How to write great dialogue

This guest post is by Maggie Sulc. Maggie is a playwright, dramaturg (I had to look that one up), and screenwriter from Texas, Tennessee, and, most recently, Toronto. You can follow her on her blog, Gladlybeyondaustinausten, and on Twitter (@austinausten).

You’ve hit that point in the writing process.

You’ve had that story or poem germinating in your head for a long time. You know the characters backward and forward from their biggest dreams to their pickiest pet peeves. Now all that’s needed to move the piece forward is for them to speak—and for you to write their dialogue—except the words aren’t coming. They are standing there tongue-tied and silent.

How do you find your characters’ voices? How do you write dialogue that sings?

How to Write Great Dialogue

Photo by Graham (creative commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.

I’m lucky in this case. I know now that I’m good at dialogue. This is a very a good thing considering I’m a playwright. But even after I’d written my first two plays, I didn’t count dialogue as one of my strengths. It was just what the form called for and that’s what my first two big writing projects had to be: plays.

Then a couple of years ago I wrote a short story for a fiction workshop. When we started the discussion on my story, the other students started giggling. “What?” I asked, nervous to be diving back into fiction again.

“We knew this one was your’s before we started reading,” they said.

How? Because of the pages of dialogue.

6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips From Your Future Literary Agent

I’m going to let you in on a little secret (the first of the dialogue tips I’ll be sharing in this article): dialogue is one of the first things a literary agent will check when evaluating the marketability of your book.

The reason is simple, really.

Dialogue instantly reveals your skill as a writer. Bad dialogue signals the work of an amateur who has failed to grasp the mechanics of speech. Good dialogue illuminates your characters, moves your plot forward, and develops relationships.

Dialogue is one of the first things an agent checks when evaluating your book’s marketability.Click To Tweet

Creating good dialogue is hard work. It takes practice and patience, but once you’ve mastered it, your credibility as an author will improve tremendously. Not to mention you will also pass the literary agent litmus test with flying colors.

So what triggers a literary agent’s ‘weak dialogue’ alarm? Here are six useful dialogue tips to help you avoid that formidable slush pile.

1. No explanation necessary

You are a lovely person and, because of this, you make extra sure that your readers understand what your characters are saying. Consider the following:

“That is fantastic news,” he said happily.

Look right to you? If it does, you have just fallen into a very common trap. In this example, you’re actually telling your reader about your character’s feelings twice. ‘That is fantastic news’ clearly conveys happiness, so why use the adverb ‘happily’ to reiterate this?

Explaining your dialogue can alienate and sometimes frustrate your readers. They’re intelligent enough to understand what’s going on, so don’t patronize them by highlighting the obvious.

Doing this also prevents your readers from getting to know your characters on a deeper, more personal level. If you tell them that your character did something happily, all they will know is that your character was happy, which means nothing. Consider the following:

“I can’t believe it!” she said.

In this example, I have not given the dialogue any explanation, which has achieved two things. Firstly, it has tightened up my dialogue so that the focus is now on what is being said rather than how it is being said (more on this later). Secondly, readers are encouraged to imagine my character’s surprise, which helps them get closer to my character.

If you find that your dialogue does need explanation, then frankly, something is wrong with your dialogue.

2. Banish those pesky ‘ly’ adverbs

The second of my dialogue tips is applicable to most of your prose writing, but it’s especially important for speech. More often than not, writers attempt to break the monotony of using the word said by replacing it with ‘ly’ adverbs (happily, sadly, angrily).

Writers tend to use ‘ly’ adverbs to smuggle emotion into their dialogue and, by doing this, they are actually smuggling in unnecessary explanation. A powerful dialogue conveys emotion through what’s being said rather than how it is being said.

If your character is sad, it is your responsibility to show this sadness and to show what there is about your character that makes him/her sad. Consider the following:

Marcy dabbed at the tear trailing down her cheek.

“I don’t think I can keep going,” she said.

Here I have showed the reader that Marcy is sad and have used dialogue to convey her emotion. Had I added, ‘she said sadly’ at the end of the dialogue, this would have instantly removed any chance for my readers to connect with Marcy.

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3. Keep your dialogue transparent

If you’ve written powerful dialogue, the last thing you want to do is draw attention away from it. Explanations and ‘ly’ adverbs disrupt the flow of your dialogue as they jump out at the reader and signal, if only for a second, that you are hard at work behind the scenes.

The Single Secret of Writing Great Dialogue

I’ve been on both sides of the screenwriting table in Hollywood. On one side, I’ve tried my hardest as a professional screenwriter to crack the many ghost codes — ghost codes as in they don’t exist — of writing a strong script. Concept. Structure. Pacing. Arc. Dialogue.

On the other side of the table, I’ve worked in Hollywood development as a studio script reader and story analyst. I’ve also read hundreds of more scripts through mentorships and as a competition reader and judge. All while trying to ingest the story and characters and see and hear them through my mind’s eye in cinematic fashion.

What has always stood out most in the scripts I’ve written and in those I’ve read is the dialogue — and the many variances.

