How to Write Great Dialog

This week on Firsts in Fiction, Steve and I discuss dialog: What it is, what it should be, and how to make it work. You may listen below. Remember, you can always find Steve and I on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher. As always, you can download the file here if you prefer.

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dialog_bubbleDialog is a easy to do poorly, but tough to do properly. To do it well, we first need to know what it is. John Dufresne had some interesting things to say about it. He first warns us that dialog is not a break in the action, rather it is an intensification of action. It should be used to escalate existing tensions, create new conflict, or ease/relieve older conflicts and tensions. I think he said it best when he characterized dialog as “people saying no to each other in interesting ways.” Lastly, and confusingly, he suggests that our dialog suggest naturalness without being natural. It’s an oxymoron, sure, but it helps us understand a few things about characteristics of good dialog.

So how do we make great dialog?

The first thing I’d say is this: don’t begin your book or story with dialog. If you’re a master of dialog, then go for it. But most of us aren’t. Most of us have to try very hard to come up with interesting dialog that will establish enough tension to launch a novel. Instead, think of what you do best (establishing setting, character, voice, etc.), and do that. Start with your best foot forward.

To create tension with dialog, try creating a contrast between what is said and what isn’t said. Have your characters think one thing, but then say something contradictory. For example, consider the tired cliche of the wife asking the husband, “Does the dress make my butt look big?” Of course, the husband will think, “Honey, it’ ain’t the dress,” but he’d never say it out loud. Let us get that glimpse into his mind before he follows up with, “That’s a good color for you, honey.” This dichotomy brings tension and conflict to a simple routine conversation.

Dialog is often about people not communicating. Hemmingway is fantastic at this. Consider his story Hills Like White Elephant. Here, we have two people talking about an abortion, but they never use the word. In fact, most of their answers don’t address the questions that are raised. This lack of communication adds another layer of tension to an already tense situation.

Another tactic is to limit (and/or eliminate) adverbs in dialog tags. Generally, all you’ll ever need for a dialog tag is “said” or “asked.” I’ll even allow “whispered.” Otherwise, it should be clear how a character delivers a line by the words in the dialog. Adding adverbs and flashy verbs indicates weak dialog. We don’t need, “I hear you!” he exclaimed wildly. We get the point. The melodramatic verb and adverb become neon signs flashing, “Look at me! I’m a good writer! I used lots of big words!” Instead, be subtle with your tags, so the focus of the reader is always where it should be: on the characters’ words.

In the same way, exclamation points also draw attention to themselves. They often make for melodramatic dialog. Instead, show how your characters are in control, not only in their actions, but also in their words. Fitzgerald says that using exclamation points is like laughing at your own joke. While some will insist that exclamation points are okay (if used sparingly), they often deprive us of an opportunity to further develop setting and conflict. For example, consider the following dialog.

“Reef the sails!”

The captain raised his voice and shouted through the piercing gale. “Reef the sails, men.”

If we’re take the simple example of “I hate you!” Here, the exclamation point makes the words melodramatic. Instead of a character in control, we have a childish character (think Anakin in Episode 3–a whiny little child). Instead, if a character says, “I hate you,” the simple, cold, words become understated, and therefore more powerful. Compared to Anakin, how often did Darth Vader scream or shout? Seldom, and that made him more ominous.

Using action helps attribute dialog to the proper character without having to use dialog tags: Bob stood beside the window and folded his arms. “They run around like ants, don’t they?”

While some worry that having “said” and “asked” too much becomes redundant. But it doesn’t. It actually becomes invisible to the reader. The reader notices it subconsciously, but otherwise, pays no attention to them, which allows them to stay firmly planted in the  story.

Verbal ticks are great to help develop characters and can allow us to avoid dialog tags. For example, whenever the reader sees someone say, “bro,” in my Hand of Adonai series, they know Aiden is speaking. He’s the only one who uses the word. Other characters have other verbal ticks. To avoid confusing the reader, I use these verbal ticks and actions to tag my dialog. In the same way, our characters must sound like our characters. If they’re a teenage high-school drop out from Philly, they’ll speak a certain way. If they’re a Harvard educated lawyer, they’ll speak a different way. His or her vocabulary will be marked by legal jargon and polysyllabic words.

If we think of dialog as a last result for relaying information to our readers, and use it as infrequently as we can, what little remains is going to be very strong, very powerful. The more dialog inflates, the more our manuscripts become bloated and (often) boring. Bad dialog kills books. In this regard, less is truly more.

Here are a few quick points to better your dialog:

  • Eliminate as many unnecessary words as possible. I call these filler words. For example, words like “uhm,” “well,” “gee,” “oh,” etc. are worthless. They don’t further the dialog, nor do they help to establish character (as we all use these words).
  • Eliminate routine exchanges of conversation such as “hello,” “hey,” “okay,” “sure,” “hi,” “how are you,” etc. Skip them. They don’t further the conflict or the characterization, so they’re unnecessary.
  • Eliminate any lines of dialog that exist only to further the conversation (“and then what?” “What happened next?” “Oh really?” etc.)
  • Characters should not say things to other characters that they already know. For example, “Hey Bob, how’s your mother who’s sick and dying of cancer?” Or, “Remember that time we robbed the bank and then ran out of gas and we were arrested but then we posted bail and everything turned out okay anyway?” These are elaborate ploys to get information to the reader, but it is so unnatural and awkward, it feels strained and forced.
  • Try not to use character names in dialog when only two people are involved. “Bob, how was your day?” “Well, Sally, my day was good.” Though we may do this in real life, it falls into the category of dialog not being natural. We already know who they’re talking to, so we don’t need the names in the dialog. They become redundant.
  • Avoid people saying the same thing at the same time. Unless it’s a surprise party, it feels forced, and it breaks the suspension of disbelief.

Ask yourself the following questions to ensure your dialog isn’t superfluous, overly wordy, or bloated and boring:

  • Is it brief?
  • Does it help us better understand a character?
  • Does it further the conflict or establish new conflicts?
  • Does it eliminate the routine conventions of conversations?
  • Does it depict the relationships among the characters?

That’s all we have this week. until next week, good writing.

1 thought on “How to Write Great Dialog”

  • this was a good one, but i don’t necessarily agree with your advice of cutting out words such as “exclaim” and such. yes, they can be neon signs, as you said, if they are used too much. but in a sense, using says or say almost every time with become boring to the reader. while the words themselves will add some emotion, words like exclaim will emphasize it in a subtle yet effective way. of course, this is just my opinion and the advice you gave was good

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