Let’s talk about how to write great dialogue. I’m a thriller author, so these principles mostly apply to novel writing, but they can apply to screenplays, short stories and other forms of creative writing.
But let’s start with a basic question: How would you define dialogue?
Conversations between characters? But what about when a lone character talks to herself? Is that dialogue? Or a monologue?
Must she be speaking aloud? Can we have internal dialogue? Or is that just a character’s thoughts?
Maybe dialogue is simply the bits of our novels enclosed by quotemarks. It’s certainly how Marlowe sees it. (Although, famously, lit-fic darling Sally Rooney and speculative fiction author Margaret Atwood have been known to eschew the pesky little blighters altogether.)
Let’s begin with the simplest and most frequent use of dialogue: to convey the words one character in our novel says to another.
We should be aiming for a style of dialogue writing that sounds natural. But it should also be helpful to the reader. It should help us understand the characters’ inner worlds, and outer behaviours.
We don’t simply want to overhear a boring conversation. We want to feel we’re getting inside knowledge, that we’re eavesdropping. Maybe it helps the reader solve whatever mystery lies at the novel’s heart, if it’s that kind of story.
If nothing else, dialogue gives the reader a break from purely narrative text. A chance to switch to a different kind of writing and hear voices other than the narrator/author’s.
Make sure your dialogue has more life than this
Where dialogue goes wrong
One of the most frequent complaints readers make in online reviews is about dialogue. Too wooden, too unconvincing, too leaden, too full of exposition. Basically, real people don’t talk like that.”
Often, the complaint arises because the author isn’t using dialogue to advance the characters, but, rather, the plot. They tell each other things the author wants us to know but that the characters know already. My editor Russel McLean calls it the “As you know, Joe…” style of dialogue.
You’ve read this kind of thing, I’m sure.
Leigh looked across at the big detective. “As you know, Joe, the perp was discovered inside the old lady’s apartment. But he couldn’t have gotten up there on his own because of his wheelchair.”
If Joe knows, why is Leigh telling him? He’s not. He’s telling us. Which is kind of weird, because we’re not in the book.
A variant on this boo-boo is when one character tells another a bunch of stuff the author found out on Wikipedia.
“As you know, Joe, since 1954, Brazil’s main export has been the coffee bean. Yet in recent years, surprisingly, the emphasis has shifted to semi-conductors, machine tools and crochet needles.”
I like the laconic style of dialogue, where the reader learns more from what is unsaid than what is said. Maybe in a scene like this.
Leigh slumped in his swivel chair. Joe looked up, took in his partner’s black eye and split lip.
“Forgot your anniversary again?”
Leigh touched his nose and winced.
“The dog got my steak. I got Julie’s right hook.”
A simple trick to make your dialogue more natural
Let’s move on to what for me is the central challenge in writing great dialogue. How do you make it sound like real people talking?
And I want to set you a test. Which of the following two characters sounds more human to you, Ffion or Jonathan? It may help to read the conversation aloud.
“Jonathan, it’s Ffion. We’ve just taken your wife into custody.”
“I am glad to hear it. I hope she did not give you any trouble.”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle. We’ll be interviewing her tomorrow morning. She said she wanted to talk to you about arranging a lawyer.”
“She did not! She probably thought I would just rush off and hire some City hotshot. Fat chance!”
“You don’t want to speak to her?”
“No. I do not want to speak to her! The next time I see my wife, it will be in a courtroom.”
I’m hoping you picked Ffion. Otherwise either I need to hire a writing coach or you need to catch the next flying saucer back to your home planet.
What makes Ffion the more natural-sounding character is that she uses contractions when she talks. It’s the simplest little tweak you can make to your dialogue to give it an authentic ring.
Uncontracted speech pretty much always makes dialogue sound clunky. But it’s not the only problem we encounter.
Listen to real conversations … but beware, too
The value of eavesdropping
Some novelists, in their quest for ever-more “true-to-life” dialogue, will earwig on strangers’ conversations, transcribe them and then reproduce them, or their equivalents, on the page. The trouble is, what we end up with is something like this:
“Well, you know, it’s like, how can I, just, you know, if he’s gonna just stand there and basically tell lies then, like, whatever,” Nat said.
“You should, like, tell him you’re not, you’re just not, I mean, you know what I’m saying, right? He’s like not gonna – he’s got to own it,” Fred said.
Oddly, this style of dialogue is real but it doesn’t sound real. It might be realistic, but what we should be aiming for is naturalistic dialogue. This, I define as having the feel of reality, but without reality’s rough edges, false starts, repetitions and peterings out.
