Dialogue is one of the first things agents and editors look at when they receive a manuscript for consideration. If the dialogue is wooden, stilted, and artificial, agents will assume that the rest of the writing is amateurish, and the manuscript will be quickly rejected. Here are some concrete ways to make your dialogue more compelling.
A . Dialogue needs tension, conflict and emotion.
This one is huge. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.”
1 . Leave out the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” stuff, and cut to the chase. Skip past introductions and all that empty blah-blah small talk.
2 . Avoid long monologues or dialogues that just impart information, with no tension or emotion.
3 . Don’t use dialogue as filler – if it doesn’t advance the plot, heighten the conflict, or deepen the characterization, take it out.
4 . Include lots of emotional or sexual tension and subtext in your dialogue. Silence, interrupting, or abruptly changing the subject can be effective, too.
B . Loosen up the dialogue.
The most common problem with dialogue for new writers is that it often sounds too stiff and formal. Here are some easy, quick tips for loosening up the dialogue:
1 . Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Can you cut some words? Can you use more common, everyday conversational words, rather than some “correct” words? In conversation, use “bought” rather than “purchased,” “use” rather than “utilize,” etc.
2 . Use contractions. Change “I am” to “I’m”, “we will” to “we’ll” etc.
3 . Break up long, grammatically correct complete sentences. Nobody talks in complete sentences in informal conversations, especially in stressful situations. Use some short sentence fragments, and one-word answers.
4 . Don’t have one person go on and on about a subject. Fiction is not the place for a lecture or having somebody speaking at length about himself. It’s not natural, and your readers aren’t interested in long monologues! Have the other person interrupt to ask a question, give their opinion, seek clarification, change the subject, etc.
C . Keep it real!
Avoid having the characters say things they would never say, just to impart some information to the readers. An extreme example of this would be a character saying to his sister: “As you know, our parents died in a car crash five years ago.” Using dialogue to get information across to the reader is artificial and a sure sign of an amateur writer. Work the information in subtly, without having one character say something the other would obviously already know.
D . Give each character his or her own voice or speaking style. Make sure all your characters don’t sound the same (like the author). Pay attention to differences in gender, age, social status, education, geographical location, historical era, etc. Some characters, especially professionals, will use more correct English and longer sentences, while others will use rougher language, with a lot of one or two-word questions or answers. Men tend to be more direct and to the point in conversation, often using very brief answers, while women tend to use more complete sentences and often want to discuss their feelings.
Think about individual personality differences within that social group and the situation. Is your character: Shy or outgoing? Talkative or quiet? Formal or casual? Modern or old-fashioned? Confident or nervous? Tactful or blunt? Serious or lighthearted? Relaxed or stressed? Also give each character their own little quirks and slang expressions, but exercise caution when using slang or expletives.
© Jodie Renner, September 2010
Resources: On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels, A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon, Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella, Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb, Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
Check out these other Blood-Red Pencil posts on tips for writing good dialogue:
Jodie Renner is a former teacher and librarian with a master’s degree and a lifelong passion for reading, especially fiction. Jodie runs her own freelance manuscript editing business at http://www.JodieRennerEditing.com. She also runs a weekly BLOG with tips for writers. Jodie has traveled extensively, and loves traveling so much that she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”