Dialogue feels like it should be easy — just write like you speak! — but it’s deceptively tricky. Not only is it challenging to write well, dialogue has a huge impact on your prose and it provides a key tool for pacing. No pressure, right? Fortunately, a few tricks of the trade can have you writing great dialogue in no time.
Cut unnecessary words – especially names
Many new writers overuse names in dialogue. Observe how you and others speak to one another in the real world. Most of us only use a person’s name if we need to get their attention. It sounds awkward when we use it as a filler word.
Names aren’t the only filler words to watch out for. Generally speaking, you should trim your dialogue to use as few words as possible. This also reflects our natural speech. People speak in short back-and-forths that build on one another. We don’t speak in detailed prose or like we’re reading from an essay.
Avoid clunky exposition through dialogue
Dialogue can be a great way to expose information to the reader — if it stays true to your story’s point of view. Characters should provide information in dialogue only if they need to — never because the reader needs it. Stuffing extra exposition into your dialogue creates a huge speed bump for the reader.
As you revise your dialogue, think about the relationship between your characters. What details would we expect them verbalize to each other? Be especially careful with married couples, siblings, best friends, and any similarly close relationships. These conversations build on a foundation of shared history and require very little backstory.
For example, I would say to my husband, are we doing a Florida trip this fall? I would not say are we going to go to Florida to visit your brother this fall like we have in the past? The latter sounds like I’m speaking for the benefit of an eavesdropper as opposed to having a normal conversation. Readers will pick up on this.
Use dialogue to create authentic tension
You may feel frustrated by this necessary sparseness of detail in dialogue. However, it can work to your advantage. Dialogue can pique readers’ interest with what you leave unsaid, which in turn primes the pump for future events in your story.
In the example above, what if you saw my inner monologue as I waited for my husband’s response? (Here the example veers off into purely fictional territory, by the way.) What if there’s a compelling reason I want him to suggest we skip the trip — a reason I can’t tell him? And what if he says, Yeah, I was assuming we would — why?
You can also create tension with offhand references to past events. Maybe you don’t see any internal monologue but you hear him sigh and say, We should, but I kind of don’t even want to go if Kate’s going to be there. Can we just say we can’t with the school calendar this year?
This reveals a great deal without bogging the narrative down with too much backstory. However, be careful with this sort of in-group dialogue. Similar to real life, too many insular references on the page will frustrate and alienate readers.
Use adverbs and dialogue tags sparingly
When we first learn to write, we tend to use a lot of adverbs and dialogue tags. For example:
“What do you mean he’s not here?” Sam bellowed.
“I haven’t seen him since last night,” Sally said meekly.
Contrary to what many of us were taught, the word said will do just fine most of the time. Words like exclaimed, yelped, trilled, and intoned can distract readers and make your prose feel overwritten.
Likewise, you don’t need to name the speaker after each line of dialogue. Do so as often as necessary to orient the reader and no more. Decrease the need for repeated [character name]said dialogue tagging with well-placed descriptions of character actions. For example:
Sally shrank away from him. Her hands felt for the wall behind her. “I — I haven’t seen him since last night. I swear.”
The key is to immerse readers in the action and help them forget they’re reading at all.
Read it aloud
You really can’t get around reading dialogue aloud during the revision process. Speak the lines to find spots where your words don’t flow quite right. Note where you run out of breath, stumble, or lose your way. If it doesn’t sound natural coming out of your mouth, it won’t feel natural to your readers, either.
Try to get into character a little bit, too. Each of your characters should have a unique, authentic voice. Without overdoing it, you should make sure they don’t sound too alike. Pay attention to generational differences, social class, and anything else that might differentiate your characters. The best way to know if you got it right is to read your dialogue aloud like a script. That’ll help you identify all the potential snags listed above.