7 must-obey rules for writing dialogue

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Dialogue can serve a number of purposes in fiction including developing character, building suspense and advancing plot. If written well, it engages readers and increase their identification with characters. Here are 7 rules for writing dialogue:

  1. Make your dialogue imitate life

One of the first things to remember about writing dialogue is that it should capture the essence of how people speak without actually copying the exact way that people phrase things. That’s because people often interject pauses and words like “um.” They may speak in a way that is understandable in a conversation but is difficult to understand when written. One of the best ways to make sure your dialogue reads well is to read out loud. This will help you see what in your dialogue needs fixing.

When writing about a particular place, you may want to capture a particular dialect, accent or way of speaking. It is rarely a good idea to try to recreate the speech exactly as it sounds. The key in writing strong, snappy dialogue is to choose a few notable features to stand in for any unusual quirks of language and aim to write speech that sounds natural even when it technically is not.

One thing we often do when we speak is fumble for words or ramble before getting to the point. Unless the point of a passage of dialogue is to show a character doing this very thing, this should be avoided as well. Even when a character does stumble or ramble in speech, the dialogue should demonstrate this without accidentally bogging the reader down in the parts of a conversation you find frustrating in life.

2. Avoid unnatural exposition

In an attempt to avoid info dumps, writers will sometimes try to convey the same information via dialogue. Sometimes, this is successful. It’s easy, however,  to make the common error of having one character tell the other something that character already knows or in a way that the character would never speak. Here’s an example:

“Ever since your brother, Richard, invented the invisible ray, people have been disappearing in enormous numbers!” Blanche exclaimed.

There are a number of reasons besides the silliness of the information that make this exposition seem unnatural. One is that Blanche tells the person she is speaking to the name of their own brother. This is obviously only for the reader’s benefit. However, the other information Blanche conveys is likely for the reader’s benefit as well. If huge numbers of people have been disappearing as a result of Richard’s invention, Richard’s brother is likely to have heard something about that.

People often do not say exactly what they mean, and this can be used to your advantage to make dialogue interesting:

3. Use implication and hidden meanings

7 must-obey rules for writing dialogue - be indirectIn their daily life, people often spend a lot of time not saying what they mean or concealing their meaning in their speech. Often, the real meaning behind what they are saying is discernible to either the other characters in the story or to the reader. Your dialogue will be much more interesting if it’s not just characters stating the obvious. Let’s take a look back at the earlier passage. Here is how it might be rewritten with unstated meanings implied:

“Have you heard from Richard?” Blanche asked.
He shook his head. “My brother and I don’t speak much.”
“Not even after—?”
“Especially not then.”
Blanche said softly, “All those people.”
“Have you finished running the reports?” he asked.

We still get from this exchange that one of the speakers has a brother named Richard. We also understand that they are both concerned but neither has to say so directly. Within the greater context of the story, the man’s refusal to speak of his brother and his abrupt shift of topic may indicate that he finds the topic too emotional to discuss. The dialogue flows more naturally and is more interesting if these things are implied rather than spoken.

4. Be vigilant with dialogue tags

Dialogue tags are phrases like ‘he said’ and ‘she asked’. Notice that in the above passage, there are six lines of dialogue and three tags. There are a few guidelines to keep in mind when using dialogue tags:

  • Simpler is usually better. Some writers maintain that “said” is the only dialogue tag you need. While most allow that other words such as asked or replied are also useful sometimes, beware of unusual or unintentionally funny dialogue tags, and make sure they are describing sounds people make in the real world. For example, can you describe someone as hissing a phrase that contains no sibilants?
  • Be sparing but not too sparing. In other words, you don’t need to tag every line of dialogue, but do so often enough that the reader can keep up with who is speaking.
  • Replace some tags with actions. This can be overdone, but in some cases, an action like “He shook his head” can replace a tag like “he said” if it conveys necessary information to the reader about the character’s feelings.

5. Make your dialogue do double—or triple—duty

As with other aspects of your fiction, your dialogue needs purpose. Over the course of a day, we have a number of mundane exchanges. Not every conversation is worthy of recording. However, your dialogue does not just need a reason to exist; again, like other elements of fiction it also needs to do more than one thing.

