HE SAID, SHE SAID: 10 Tips for Writing Good Dialogue | By Barbara DeSantis
As an editor, I receive a lot of fiction manuscripts from novice writers and inevitably I see the same mistakes repeated on the page. Poorly written dialogue is a common problem, and one that will get your manuscript a “thumbs down” from an agent, or if you’re planning on self-publishing, a no-sale from a potential customer and reader.
Readers may not know what makes good dialogue but they sure can tell when it’s bad. They lose interest, or worse, they stop reading.
No doubt about it, good dialogue is tough to write. It just looks easy, that is, when it’s written well. Some writers have a natural ear for it, and instinctively know when the sound and rhythm are right. Others have to work at it.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing dialogue.
1. Good dialogue is not mundane. No “how are you?” “I’m fine,” chit-chat. Good dialogue is not useless conversation. It does not let your characters tread water. There has to be a reason why two characters are talking to each other, a point to the conversation.
2. Good dialogue does not explain what the reader already knows. In fact, it is best when it doesn’t explain anything. Trust the reader is smart enough to figure out what’s happening. Resist the urge to spoon-feed the reader.
3. Good dialogue is not written “on the nose.” It’s subtle. Characters don’t always say what they mean. Sometimes they use speech as a way not to communicate. Sometimes they have a conversation as a way to avoid something or keep something hidden. Sometimes what they want is entirely different from what they say they want. The best dialogue has subtext. In Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” the characters never mention the word “abortion” but that’s what the discussion is about. The playwright, Harold Pinter, is another excellent example of a writer who uses dialogue to suggest subtext.
4. Good dialogue is not a replica of real speech. The dialogue becomes stiff if the characters speak in fully structured sentences. It sounds too formal, unnatural. Try breaking up a line of dialogue, using fragments of sentences and phrases.
5. Good dialogue provides insight into the characters and their outlook on life. The reader learns about the character from how he/she talks and relates. Each character has a unique way of speaking. They don’t sound alike.
6. Good dialogue has conflict. A dialogue with characters agreeing with each other is boring. The dialogue sounds flat. A dialogue with characters who want different things is much more compelling.
7. Good dialogue doesn’t rely on speaker attributions to explain a line of dialogue (“I hate you,” she raged.); that’s a telltale sign the dialogue is weak. “Said” is the best word to use. The reader’s eyes go right over it, focusing on the line of dialogue. Elmore Leonard said it best: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”
8. Good dialogue does not use an adverb after the word “said.” Those “ly” adverbs are redundant. “I’m happy,” she said cheerfully. The line of dialogue should be doing the work, not the adverb. If an adverb is needed after the word “said,” the line of dialogue isn’t strong enough to convey the character’s intention.
9. Good dialogue is broken up with gestures, narrative, and description. Characters don’t always talk non-stop. If the dialogue is set at a restaurant, a character may get distracted and look out the window. She may stop what she’s saying to sip coffee but she may be sipping her coffee as an avoidance or delay tactic. She may notice something about other people’s conversations, or about the setting, the sounds and the smells, but she always returns to the dialogue.
10. Good dialogue moves the story forward. That doesn’t mean it’s expositional; it doesn’t stop to explain things. It should be as intriguing as the plot. Again, Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants is an example of propelling the action with dialogue. Sometimes good dialogue motivates the character into action or it may reveal the character’s dreams and desires. But the reader always has a sense of forward movement.
Good dialogue keeps the reader involved, keeps the reader turning the pages, and that’s what every writer wants.
Barbara DeSantis is an editor and literary marketing and publicity expert. She is a member of the LAEWG (Los Angeles Editors and Writers Group), and you can read more about her on their site here.
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