How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

Dialogue matters.  A lot.  In fact, I have stopped reading many an otherwise solid novel due to sub-par dialogue, and I wanted to provide a friendly warning to authors out there: even casual readers can sniff out sloppy dialogue, and that could cause said readers to stop reading, which could mean they write a bad review, or worse, no review at all.  And what happens to the novelist then?  Well, that lack of reviews could lead the writer in question to quit writing and take up drinking, which could lead to the downfall of his marriage, which could lead to him losing custody of his kids, which could lead to more drinking and financial problems, which could lead to getting behind on the mortgage.  The end result: the writer ends up homeless.  . . .all because he wrote piss-poor dialogue. Tragic.

dialogue new

Anyhew, I’m in the midst of new writing project, and to remind myself not to screw up dialogue and end up drunk, divorced, destitute, and only seeing my adorable son Harry on every other weekend, I’ve jotted down 4 quick tips. Enjoy.

tension

Tip #1: Dialogue creates tension.

  • Speaking in completely reductive but useful terms, I lump all novel writing to do with tension-building into two broad categories: characters either DO things that create tension, or characters SAY things that create tension. So when writing dialogue remember to allow a character’s true personality to come out to play. If they’re mysterious, dole out their words carefully, and with utmost attention paid to timing. If they’re a smartass, dialogue is an ideal place to showcase that particular talent (yes, it qualifies as a talent; otherwise, I would have no discernible talent). All of these should help increase tension between the characters.

character counts

Tip #2: Dialogue builds a character’s backstory.

  • It takes a seasoned novelist to achieve what I’m about to suggest, but it can be done and done well: use dialogue to help round out a character’s backstory. Now I’m not suggesting nor do I advocate for information dumps; those take readers out of the story, which defeats the purpose. But if you can weave in memorable (and, occasionally, important) bits about a character’s biography then dialogue is wonderfully efficient place to do so. Plus, it saves time and space. Being lazy, I like that.

dialogue new newTip #3: Dialogue helps create separate and unique characters.

  • Every character, from the protagonist to a minor character with only a few lines, should have a distinct way of speaking. This helps brand them as unique characters, and it helps readers differentiate between characters, especially recurring ones who have lots of dialogue. Find ways to make every character’s speech memorable. Does a character stutter? Talk really fast? Speak in clipped phrases? Whatever, just make it memorable.

feelings

Tip #4: Dialogue, on occasion, reveals a character’s most important thoughts and feelings.

  • Again, a seasoned novelist will do this sparingly. Unless, of course, the character in question is someone who wears his or her heart on his or her sleeve and keeps up a constant monologue. But still, dialogue is a nice place to, on occasion, toss in how a character feels about an issue (say, the crime in question, for example). This will help cement a reader’s feelings toward the character, and it will also help other characters who are involved in the dialogue parse their own feelings.

talk

So how important is dialogue to you as a reader? Got any tips on how to create meaningful and memorable dialogue? Have any Italian sandwiches you’d like to send my way? (What, I’m hungry.) Would love to hear from you. Drop a comment.

 

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11 thoughts on “How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

  1. A very well done & important post, Max. Effective dialogue ranks near–if not AT the top–of what, IMO, separates the good/better novelists from the mundane. Bad, wasted, ineffective dialogue will kill a story quicker than any other technique a writer uses when writing a novel. Don’t waste words, make EVERY SENTENCE or PHRASE of dialogue count. If it doesn’t move the plot, add important information (NOT dumping!), or flesh out the character, CUT IT! As you pointed out, if a character rates a speaking part in your story, make damn sure he/she has his/her own voice. There’s little worse than a slew of characters in a novel all sounding like clones. Well done! 🙂

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  2. Agreed! Sometimes I pretend I’m writing a screenplay. I like the write, edit, write approach Michael talked about. I write and include everything, then edit, print and look at it again minus being in front of computer. Edit again. I use a lot of dialogue because I like it but I edit each chapter a number of times before having a finished manuscript and then edit again. I found the best teaching about dialogue in reading “The Sun Also Rises” over and over. Each time I saw more into what Hemingway left out. For instance I don’t recall him saying how big Bill was but I knew because his clothes fit the enormous boxer he described to Jake. That’s not dialogue per se but it’s an example of leaving out things. Anyway I don’t want to end up being destitute and drunk because of my lousy dialogue! Very nice post and very entertaining one. Good advice. Everyday I learn something new!

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  3. I have a writer friend who prints and reads only his dialogue as a last pass edit. He says if he can’t follow the story from the dialogue, he needs a serious rewrite. I haven’t tried it yet, but I am thinking of doing it for a couple of chapters and seeing how it flows. Always open to learning new techniques.

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  4. Hmm, might be worth a try, but I think it would upset the flow. I try to make each line of dialogue count for something–humor to show character or relationship, advance the plot, provide information without dumping; and all the points Max covered in his fine post. But hey, whatever works. You never know. Be sure to let us know how it works out if you try it. 🙂

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