For example, this means that a great passage of dialogue does not just establish character; it also pushes the plot forward. This doesn’t need to be the case with every sentence spoken, but the overall conversation should do so.

You can learn a lot about eliminating unnecessary dialogue and making your dialogue do double or triple duty from other media:

6. Learn from TV and movies

What do you do when you make or end a phone call? Usually there are greetings and small talk. Now watch someone on a TV show or in a movie end a call. They almost never say goodbye, and that’s because doing so is wasted speech as far as writers for this medium are concerned.

Some TV shows, movies and screenwriters are particularly renowned for their distinctive dialogue. Playwright David Mamet has written several films, and TV writers Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon are frequently mentioned for their distinctive use of dialogue. The Wire effectively captured the vernacular of cops, drug dealers and politicians in the U.S. city of Baltimore while The Gilmore Girls, set in a tiny town in the northeastern United States, was renowned for its clever, rapid-fire dialogue punctuated with pop cultural references. Other acclaimed TV series such as Sherlock may not necessarily have their dialogue singled out as much for praise, but their success as TV shows points to a successful use of it. You can watch some of your own favourites and notice writers’ techniques that you can transfer to your own work. You may also tend to notice more when dialogue goes wrong in film or TV than on the written page, and when it does, notice why.

Writing for film and TV is not exactly the same as writing fiction, and sometimes passages of dialogue that work in one medium do not work in another. Even so, you can still study media that are heavily reliant on dialogue to learn how to improve your own.

7. Think about your characters’ voices

Rules for writing dialogue - character backgroundsAs you are studying TV shows and movies, notice as well that characters have individual voices. On shows with the best-developed characters and dialogue, there are particular lines that could only be spoken by the person who is saying them:

Think about your own characters. The first thing that affects the way that they speak is their background and demographics, but characters are much more than that. Does your character speak haltingly, or tend to use big words, or try to downplay their education? Does your character tend to be awkward and say the wrong thing or is your character inherently charming? If you read over your dialogue and find it interchangeable, you probably need better developed characters or dialogue that better suits the individuals.

Writing snappy dialogue is a key to creating engaging, realistic characters. Good dialogue keeps the pace of the novel up as well. Avoid awkward dialogue tags and overusing dialogue for exposition, but try to ensure that your characters all speak in their unique voices and that you capture the flavour of speech in the place where your novel is set. Both film and TV tend to rely heavily on dialogue, and you can watch movies and TV to find out what to do and what not to do in your own writing.

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  • Rebecca Anderson

    This is very well explained and covered things that would have been missed very easily in my own writing had you not pointed them out. I shall definitely be using this when I edit my dialogue throughout my draft. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Really glad this will benefit your writing practice. It’s a pleasure, best of luck with your draft.

      • Rebecca Anderson

        Thank you 🙂 Slowly but surely it is getting there!

  • Carol Federlin Baldwin

    Great one, Angela!

  • Tatiana Bickler

    Great post! I really liked the bit about the dialogue tags. I wince every time I see those done wrong.

    • Thanks, Tatiana! I agree – nothing like clumsy dialogue to ruin a good story.

  • Ryan O’Malley

    Point 6 is great and something I think a lot of writers could benefit from. If your dialogue doesn’t sound good aloud than its not really dialogue. Great job.
    Ryan S. O’Malley

  • rubyangel

    One of the best movies I’ve ever seen dialogue wise is Howard Hawks’ “The Thing (From Another World)”. That movie has skillfully done info dumps that aren’t obvious. All of the characters have distinctive voices. They interrupt each other all the time and the dialogue sounds totally natural, which helps build the tension leading up to the ultimate showdown.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Ruby. I must say I haven’t seen that. I’m intrigued to see how info dumps are used subtly as you say. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • ohita afeisume

    Yes,I really need to work on point 7-“Thinking about your Character Voices.” Factors such as age ,sex, religion,education, social status, race nationality, political affiliations, level of exposure/ travel and personal idiosyncrasies are some factors which may affect what people say and how they say what they say.

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