Quinn's Tips & Tricks: Writing Dialogue 101

A Simple Guide to Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is a core part of any story- and writing a realistic, flowing passage of dialogue between multiples characters can sometimes be a pain in the butt. Still, there are a few simple things that can be done to make the process a little less painful- and, hopefully, make the dialogue feel more natural along the way. 

Dialogue is one of those things that you either love writing it or you hate it- and it can either make or break a story. Readers are naturally drawn to dialogue in stories, and it can be a very useful device for character building, giving bits of information, and setting up the world. However, with all that versatility, it's also the easiest thing to mess up and totally throw off a good story. Bad dialogue can deter readers and dampen the overall quality of the story- but what really constitutes "bad dialogue"?

It's more simple than you would expect: bad dialogue is just unbelievable. It makes you think people don't actually talk like that.  Your dialogue may be perfectly grammatically correct, and use fancy vocab words, or look clean and nice- but it can still be bad dialogue because people just don't talk like that. Quality of grammar/vocabulary does not automatically exempt a writer from having forced and unnatural dialogue- and dialogue is rarely ever perfect the first time around. And guess what? Bad dialogue happens to everyone.  It's just part of being a writer. Sometimes off days happen, or you think something makes sense when it really doesn't, or it seems like a natural flow while you're writing it, but really it leaves readers confused. There is always room for improvement, and there are always things you can learn about what works and what doesn't work for a story.

So, here are some things to think about while writing dialogue: 

