Write Better Dialogue

If stock photography has taught us anything, it’s that writing cannot occur unless there’s a cup of coffee within a 1-foot radius of the writing device. And also golden pineapples.

A big complaint I’m seeing in the reviews for a lot of books is that the dialogue seems unrealistic (for any number of reasons) and therefore takes away from the pleasure of reading the story.

I remember having this same thought years ago when I actually had the time to consume mass market paperbacks by the pound. These were bestselling novels from popular authors, but it sounded like all the characters had been swapped for robots. I guess if they can get away with it, there’s no reason to complain. Just keep on truckin’ and don’t stop to improve your dialogue, right?

Wrong.

Just because a bestselling book has crap dialogue doesn’t mean we should be okay with it in our own writing.

So, what can we do about it?

Pay attention to reality, for starters.

Listening to the way people talk to each other in real life is a good way to learn the cadence of conversation, but it only gets you so far. Real-life speech has many supplementary processes that enhance the way it’s comprehended: gestures, inflections, making a stink-face, etc.

Talking into a tin can, for example, greatly amplifies comprehension.

The written word, while powerful, lacks these extra helpers.

One major rule has helped me with my writing and could go a long way with improving many authors’ dialogue: READ IT OUT LOUD. It sounds silly, and you’ve probably heard it before, but trust me on this one.

At the very least, it will allow you to recognize wooden phrasing and polish it enough to slide by unnoticed. For the record, I’m not immune to turning a few wooden phrases. When I’m writing my first draft, I keep a lathe right next to my laptop. But by the time I hit publish, you better believe those suckers are so lacquered up that a guy with globs of superglue for hands couldn’t hold on to them.

Here’s me shaping first-draft dialogue for a heartwarming scene where a little boy finds his lost dog, only to find out the dog was a double agent for his evil classmate that lives next door.

Something else that helps dialogue seem more natural is breaking it up with pauses and unobtrusive scene description.

This can be applied effectively with rapid-fire exchange between two characters, where each of them speaks a handful of words before the other one responds.

Note the distinct lack of description surrounding this conversation:

“Hello.”

“Hi Paul.”

“Want to go to see a movie? I hear Transformers 8 is really good.”

“I hated all those movies and I don’t want to sit in a theater with a bunch of people who talk and text the whole time.”

“I liked them. I think they’re really good.”

“Well, you like a lot of bad movies. I would rather eat dirt.”

A normal, everyday conversation could play out this way, but there would be breaks in the verbal exchange to add a sense of realism — visual breaks through body language or something happening in the environment, aural breaks through, you know, sounds. It’s the kind of stuff that happens in real life.

Authors can do it, too.

Listen up! This dialogue is about to get real. Realer sounding. It’s about to sound more real.

A line of dialogue does not have to be written fully, from beginning to end, without interruption.

Think about where a person would naturally take a break while speaking and mimic that in your writing by splitting up sentences or adding description (changes italicized):

“Hey,” said Mike.

Paul smiled. “Hey.”

“Want to go to see a movie? I hear Transformers 8 is really good.”

“I hated all those movies,” said Paul, “and I don’t want to sit in a theater with a bunch of people who talk and text the whole time.”

“I liked them,” said Mike. He kicked at a pebble on the ground. “I think they’re really good.”

“Well, Mike, you like a lot of bad movies.” Paul stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away. “I would rather eat dirt.”

Paul’s kind of a jerk, right? This isn’t the best example ever, as my wife is shouting over my shoulder from behind me right now. It simply exists to illustrate a point.

The added description and the breaks in dialogue add a sense of natural pacing that was nonexistent before. Sure, people converse rapid-fire in real life. But these added touches let the reader’s mind pause naturally and digest the cadence of the conversation. Whether they realize it’s happening or not, the organic rhythm works to create a more fluid — and ultimately more pleasurable — reading experience.

“Hmm…natural pauses in the dialogue…organic conversation rhythms. I think…yes, I think this is the best book in the universe!”

Following these helpful hints can enhance dialogue and make your story more enjoyable for the reader…which, after all, should be your number one goal (after money, fame, and immortality, of course).


Photo credit:
1. rawpixel / Unsplash
2. gratisography / Pexels
3. Andrew Ruiz / Unsplash
4. kyle smith / Unsplash
5. bruce mars / Pexels

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Sam Best

Sam Best is a speculative fiction author living in San Diego, CA.

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