Dialogue makes characters come to life and keeps readers turning pages. There are no heavy paragraphs when people are speaking—it’s white space galore, which is why the eye dances across it. That is, if it’s done right! For so many reasons, improving dialogue will make your novel better. After all, dialogue reveals character, moves the plot forward, shows backstory, and exposes relationships.
Remember, if the dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, give insight into character, or show relationships between characters, it should be deleted. If you keep this principle in mind, you will be well on your way to improved dialogue.
Tip #1: Less is more
Like I said, most people enjoy reading dialogue because it moves quickly. However, don’t forget that you’re writing a novel, not a play. Use other options in your writer’s arsenal, like narration, to tell the story too. Use dialogue when it’s needed—when it will show relationships or reveal character or plot the way no other tool will. Have your characters say what they need to say and close it out. As with all good things, you don’t want it to run on too long to the point of being repetitive and boring.
Tip #2: No small talk!
If small talk is boring in real life, it’s excruciating on the page. Remember, this is a novel, which means you only have to write the “good parts.” There’s no reason to include salutations, good-byes, “um’s,” or any of the other filler—unless you have a darn good excuse for doing so. Cut to the chase—your readers will thank you.
Tip #3: Pertinent conversations only
I know that writing advice always says, “Show don’t tell.” There’s a caveat. You always want to move on to the most interesting thing. It might be true that the detective places a call to the morgue to confirm that the body has arrived. But is that the most interesting or pertinent conversation? Can you get through this piece of housekeeping faster by narrating it? Save dialogue for a more interesting moment.
Tip #4: No info dumps, please!
Dialogue is not the time to dump info. It’s the time to reveal information or move the plot forward, yes. But if there is knowledge between both characters, then you probably want to tell the reader about it in narration. It’s just awkward (and totally 80s detective show) to start a speech with, “As you know….” Or have a villain reveal exactly how they “done it.”
Tip #5: Each character needs a unique voice
Every person has a cadence, way of talking, word choices, and ticks that make their speech unique. Your characters need to have these speech patterns too. Without using a dialogue tag (like so-and-so said), a reader should be able to figure out who’s talking because they recognize their voice. Of course, you’ll still use ID tags when needed, but that’s what you should aim for—giving each character an identifiably unique voice. It will go a long way toward making these characters feel real.
Tip #6: Body language is communication too
It’s useful to thinking of writing dialogue in a novel like blocking a scene for a play. What are the characters doing during this conversation? Are they saying what they’re thinking? What is the subtext? The subtext is in body language. Think about two characters who are attracted to the other, but for one reason or another don’t want to admit it. They could be having a run-of-the-mill conversation, but there’s suspense because of their heightened sexual tension. Add this in for a richer scene.
Tip #7: Remove the boring parts
Even if your goal is to write fiction that is the most like real life as possible, you are still telling a story. Even when it’s about everyday life, you are only going to include the “good parts.” You show the parts of life that are relevant to the story, and so it should go for your characters’ conversations. There’s no need for unnecessary salutations, small talk, or irrelevant information. If your characters are talking, it should be in advance of moving the story forward.
Tip #8: Read it out loud
To ensure that your dialogue hits all the marks, that is, it sounds natural and has distinct voices, try reading it out loud. Usually that will help you hear where a turn of phrase or a part of it sounds cheesy or awkward. If it does, try rewriting. Also see if that part would work better as narration. If you keep these tips in mind, you’ll improve dialogue in no time!