You have high concept roller coaster ride scripts that use the dialogue to get through the exciting and sometimes harrowing sequences of action, mystery, thrills, scares, or hijinks. Where the dialogue merely works as a bridge to get you from one point to another.

  • You have period pieces that use the dialogue to place you into that frame of history by using the speech patterns of the time in question.
  • You have location scripts that use the dialogue to tell stories from different parts of the world — and sometimes beyond — by showcasing different languages, language barriers, or vernaculars.
  • You have small, quirky drama or comedy scripts that use the dialogue to convey the world, beliefs, and life perspectives of the characters.

And then you have variations of the above that utilize the dialogue as more of a stylistic choice where the dialogue becomes a more significant part of the script equation — taking on a larger role where the dialogue becomes a character of its own. Pulp Fiction, Juno, and Glengary Glen Ross are prime examples of this. And when many think of those types of films and the dialogue found within, the term naturalistic dialogue comes into play.

Naturalistic dialogue is a celebrated notion within the realms of screenwriting — the pursuit of creating dialogue that sounds real and organic. We’re meant to believe that when this type of dialogue occurs, the characters themselves feel more real and relatable for audiences. In short, many feel that this naturalistic approach is the answer to creating great dialogue.

It’s not.

Naturalistic dialogue is nothing more than an academic term. A label for something that really has no true definition. There is no such thing as realistic or naturalistic dialogue in film. It’s fiction.

How to Write Dialogue: Master List of Dialogue Punctuation & Tips

Learning how to write dialogue can be tough for some without the right guidance.

Which is why we started Fundamentals of Fiction & Story in the first place. We wanted to give writers the skills and knowledge they needed to take an idea and turn it into a bestselling novel (and even potentially a full-time career).

  • But unless you plan on writing a textbook, you must learn how to properly write dialogue—and use it correctly because yes, there is a wrong way to write dialogue (and we’ll get into that later).
  • Without effective dialogue, even the best plot or book ideas will fall flat…rendering your efforts for successfully publishing a book all but useless.
  • Because if the dialogue is bad…readers will put the book down (because dialogue is often what readers pay the most attention to).
  • But if you’re not sure how to write dialogue in a way that is not only natural, but also works as a catalyst within your book, the process of writing a book can be even more daunting than it already is.

You can’t write a book without dialogue—and you can’t write a good book without good dialogue (even if you’re writing a nonfiction book!).

  1. In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to write dialogue, including dialogue format, dialogue punctuation, examples of dialogue with grammar, and common dialogue mistakes to avoid.
  2. We’ll also cover, in detail, how to write realistic dialogue.
  3. Here are 10 tips for how to write dialogue:
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Ready to learn what makes great dialogue? Let’s get started.

Dialogue Rules All Writers Should Follow

Before we get into the actual formatting and styles of writing dialogue (along with some tips for making sure it’s good dialogue), let’s go over some of the common and universal rules for writing dialogue in any book genre.

Here are the main rules for writing dialogue:

  1. Each speaker gets a new paragraph. Every time someone speaks, you show this by creating a new paragraph. Yes, even if your characters are only saying one word, they get new paragraphs.
  2. Each paragraph is indented. The only exception for this is if it’s the start of a chapter or after a scene break, where the first line is never indented, including with dialogue.
  3. Punctuation for what’s said goes inside the quotation marks. Any time the punctuation is a part of the person speaking, they go inside the quotes so the reader knows how the dialogue is said.
  4. Long speeches with several paragraphs don’t have end quotations. You’ll see more on this below, but overall, if one character is speaking for so long they have separate paragraphs, the quotation marks on the end are removed, but you start the next paragraph with them.
  5. Use single quotes if the person speaking is quoting someone. If you have a character who says, “Man, don’t you love it when girls say, ‘I’m fine’?”, the single quotes indicate what someone else says.

Proper Dialogue Punctuation and Format

  • When it comes to book formatting, dialogue is one of the most difficult to get right.
  • It’s not that it’s especially complicated, but there are many different types of dialogue and many different types of punctuation (including when to use a comma, quotes, and even em dashes) needed in order to properly format it.
  • Therefore, it’s easy to get confused or forget which format you should use for which line of dialogue.

How to write great dialogue in fiction

Well-handled dialogue is one of THE essential ingredients of a good novel. And yet it’s something that many writers struggle with and even shy away from.

The trick to writing great dialogue in fiction is to make your characters’ speech carry the ring and rhythm of real-life conversations without actually trying to recreate them verbatim, complete with all the er’s, um’s, repetition and waffle …

Here are just some of the things that really great dialogue can accomplish in your novel:

  • It brings the reader right into a specific moment of your story.
  • It gives the reader direct access to the voices of your characters.
  • It gives direct access to the events of your story as they unfold.
  • It’s a means of showing your reader more about who your characters are.
  • It’s a means of conveying information to the reader.
  • You can use it to misdirect the reader.
  • You can use it to carry the story – moving your plot along snappily, and showing rather than telling as you go.
  • It’s a very direct way of showing conflict between your characters.
  • It enriches the texture of your story, breaking through the narrative voice.
  • It’s an agent for humour, drama, heartbreak and more. It carries tone and emotional content.