  • Don't be afraid of writing bad dialogue 
    • I know I just went on this long rant about "bad dialogue" that can "ruin stories," but whether or not your dialogue is "good" is not something you should really worry about while working on first drafts. It is something to look out for while editing or in the finished product, but while you are in the process of writing, don't worry about anything. Bad dialogue, purple prose, faulty pacing- all of those things can and will be fixed during the editing process. A first draft should never be about getting everything perfect- especially dialogue. Even if your story is in its 3rd or 4th draft, and you are rewriting dialogue or adding in a new scene- just write it. Writers write bad dialogue all the time. Like I said before, it happens to everyone, and it's not going to kill you. The only thing "bad dialogue" negatively affects is the finished, published product that is in the hands of the reader. Even then, every reader has a different definition of "bad dialogue" when they are reading, and it's impossible to avoid criticism. 
    • Don't get caught in an endless loop trying to make everything in your novel perfect. Let your story have room to breathe.
  • Read the dialogue out loud and on its own
    • Take out everything else and read your dialogue like a script. Get some friends to help you if you want, leave in cues about how lines are spoken, and just act out the scene. The best way to test if the dialogue is natural and flows correctly is to hear it out loud so you can ask yourself: do people actually sound like this?  Hearing your dialogue out loud makes it a lot easier to find unnatural and forced segments, or other inconsistencies that may throw off the conversation. If it sounds unnatural to your ear, it will read that way. Of course, it is always good to read your work out loud while you are editing to check for errors, but it is also nice to have a read-through session that is focused specifically on dialogue. 
  • Keep time period in mind!
    • This is especially true if you are writing a historical fiction novel, or any story that is set on Earth in a different time period. People speak much differently now than they did in the 1800s, and they will speak much differently 200 years from now. Language evolves: slang is different, sentence structure is different, even social cues change over time. Do your research, and make sure your dialogue is believable for the time period you are writing in (if you are writing about the past). Read other historical fiction novels set in the same time period to get some ideas about how your characters would speak and act. If your character is from 1802, they shouldn't be using slang from 2017. Think about how awkward Shakespeare's writing sounds to us today. We may not talk like that anymore, but we used to, and if you're writing about characters in that time period, they will speak like that. 
  • Keep character in mind
    • Please keep the character in mind while writing dialogue. People talk differently- plus, this is a great thing to keep in mind while building the relationships between characters, as well as the personalities of your characters. Think about it: we talk differently to our best friend vs our parents vs our teachers vs strangers and so on. We may be more hostile to our rivals or people who have wronged us. And we all have different opinions on slang and vulgarity and all things in between. Know what your character relationships are before hand so their dialogue with each other makes sense. Are these characters in love? Are they rivals? Did they used to be friends, but had a falling out? The way they speak to each other will change drastically based on their relationship with each other. 
    • And beyond relationships, people just speak differently. Speech habits change from person to person, and people have different habits when it comes to slang, cursing, sentence structure, and so on. One character may curse like a sailor while another wouldn't be caught dead saying hell. One character may refer to every single person as "dude" or "bro," while another prefers first names, last names, or nicknames. One character may ramble on with little to no pause between thoughts, while another rarely says more than three or four words at a time. 
    • Even where we are from affects the way we talk to each other. People from Australia have a very different speech pattern than those from Brittan or America. Within America, there are different speech patterns and social cues. Someone from the South will speak incredibly different than someone from the West Coast, or the East Coast, or the Midwest. 
    • Age is also a huge factor. People within the same generation naturally create their own unique way of speaking to each other. A teenager is going to speak a lot differently than their parents, or their teachers, or even their little siblings. Don't make a two-year-old speak like a thirty-year-old, because a two-year-old wouldn't speak like a thirty-year-old (unless, of course, it is part of your story, but that's another issue entirely).
    • All in all, a reader should be able to tell which character is speaking based on the structure of their dialogue, subtle changes in speech patterns, and other literary cues.
  • Think about Dialogue Tags
    • I'm sure you've heard "said is dead" before (probably multiple times). However, I think that "said is dead" is often greatly misunderstood. Said is not dead in the sense that you should never, ever, ever under any circumstances use it in your writing. Said is dead in the sense that you can and should enhance your dialogue tags and think about what your character is thinking, feeling, or doing while talking. Sometimes said is necessary, but you can make your dialogue tag more effective by including more. And, dialogue tag doesn't always have to be something like "I said" or "he asked." An action can also work as a dialogue tag.
      • "W-What are you planning on doing to me?" I shrank back in my chair, feeling a shiver run up my back. My palms were numb from gripping the edge of the sharp rubber, but I couldn't bring myself to let go. A drop of sweat ran down the back of my neck and soaked through my shirt. My stomach churned and coiled as I began to realize the unavoidable truth: I wasn't getting out of this alive. Not this time. 
        All he did in response was grin a sickening grin. 
    • In this case, the character's actions in the scene give the reader insight to how the character is speaking. You can also gather that there is a power dynamic between the two, and there is a clear antagonist. The antagonist in the scene has the upper hand, and the narrator is in a nasty situation that is causing fear and discomfort. All this gives the reader a clue into how the character is speaking, along with the visual cue of the stutter on the word "what." 
    • However, using this method all the time can be clunky and throw off the flow of a story. You don't want a paragraph of action after every single line of dialogue. 
      • "Did you know that black widows got their name because they eat their husbands?" Sophie asked, mindlessly flipping through the pages of whatever magazine it was that she was reading these days.
        "I'm pretty sure that's common knowledge," Jacob responded with a smirk- though it sounded more like a statement than a question.
        "Do you get paid to piss me off, or is it just your personal mission in life?
        " She set the magazine down on the table in front of her and crossed her arms.
        "Sorry, sorry. Didn't mean to ruffle your feathers, Princess."
    • Both ways are correct ways to use dialogue tags. Both give insight into how the characters are speaking, despite using dialogue tags in very different ways. Not every piece of dialogue needs a dialogue tag. A reader can probably gather that "Didn't mean to ruffle your feathers, Princess" is not a very sincere way to end an apology without a dialogue tag. 
    • Really, dialogue tags are about style. Write whatever feels natural to you, and you can always enhance it later. 
  • Study how dialogue is written
    • I'm not just talking about books here. Movies, video games, TV shows, plays, graphic novels, web comics- all of these things use dialogue to help tell a story. Of course, there are things that a movie or graphic novel can do that a regular novel can't- but believe it or not, these other forms of media can still help you with writing dialogue. Study how characters talk to each other in different situations. Pay attention to facial cues and body language and think about how you would adapt that into novel form. Is the character speaking confidently, or with a quiver in their voice? How does that affect the way the line translates in the scene? Does the character have a shocked expression or a neutral one? How does that change the way the tension in the scene builds? 
    • Of course, this is coming from an audio/visual learner. If it is more helpful to actually see how good dialogue is written and adapted into novel form, then focus on reading novels with good dialogue. It really depends on what method you find most helpful. Personally, I like to turn on subtitles and watch shows that I like/have heard are very well written, study the character interactions, and think about how I would adapt that into a novel. I also like to read graphic novels or web comics and see how artists portray tone using speech patterns and body language. There is a lot to learn about dialogue by looking at how other mediums use dialogue to tell a story, but finding whatever works best for you to study good dialogue is the important step. 
  • Slang, slang, slang
    • People use slang. Slang is just a part of everyday life- so much so that most people don't even think about it. And you know what? Slang can do so much for your story. It can set the time period, show character, set the location, show character relationships, and so much more. However, slang is a very tricky thing. You can very easily go overboard. You want your dialogue to sound natural, not like you decided you want your character to be Brittish so you googled British slang for random things and injected them into the story. Slang and vernacular are different things, and slang is only one small part of vernacular as a whole. 
    • Make sure you do your research. If you can, get someone who does use the vernacular you want to emulate in your story to read over your dialogue and tell you "yes, we do speak like this" or "no, your character sounds like an alien trying to blend in with humans."
    • Be open to criticism. You want to be as realistic as possible, especially if you are using slang/vernacular that you aren't very familiar with. 
  • Consistency is key
    • Don't just randomly throw speech patterns and slang at characters. Make sure that the character's speech stays consistent throughout the story, and that changes in their way of speaking goes hand-in-hand with an important aspect of the story. For example, a character (character a) who always calls people "dude" suddenly refers to a character (character b) by their first name. Why? Is it to show that the character is speaking seriously to that character? Is it because the relationship between character a and character b is different than character a's relationship with other characters in the story? Changes like this should always be a conscious story-telling device, not an accident. And if it is an accident- no big deal! Think about how the line can be changed to fit the character, and change it. If there is a reason the line can't be changed, then try to make that reason more clear to the audience.
  • "Flow Write" your dialogue
    • This is something that really helps me when I'm trying to capture the natural flow of a conversation. Basically, I just leave out everything else and write only the dialogue between the characters, and then I go back and fill in the dialogue tags and whatever else needs to be there so the reader can follow the conversation. Sometimes, worrying about what characters are doing or thinking or feeling in-between lines of dialogue derails the flow of writing the conversation itself, so if I have a really clear vision of the conversation and what people are saying, I get the dialogue down first and worry about everything else second. This method may or may not help you, but give it a shot and see if it helps your dialogue feel a little bit more natural. 

That's all I have on dialogue for now. I hope y'all found this (not so) little guide helpful. If you are interested in reading more Tips & Tricks, check out my blog series on How to Build A Dynamic Story. If you have a suggestion for another Tips & Tricks topic, leave me a comment and I'll see if I have time to get to it. And stay tuned for my next Tips & Tricks blogs: Writing an Original Story and Building a Better Antagonist.


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