It’s like the work of a truly great landscape gardener. They create a scene of perfect rural splendour. A stream twinkles beneath picturesque stone bridges. Lines of ancient oaks converge beneath the setting sun. A winding path up a gentle incline leads the eye to a peacock-blue and blood-red pagoda.
It’s naturalistic. But there’s no rainbow-glint of swirled oil on the water’s surface. The bridge hasn’t been defaced by graffiti. The oaks are growing in a straight line. And the pagoda is several thousand miles out of place. In other words, it’s not ‘real’.
Naturalistic dialogue, then, has that same curated style to it. Some colloquialisms. Some slippery syntax. A little bad grammar. But not so much that it interferes with the reader’s ability to decode what’s being said.
Let’s rewrite the exchange above between Nat and Fred.
“How can I just, you know, let him stand there and, like, basically tell lies?” Nat asked.
“You can’t. Just, no way. You should, like, tell him he’s got to own it,” Fred said.
Even this maybe too much for some editors, or some genres. In which case, there is a third level of decent dialogue that exists below the clunkiness threshold. I call it ‘novelistic’ dialogue. It’s still distinct from narrative, but it’s more economical still and largely shorn of the natural quirks of real speech.
Here are Nat and Fred for the third and final time.
“How can I just let him stand there and basically tell lies?” Nat asked.
“You can’t. No way. You should tell him he’s got to own it,” Fred said.
It’s generally best to keep your speech tags as simple as possible. “Said” is fine in the majority of cases. If you want to indicate the volume of speech, then tags like, “whispered”, “shouted”, “murmured” and “barked” are your friends.
But beyond volume, the justification for searching further afield for synonyms for “said” starts wearing thin.
Avoid adverbs, too, as in: “blah, blah, blah,” X said crossly/wisely/slyly. Why? Because your characters’ mood or intentions should be obvious to your reader from their words. If you have to explain with an adverb what your character is thinking, you haven’t thought hard enough about their dialogue.
Here’s an example.
Weak: “Please don’t listen to my advice. You must do what you think is best,” Joy said, passive-aggressively.
Strong: “No, no, no. Please don’t listen to my advice. After all, it’s not as if I know anything worth listening to,” Joy said.
Also, avoid ornate variations on the simple and serviceable “said.” They’re a distraction and often do nothing but confirm what the reader can already work out.
“I agree,”David concurred.
“Or we could stay at mine,” Liz suggested.
“Mount Rushmore’s the closest,” Cary volunteered.
There’s a case for using “asked” when a character asks a question. After all, we don’t “say” questions, we “ask” them. But even here, there’s a discussion worth having with your editor, since the question mark at the end of the bit of dialogue clearly indicates that it’s a question, rendering the tag, “asked” redundant.
Nobody wants to sit through a speech
In real life, people who drone on and on without even pausing for breath are a total turn-off. We start imagining ways to kill them, or possibly ourselves, as a more pleasant alternative.
And it’s the same with fictional characters. There are occasions when one of your characters needs to deliver a chunk of speech – maybe a district attorney delivering a closing address to a jury – but even here, it pays to find a creative way to break it up. You could break away and have a muttered exchange between the defendant and his lawyer, for example.
But in the main, dialogue works best when it is just that – conversation between two people. Keep each speaker’s utterances short(ish) and work on the interplay between them.
This is where you can have fun as people misinterpret each other’s speech, jump to conclusions, take offence and generally behave like the flawed human beings they are.
Here’s a simple trick for getting your dialogue pitch-perfect. Often when I’m writing dialogue, I speak it, trying to capture the character’s accent or distinctive voice. I’m almost acting the dialogue instead of writing it.
I find it helps me stay on point, sticking to phrases and words my character would actually use herself, rather than those I casually stick in her mouth without asking whether they’re right for her.
How Marlowe can help you with dialogue
One of coolest features in Marlowe, the artificial intelligence from Authors A.I., is the dialogue analyzer. It tells you what proportion of your novel is dialogue versus narrative.
And if you combine her analysis of speech marks and question marks, you can even start to get a feel for how much of your dialogue is in the form of questions. That’s great because in bestsellers, protagonists get asked more questions than minor characters.
Finally, a thought on how to improve dialogue in your editing process. Dedicate one pass simply to reworking dialogue. Ignore all the narrative text and only read through the stuff we started with: the bits enclosed by speechmarks. This way, you get into the flow of the characters’ ways of speaking and will find it easier to find that sweet spot between realism and naturalism.