Writing Dialogue that Works

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Meaningful dialogue is a tricky skill to get right. Too much and it becomes meaningless fluff. Too little, well, unless your story has a character in complete isolation, why are you avoiding dialogue? Practice these tips in your next writing project to help you strike the right spoken word balance. 

The purpose of dialogue:

  1. It can move the plot forward. Every interaction between characters through a spoken interface should further the story towards a climax or a conclusion, even in a small way.
  2. It can reveal something about a character that was previously unknown. Hopefully, you’re not head-hopping. Characters can use their words and conversations to let the reader in on their thoughts and feelings. This is wonderful, especially if you’re using a limited POV like first-person.
  3. It gives the reader a sense of the relationship between characters. You can flavor the conversation with any of the following tones as clues: casual, formal, tense, jovial, loving, spiteful.

Avoid chit chat.

First and foremost, you do not need greetings and salutations every time two characters meet. That’s ridiculous and should be cut out right away. Fast forward to the point, and you should have a point. Otherwise, why are they interacting at all? 

Keep your dialogue tags to a minimum.

When I first started writing, I used as many different dialogue tags as I could such as: she whined, he mused, she laughed, he shouted, she grumbled, he whispered, …

Then I realized these distracting dialogue tags were ruining the flow of my conversations. They should be used sparingly. Think of them like spices in a meal, don’t overuse them or you’ll ruin the dish. 

There’s nothing wrong with said. Stick with that unless there really is a reason to shout or whisper.

You can also eliminate dialogue tags altogether for a rapid-fire conversation after you establish who’s talking. Here, I’ll show you:

“Give me the sword,” said Blane.

“No,” said Marcus. “You’re not ready.”

“I’ve proven my worth to the council.”

“They don’t believe in you.”

“Well, maybe I don’t believe in the council.”

After I’ve established that Blane is speaking only to Marcus, I don’t need to unnecessarily add the dialogue tags after each retort. It would slow down the pace and distract the reader.

Give each character a specific voice.

As I mentioned above, the tone of your conversations is important, so is voice. Find appropriate ways to relay your character’s emotional style of speaking and communicating. A shy character might mumble, or look at the ground when they’re speaking. Once you do this, be consistent with it. If your character is always wishy-washy, keep them that way unless you have a specific reason to suddenly make them bold. 

Avoid the info dump! Show us, don’t tell us.

As always, don’t let your characters pontificate, grandstand, or monologue. Just like the great Edna Mode’s policy about capesNo capes!–you should have a dialogue anti-info-dump policy–no speeches! 

And, as always, show, don’t tell. Allow your characters to give us crumbs of information through what they are not saying just as much as what they are. If a character is feeling an emotion, don’t say it with words, show us. Let me show and not tell you through two examples. Which one works better?

Sample 1:

“I’m just so sad right now,” said Jane.

Sample 2:

“I should’ve told her how I felt when I had the chance,” said Jane as she traced the rivulet of water running down the window.

Break the talk with action.

When you’re writing dialogue, you can break the sentence up with a piece of action–see Sample 2 above. I could’ve continued Jane’s words beyond the sentence and it would have looked like this:

“I should’ve told her how I felt when I had the chance,” said Jane as she traced the rivulet of water running down the window. “Why do I always push people away?”

I placed the second part of the dialogue in bold so you can see the addition. The action break gives you a sense of what the character is doing while they are speaking and allows the dialogue to have a bit more substance. 

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com

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