear. His plan was very clearly stated and yet a character on the other end of that call still reiterated the whole thing to his colleagues. EVERY SINGLE LINE! Do not use dialogue as a means to explain every turn of your cleverly, crafted story to the reader. Trust me, it reads clunky and the reader will see your little ploy a mile off.

Avoid over-realistic speech. If you were to record a conversation in a coffee house – I’m not encouraging you to stalk random strangers in public but if the mood strikes you – then transcribed that conversation, you would see that the conversation veers off topic frequently, is filled with pauses – like um, ahhh, coughs, sniffles and random interruptions. Not useful when writing a novel, right? When writing dialogue, you are creating an illusion of reality. You are using rhythm and cadence to convey the realness of your character’s speech. And each character should have a slightly different rhythm. This is what makes your dialogue sound realistic, even though actual conversations don’t always go like that. Like all techniques and devices used when novel writing, your dialogue should lend itself to your story. It should not take three pages of umming and awing over the foam on the top of your character’s cappuccino to get to the point of their speech.


Try to remember that when your characters are speaking, there is other action ongoing in your novel. Does your character’s location affect their conversation? Is it raining? Do they need to put up an umbrella or run to their car while they talk? Have your characters reflect their location, their mood or just their idiosyncrasies when talking. Try to avoid having them bat words over and back at each other. Again, with this technique, I will reiterate: as always, less is more.

All scenes in your novel, not only have an emotional effect on your reader but as your character lives through your story, they should also change emotionally and this should be revealed in their behaviours and especially when speaking. Think of the drama behind the scenes, what has your character just discovered in the plot: are they oblivious to the drama, have they just found out that their husband is a murderer or got a job promotion, or both! Keep in mind your character’s mood when writing dialogue. Are they distracted? Are they insanely happy so that when someone is trying to bring them down they don’t notice? Are they thinking about something else and therefore not concentrating on their boss when he’s telling them they need to pay more attention to their work?

Lastly, have fun with dialogue. Loosen up, shut down your internal editor and just listen to your characters. Dialogue can be a great way to get into a difficult scene, create a plot twist or to add a little humour to a dark segment of writing. Happy Writing!

Olivia Kiernan is author of Dawn Solstice

Follow on twitter: @LivKiernan

On Facebook: Olivia Kiernan (Author)


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