Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tips For Writing Effective Dialogue

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:

Apr 21, 2010 
Mar 29, 2010
Dec 28, 2009

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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.”


18 comments:

  1. Excellent list. I'm going to go through all my dialogue and see if I can loosen it up and make it sound more individual and natural.

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  2. It was interesting to read your comment about not making the characters all sound like the same person. The reason is this: recently I noticed a TV program in which all the females sound the same and some are children!
    After noticing I'm not able to enjoy the program anymore! Darn!

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  3. Thanks Jodie, I love to read books with more dialogues than description. That's why I tend to write stories with many dialogues too. It's good to know some of the tips. They would come in handy when I edit my own draft.

    My Darcy Mutates…

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  4. Thanks, Avril.
    And I know how you feel, Janet. I haven't noticed it about TV, but I'm a lot more critical when I'm reading fiction now. I notice little faults that I didn't used to. So reading isn't quite as much fun these days - except when I'm reading the most accomplished authors! (Or is it the ones with the best editors?) LOL

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  5. Thanks, Enid. I prefer to read dialogue and action over description myself - I think a lot of people (especially males, it seems) skip over the description if there's too much of it.

    So then the dialogue is really carrying the story and driving the plot forward, so it becomes doubly important to make sure it's authentic and compelling.

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  6. Very useful and informative post, thank you!

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  7. Jodie, you're so right about dialogue's importance in the story. I tend to skip over narrative if it's very long and go straight for the conversation because that's where I get the real sense of the characters. We writers need to keep this in mind when we get long-winded in "telling" the story and forget that "showing" it (including dialogue) is what makes it work for the reader. However, dialogue, like narrative, should never be used as an information dump, as you noted. Great post!

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  8. Thanks for the great advice. I just signed a contract to publish my eighth book, number nine's bogged down, and going to back to basics is helping me a lot. That includes your list. Especially since, when I write, I don't "see movies in my head" like most. I hear voices.

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  9. This is an excellent post, Jodie. I love writing dialogue, and then reading it back to see if it sounds natural or stilted. I think "D" is the most challenging part--making sure each character sounds different from the rest. It helps to put ourselves in the character and "act" out the parts.

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  10. Thanks for all your interesting comments, everybody.

    Patricia, I like that idea of putting yourself in the characters and acting out the parts.

    Michael - glad my post is useful to even seasoned writers like you!

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  11. Great advice, Jodie.
    It's time for me to settle in for some important rewriting and reviewing, so this back-to-basic info is timely for me. Thanks.

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  12. Thanks for the good advice, Jodie.
    I'll be going through my dialogue to see if it 'advances the conflict of the story' or if it 'deepens the characterization'.

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  13. I've been mostly writing nonfiction and a bit of creative nonfiction. I'm trying my hand at fiction for the first time right now, so this stuff helps a lot.

    Thanks!

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  14. Interesting comment about television and characters sounding the same. I notice that more if I am only listening and not watching. I often work a jigsaw puzzle while TV is on and all of a sudden I realize I no longer know what character is speaking because he or she sounds just like the last one. Making the voices distinct really is a challenge.

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  15. Excellent advice, Jodie and thanks! Writing dialogue is far more complex than stringing words together! It presents a great opportunity for the writer to portray the feelings and emotions of the characters.

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  16. Excellent advice, Jodie and thanks! Writing dialogue is far more complex than stringing words together! It presents a great opportunity for the writer to portray the feelings and emotions of the characters.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Excellent advice, Jodie and thanks! Writing dialogue is far more complex than stringing words together! It presents a great opportunity for the writer to portray the feelings and emotions of the characters.

    ReplyDelete

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