Writing Resource: 8 Tips on Dialogue

Dialogue is an integral part of any novel. Here are eight ways to upgrade your dialogue and avoid some newbie pitfalls.

Improving Dialogue

  1. Every conversation should move the plot forward. No empty fillers, please.
  2. Pick a punctuation style and stick to it. If you are going to query a major publisher, you may want to use Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Regardless of what you choose to use, consistency is key. For example: if you use an en-dash when a character is cut off in a conversation, do it every time. 
  3. People rarely use each others’ names in conversation after an initial greeting.

    Here is an example of overuse:
    “Heya, Eric.”
    “Hello, Nora.”

    “Eric, how has your summer been so far?”
    “Well, Nora, it has been rather busy. I’m ready to slow down for a bit.”
    “I totally understand, Eric. I have been busy too.”

    Besides the fact that the dialogue is a yawn fest, people don’t naturally use one another’s names that much when talking. I makes your characters sound like game show hosts. “Yes, Vanna.”

  4. Make sure not all of your characters sound the same. Your adults should not sound like teenagers, teenagers should not sound like collegiate scholars, and someone from Alabama should not sound like they are from Oxford, England. Play with dialect and the way your characters use contractions.
  5. Read it out loud or act it out. This is the ultimate way to detect cheesy dialogue.
  6. Generally, people speak in fragments.
    What feels more natural?
    “Would you like to go and get some coffee with me?”
    “I would love to go and get some coffee, but I don’t have any money.”
    “I have money, so it’s my treat.”
    He gave her a doe-eyed look. “You buying?”
    Chuckling, she rolled her eyes while grabbing her wallet. “Let’s go, mooch.” 
  7. Silence can be powerful. When people speak to one another, there are often long pauses in the conversation. Let your characters and audience digest heavy information by giving them the break to process it. It will not only highlight the information, but give it emotional weight.Here is a sample without the silence:
    “I’m dying,” he stated.
    She swallowed. “How long?”
    “Three months.”
    The above conversation lacks emotional depth. Adding silence can add the needed weight.

    Here is a sample WITH silence:
    “I’m dying.” It was a simple statement . . . that changed everything.
    She sucked in a breath, but her eyes moved to the lake. The wind caressed the water, sending glittering ripples into the distance. After a long while, she swallowed. “How long?”
    Before answering, he let out the breath he had been holding in a slow stream. “Three months.”


  8. Description should be given in small amounts. Unless your character is critiquing a piece of art, or analyzing something by pointing out details, don’t have them say everything orally.I recently stopped reading a book because 95% of the character descriptions were in the dialogue. They were so long and awkward that they were unnatural, but also felt like a list. Below, I have written an example.

    He seductively pinned her to the wall, trailing his fingers across her jaw. She froze in fear as he leaned in even closer. His minty breath caused chills as he spoke, “My, what lovely eyes you have. They are such a unique color of blue—the specks of grey and whites almost make them look like the facets in a blue diamond. And your skin, it is so smooth I can’t even see a pore on your face. It is the perfect balance of peaches ‘n cream with a hint of olive. When I first saw you, I had expected your hair to feel different, but it is like fine, silken threads. It just makes me want to keep touching it. The color is mesmerizing, too. I can’t decide if it is rich caramel or earthy amber. You are something, aren’t you? You are the elixir I have been waiting for.”
    Really? Who would speak like that in real life? If they did, we would think that they were strange and try to avoid them.

Do you have any tips you would like to share?

Related Posts:

More Free Resources for Writers
Other Words for Whisper and Went Blog Post and printable PDF for personal use.
Books by Robin Woods

Fiction Writing by Robin Woods

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