5 ideas on how to write dialogue

In a lot of stories I read, characters bellow or whisper or grouse or scream or shout their dialogue. Usually, “said” is the only attribution you need.

Jack said. Tracy said. Liz said. It’s plain, it’s simple and it makes for easy reading. In Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, Jessica Page Morrell says: “Good dialogue doesn’t rely on speech tags (she said warily, he spoke warily, Bob ventured sullenly) to express emotions or describe what is being said.”

So how do you get the emotion in the scene, the personality of the character and the tone of their voice across without resorting to speech tags or a ton of adverbs? Here are five ideas on how to write dialogue.

  1. Know your characters. Their dialogue will nearly write itself if you understand and trust them enough to know exactly what they would say in the situations you find them in. If the dialogue doesn’t float to the top, maybe your characters shouldn’t be speaking. Or maybe you don’t yet know them.
  2. Be indirect. Characters don’t always need to respond to each other, they don’t always have to say exactly what’s on their minds and they should never repeat what the other characters in the scene already know.
  3. Be selective. We fill our real-life conversations with a lot of placeholders. Oh. Uhm. Ah. Right. Okay. Yeah. But dialogue in fiction should be fast, snappy and concise. It’s one of the best ways to move the story and pull readers into the scene. Cut out the filler. Boil your dialogue down to its essence. Give us the good parts, and only the good parts.
  4. Tension, tension, tension. If you’re looking for a way to fire up the emotion in your dialogue, then you need to create tension. Two characters talking in agreement is boring; two characters arguing or trying to win a verbal spar is interesting. This works especially well when you’ve got a lot of information to convey. As one character explains, have another doubt what he’s hearing. It’ll create tension and make us interested to see the reconciliation. The X-Files ran for 9 seasons doing this with Mulder and Scully. Not a bad standard to aspire to.
  5. $*!@%#(*&. If a character is the type who swears like a sailor, then, the character should swear like a sailor but — don’t rely on profanity to add impact or punch to your dialogue. Here and there and every once in a while will do far more than having every other word out of a character’s mouth be something you couldn’t say on television. (And as a bonus, while we’re on the subject of artificially pumping up dialogue, the same goes for excessive exclamation marks! All the ! won’t turn flat dialogue into something exciting.). Think, sparingly. We love what one popular fiction editor we know said about profanity: imagine how much effect profanity will have if a profane piece of dialogue is the *only* profane piece of dialogue in the entire fucking book? Well said.

Have some other tips for dialogue? Send me a tweet or add your thoughts in the comments.