Dialog is a powerful tool in writing. It can set the tone of a scene, provide information to the reader in a concise manner, and showcase a character's personality, among other things. It's also one of the hardest things to do well. But when it's done right, your characters will come alive to your readers in a way that descriptive prose can never do.
In short, great dialog is conversation with all the boring stuff taken out.
Here are some tips to help you take your dialog from hum-drum to riveting. All examples are from my manuscript, "Sea Horses," edited by K. Stieffel (www.kristenstieffel.com).
1. You don’t need most dialog tags. They’re invisible to the reader and jack up your word count. Also, simplify your tags when using them. Said or replied are best. Choose a more descriptive tag only when you want to draw attention to the words being said.
- Example: “Stop right there!” he shouted.
Also, when you have a description or action immediately prior to your character speaking, you don’t need a dialog tag.
- Example: The driver, a portly woman with brassy blonde hair beneath her navy blue cap, greeted Jack as he boarded the bus. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
In this example, we know it's the driver who is speaking.
2. Don’t be afraid to use contractions, especially in dialog. It’s how real people talk. They also interrupt each other and use incomplete sentences.
- Fun exercise: Be an eavesdropper! At a restaurant, listen to the people talking behind you. Don’t look at them. See if you can tell approximately how old they are. Are they close friends? Co-workers? Lovers? Is it a first date? Do you sense tension in their voices? Not speaking at all also says volumes.
- Fun exercise: Take your cue from movies. Watch the film When Harry Met Sally. Listen to how the two main characters (Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal) talk to each other, and how their conversation styles change as their friendship grows over the years. Some other movies with great dialog are You’ve Got Mail, Something's Gotta Give, and While Your Were Sleeping (the Christmas dinner table scene from this one is a classic.)
3. Avoid using narrative summary in place of dialog unless the actual dialog would run on at length and be boring. Keep the reader present in the scene.
- Example: “I’m fine. Really. I’m just a little forgetful these days.” He apologized again for waking him and said he would talk to him later. He didn’t hear Frank’s door close until he was almost to the elevator.
- Better: “I’m fine. Really. I’m just a little forgetful these days. Sorry for waking you. Talk to you later.” He didn’t hear Frank’s door close until he was almost to the elevator.
4. Insert “beats” (actions or gestures) to break up dialog. Beats anchor the characters to the setting and subconsciously allows the reader to pause. Long, drawn-out dialog without any breaks is tiring to the reader.
- Example: (Conversation between Karen and Jack) “My father loves my mom and our family very much. But he doesn’t know how to act in situations where he’s not in control. And right now, I think he’s angry and frustrated and grieving all at the same time because he knows there’s nothing he can do to help her.” She turned to face him. “Does that make any sense?”
The beat here is “she turned to face him.” It also emphasizes her next sentence and makes it stronger.
5. You cannot “laugh” a statement. Yes, I know. A lot of published authors do this. Not a major blunder, but still makes me pause and pulls me out of the story when I see it. Keep your readers in the scene!
- Example: “Did you bring me any presents?” Brooklyn asked.
“Of course,” Karen laughed.
- Corrected: Karen laughed. “So many the plane almost couldn’t take off!”
Also, note that in the corrected version, the laugh comes first, which is what we usually do in conversation.
6. A fellow writer once told me that one of my characters “talks too nice.” I asked her to explain. This particular character was a little rough around the edges. “But he talks like a choir boy,” she said.
She was right. Make sure each of your characters has their own distinct voice and style when speaking. A character from jolly ‘ol England might say “Ta-ta!” when telling someone goodbye, while a surfer dude from sunny California says, “I’m gone, dog!”
Get a visual of your characters in your head. Collect photos or cut out pictures from magazines of people who remind you of a certain character in your story and give them imaginary conversations. Read your dialog aloud. Think about your character’s level of education, age, where they’re from, what they do for a living, etc. Are they outgoing or shy? Prim or foul-mouthed? From a privileged background or the wrong side of the tracks? Remember to include regional dialect and accents. A person from the deep woods of West Virginia will sound very different from someone who hails from Boston.
- Fun Exercise: Study the following photographs. Pick two characters and have them meet in a coffee shop. Write out a conversation between them about their fondest childhood memory.
A homeless man from New Jersey
A twenty-year-old geisha from Japan
Queen Elizabeth of England
A cattle rancher from Texas
Stay tuned for more dialog tips coming soon!