Here are some tips on how to write great dialogue in fiction – and what to avoid doing:

1. Don’t use any verbs other than ‘says’ or ‘said’ – and don’t use lots of adverbs

This is the writing tip EVERYONE gives when it comes to writing dialogue – but there’s a reason for it. It’s the moment to unlearn everything you were taught as a kid at school. Basically you don’t want a lot of ‘he expostulated’, ‘she contradicted’ etc.

Neither do you need people exclaiming ‘enthusiastically’, ‘vociferously’ etc. Dialogue is best when it’s purest  – see if you can make it stand without too much supporting furniture. Give the reader the bare minimum of ‘he saids’ – just enough so we know who’s speaking.

And sometimes try using a physical gesture or movement instead of a ‘Mother says’ to show us who’s speaking and what’s going on – eg:

How To Write Great Dialogue

Every writer needs to master the art of writing dialogue. In this post, we discuss how to write great dialogue.

Learning how to write great dialogue is a necessity. Modern novels are filled with it. More than 50% of your book should be filled with characters talking to each other. Beginner novelists are often afraid of dialogue and they should be.

Writing dialogue is complicated. An author has to give the impression that characters are speaking as if they existed in a real world without including the boring everyday conversations people indulge in.

Reality check

‘Real world’ dialogue is the kiss of death in a novel. Real life has no plot. Most everyday conversations have no point. They exist for the sake of appearances. They are made up of exchanging greetings and pleasantries. Small talk is just that and has no place in your novel.

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Only use everyday conversations if they become important at some point or if you are setting up an important scene that includes these rituals.

Writing tip: An interesting way to test this for yourself is to tape a series of conversations and write them down exactly as the words are spoken. You will find people ramble on. They repeat what they have said, they struggle to find words, their grammar is terrible, and they talk ‘at’ each other.

How do authors only include dialogue that is necessary?

One way is to read a variety of novels published in the last 10 years. Examine the dialogue. Good authors only include what is necessary for the story. Sometimes this means dialogue has been pared down to the minimum, but this is necessary.

Never include unnecessary conversations. Readers expect every conversation you choose to include to be significant. Unnecessary conversations are the red herrings of the dialogue universe.

[Must-Read: 10 Dialogue Errors To Avoid At All Costs]

Authors should remember that there are three reasons for including dialogue in a novel:

  1. Dialogue should move a plot forward.  Let your characters talk about plans, actions, and consequences. Let them give instructions and make introductions. Dialogue allows us to introduce conflict into scenes.
  2. Dialogue should reveal character. Every word your character uses shows the sort of person he or she is.
  3. Dialogue should provide information. Treat this one with care. There is a fine line between revealing important facts and boring the reader with details. Do not allow your characters to ‘tell’ in dialogue. Rather use a short summary.

If your dialogue does not fall into one of these, you should probably omit it.

Writing tip: Read your dialogue scenes to somebody. Ask them to tell you what they’ve learnt about the plot and character from the interaction. If they have learnt nothing, you may want to remove it.

The supporting act

Remember that people don’t just utter words when they interact. They act, they move, and they use body language – intentionally or unintentionally.

Two friends may walk or drink coffee as they speak. A young mother may jump up to prevent her child from crawling away. A woman may cross her arms as she listens to her husband. (You may find these body language cheat sheets I created useful.)

Writing Tip: Introduce a habit with dialogue. Your villain might flip a coin when he speaks. Your love interest might smoke when he or she speaks.

Add a thought or two

Remember that thought is also part of dialogue. Allow your viewpoint characters to have a thought or two as they speak. This adds to the richness of the interaction and it is realistic. Most of us think before we talk.

If you want, you could allow your character a short interior monologue before you start the dialogue. This could allow the character to sort out his or her thoughts.

Writing tip: Do not repeat what you say in thoughts in dialogue. Rather use this technique to add to the interaction.

Use dialogue tags

We use dialogue tags to show which character is speaking. The most common dialogue tags are ‘he said’ and ‘she asked’.

We must use them because they allow us to avoid confusing readers. Your readers will always know who the speaker is.

If we use them, we can break up long pieces of dialogue, insert an action or a reaction, and add body language.

Writing tip: Avoid using too many adverbial dialogue tags when you write. An adverbial dialogue tag is “when an adverb modifies the verb we use to denote dialogue. For example, ‘he said hastily‘, ‘she said gruffly‘, ‘they asked groggily‘.” Too many adverbs make us tell rather show.

Said

Novelists should ignore the many posts suggesting 50 words to use instead of ‘said’.

Said is perfect. It shows the reader who is speaking. and it keeps the reader focused on the dialogue.

When characters mutter, proffer, utter, cry, growl, and grin words, the author just looks silly. It’s also exhausting for the reader who has to wade through all the unnecessary verbs.

Writing tip: Read your dialogue out loud. Your tongue will trip over all the nonsense words. Remove them.

Accents and dialect

Follow speech patterns rather than misspelling words. It takes a dedicated reader to muddle through idiosyncratic vernacular. Add the odd foreign word to show the speaker is not English.

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