I don’t know about you, but one of the things I find hardest to write is dialogue. It’s so easy to overthink it, to start questioning whether it sounds natural or flows nicely – and as soon as you start doing that, you often find your dialogue actually starts getting worse.
So today I’ve got five tips for you that have helped me to improve my dialogue writing. Hopefully they’ll also help you!
1: Let Punctuation Do The Work
If there’s one thing that my amazing editor Louise changed in Mundane Magic more than anything else, it was my use of punctuation in dialogue. I would often have passages that looked something like this.
“It’s just tha-” she paused.
“Um,” he mumbled.
“I don’t know…” she trailed off.
What’s the problem? Well, the punctuation has already done the work for me. In the first line, using the dash has established that the character has broken off what she was saying. The fact that I then say “she paused” is an unnecessary repetition that makes it clunky and awkward.
The same goes for the third example where the ellipsis has already shown the trailing off, and the second example where “Um” has already established that mumbling is happening.
Let’s look at that exchange again, but letting the punctuation do everything:
“It’s just tha-”
“I don’t know…”
This flows better straight away. You don’t get caught up in the he said/she said of it, because it’s not there – but you’ve got a clear picture of how the characters are saying what they’re saying. It also means you’re showing rather than telling, which is – as we all know – incredibly important.
2: Avoid Repetition, But Not Too Much
We’ve all been there. You’re writing a long piece of dialogue, it’s been going back and forth for several pages, and you are totally sick of writing “said Alice”. Alice has said about thirty things in this argument, and having to say it over and over is just getting tedious. Sometimes even just using “said” feels awful.
You’ve also noticed that you’re structuring all the sentences the same. It’s always something like this:
“For goodness’ sake,” Alice said, “are you not listening to me?”
Occasionally without the lefthand dialogue, or without the right hand – but still, fundamentally, the same thing.
I have a couple of ways to fix this. Firstly, get a thesaurus. Sick of using “said”? Start thinking about words to replace it. “Alice remarked”. “Alice mumbled”. “Alice sighed”. Or don’t use “Alice said” at all; use “The furrow in Alice’s brow deepened”. That way the reader knows it’s Alice speaking, you’ve gotten some action across, and you’re not so worried that Alice is saying things constantly – even though she is.
However, be very careful not to do this too much, or to use words that your reader just isn’t going to know. As much as it might be fitting to have “Alice opined”, if no one knows what it means, you might as well not have used it. Not to mention that overusing the thesaurus can often feel very clunky.
The second way is to trust your reader. Let’s say you’ve got something like this:
“For goodness’ sake,” Alice sighed, “are you not listening to me?”
Ella gaped at her. “Not listening to – you’re the one not listening to me!”
“Oh, really? Well what exactly am I not listening to?” snapped Alice.
“For starters,” sighed Ella, “you haven’t apologised once. Have you ever thought about that?”
Something about it doesn’t feel quite right. You’ve said Ella and Alice’s names a lot now, and it’s just – again – getting clunky. But if it’s just Ella and Alice having this argument, then you can trust your reader to know who is speaking. Again, this is using your punctuation, your structuring and your characterisation to show them what is happening rather than feeling you have to tell them constantly.
Let’s look at that again:
“For goodness’ sake,” Alice sighed, “are you not listening to me?”
“Not listening to – you’re the one not listening to me!”
“Oh, really? Well what exactly am I not listening to?”
“For starters, you haven’t apologised once. Have you ever thought about that?”
Isn’t that better? That’s a lot better.
One more thing on repetition before we move on, though: sometimes you are going to repeat yourself. It happens. If it happens once or twice…that’s totally fine. It’s when it happens a lot, or when it has a big impact on the flow of things that you want to change it. Don’t feel that you have to go through absolutely everything with a fine-toothed comb; over-revising is real.
3: Sound it Out
Sometimes the hardest thing is to even work out if your dialogue is flowing or not. You’ve looked at it a hundred times now. You have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not, but you’re leaning towards not. Obviously one of the best things to do is to show it to someone else – but if you’re not ready to do that yet, you can show it to yourself in a different, very simple way.
Read it aloud.
If you’re somewhere where you can’t make noise, read it aloud in your head. Do the voices. Make it like a mini play for you in your mind, or in your room. This will help you to look at it anew, and to give you a good picture of whether it’s flowing well or not.
I actually find sometimes that doing this in my head is much better than doing it aloud, because in my head I can imagine the true sound of the characters’ voices rather than attempting to make them with my own voice. If I want to work out dialogue I haven’t yet got on the page, I’ll even close my eyes – daydreaming the scene into a mental film, then putting it down on the page.
Try it! You’ll be amazed how much of a difference it makes.
4: Don’t Say Everything
Another thing that can get your dialogue chops in a knot is the idea that you have to have the characters say absolutely everything, no matter how small or inconsequential it is. Abandon this idea quickly, for there lies madness.
Remember that you can describe dialogue as well as actually writing it out. It’s fine to say:
“We just need to pick one,” Kate said, to the agreement of everyone in the circle.
This has potentially saved you half a dozen people saying “yes”. This might seem obvious to do with this example, but you can apply it to smaller groups too. Three people talking and one of them agrees with the other? Save yourself a line. It’ll cut out a lot of the boring bits.
Of course, like much of the advice here, sometimes you might want to do it the other way – and that’s okay too.
5: Watch Better Dialogue
Lastly, for those days where you feel like your dialogue is absolute trash and you don’t even know what good dialogue is anymore – go and watch something. Play something. Listen to something. Ideally, pick something with great dialogue.
Not sure what has great dialogue? Don’t worry – my readers are here with some great examples for you:
“To me Tarantino is a master of dialogue especially in his earlier works. It adds a level of character realism.” – Ian
“Alexandre Dumas’ works. He was paid by the ~line~ so his novels clip along full of pithy, sharp dialogue, witty retorts and crisp one-line quips and insults.” – Simon
“For games I’m thinking of RPGs where you pick the dialogue options. Playing Pillars of Eternity lately had me slow down to actually read it carefully. And there are the often hilarious short dialogues between party members.” – Nina
These are fantastic suggestions, and a great example of how really good dialogue can be found in a whole bunch of mediums. My personal go-to recently has been Star Wars: The Old Republic, which especially in its later expansions has some incredible exchanges between characters that demonstrate both the economical use of language and the poetic.
I hope these suggestions help you kick-start that dialogue that’s started to feel stale. Let me know in the comments what your dialogue tips are!