When your characters don’t talk too good…How to write better dialogue

Dialogue can be pretty tricky, but it’s one of the most important pieces of your story. Readers prefer a lot of ‘blank space’ in books, which means you don’t want paragraphs and paragraphs of narrative. You want to liberally sprinkle your story with dialogue. Dialogue can serve many purposes; it can help you show instead of tell, it can reveal personality traits about your character, and it can move the story forward.

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Dialogue isn’t exactly my biggest strength, but when I am reviewing or editing a manuscript, I can certainly tell if dialogue is not done well.

Here are some tips you might want to consider:

Don’t say things in narrative, then repeat the same thing in dialogue

Example:

“I’m leaving you.”

He was leaving her? She couldn’t believe it. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”

While it’s great to show some emotion, some kind of internal thoughts, you don’t want to use the precise comment you use in dialogue. You can do something like:

Her heart dropped to her stomach. Shock froze her vocal cords, and she couldn’t speak for several moments. Finally, she found her voice. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”

Don’t reveal things in dialogue that the character already knows, just to share the info with your reader. That sounds unnatural and contrived.

Example:

“Your brother, Hank, who runs the saloon, stopped by my ranch.”

Hank’s sister (to whom the speaker is speaking) already knows Hank is her brother and that he runs the saloon. She might not know he stopped by, but you could revise it to: “Hank stopped by my ranch.” If you want readers to know Hank runs the saloon and is her brother, you can weave it in elsewhere, naturally. You don’t want your characters talking to the reader, you want them talking to one another.

Don’t use character names in dialogue too often. People do not normally speak that way.

Example:

“Sally, you know I tried to save him.”

“Yes, Frank, but he died on your watch.”

“But Sally, you have to forgive me.”

“I’m sorry, Hank, I can’t.”

Believe it or not, I’ve seen dialogue where character names were used this frequently.

Use contractions, because people speak that way. Even high society people use contractions. This is probably a bit different in Historical novels, but contemporary people typically speak in contractions.

Which sounds more natural?

“I do not know what do to. I did not think this would happen. I would not have come here had I known.”

Or

“I don’t know what to do. I didn’t think this would happen. I wouldn’t have come here had I known.”

(Of course, in good dialogue you wouldn’t use these staccato sentences and have the need for so many contractions in a row, but I am making a point. :))

Use tags sparingly, and for the most part, ‘said’ is the one you should go with. Although I admit, I use a ‘whispered’ or ‘gritted’ from time to time, it’s best to avoid a lot of those types of tags. Using action instead of tags is less jarring and also helps make it more ‘showing.’ You actually almost never need a tag, even ‘said.’

Example:

“I can’t believe you did that,” she cried.

“It was for your own good,” he defended.

“Since when do you know what’s best for me?” she railed.

Better:

“I can’t believe you did that.” Her voice cracked with the pain of his betrayal.

His eyes implored her. “It was for your own good.”

She gave a bitter laugh. “Since when do you know what’s best for me?”

 

When in doubt, read your dialogue aloud so you can see if it sounds natural. You can usually tell by listening to how your characters speak.

I hope you find these tips helpful, I have to be ultra-aware of making sure my dialogue is acceptable, because it’s not something that comes naturally to me. How about you? Is dialogue one of your strengths? What are some things that bother you about dialogue you’ve read?

And one more thing… “GO Red Sox!!!” she shouted enthusiastically. 😉

 

12 thoughts on “When your characters don’t talk too good…How to write better dialogue

  • Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write. And when you said that readers like the blank space on the page, it made me wonder if I like dialogue for a similar reason. It fills up those manuscript pages faster.

  • I love your examples, Alicia, like this one:

    “I’m leaving you.”

    He was leaving her? She couldn’t believe it. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”

    It cracked me up, which means I’ll remember!

    Also excellent point about the white space on the page, I picked up a book just today and opened to something like four pages of solid type. I could barely make out the paragraph indents. I put it down without reading a word.

    • 🙂 I’m glad you enjoy the examples. They’re written ‘on the fly’ but they get the point across (I hope). I would like to use examples from actual manuscripts I’ve received, but that wouldn’t be right. 🙂 Yes, all that solid type screams ‘boring!’

  • Great tips, Alicia. I love to write dialogue, and try very hard to make it sound natural. Dialogue is the very air in a character’s lungs–breathed by the author. Exacting each character’s voice and balancing it with my own is both challenging and exhilarating. The highest compliment I can receive is when a reader tells me my characters remind them of an old friend or someone down the street. Those kinds of compliments bring a tear to my eye. Dialogue is the magic wand that brings relateable, believable characters to life.

  • What a fab post, Alicia! So funny in places. Thanks for the laugh.

    I love dialogue. It tends to be the first layer I lay down in my stories, then I go back and fill in the action and emotion layers etc. I agree with you re speech tags. I really hate them and try never to use them unless absolutely necessary. Even then I’ll use … you guessed it … “whispered” to convey an extra degree of intimacy. 😀

    • Ha, thanks Monique. I’m glad you enjoyed it. You know, there are always exceptions, and I think a few well-placed non-said dialogue tags add to the emotion. Whispered is one of my faves. 🙂

  • I love reading dialogue! However, as you know Alice, writing it well often eludes me. One of my favorite contractions used by J. D. Robb is ‘wouldn’t’ve’. It’s the way we say it even though it looks strange. Monique’s comment offers good advice–using dialogue as a first layer. I can see how that would allow us to get into the psyche of our character’s better. Nice post. It’s being moved to one of my folders.

  • I’m glad you stopped by, Winona. Yes, we do want our characters to talk the way ‘real people’ talk. Of course, you want to cut out some of the ‘real people’ stuff, such as, ‘Well, anyway….so…uhm…” 🙂

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