Writing dialogue is one of my favorites parts of the storytelling process.
It also happens to be one of the biggest struggles for me.
I have a hard time writing dialogue that flows naturally. Oftentimes, it comes off stiff, contrived, and overly formal, like all of my characters suddenly have a Masters Degree in English Literature. While I struggle with formality, other writers may struggle with the mechanics of it or even find it difficult to establish a clear, individual voice for each of their characters.
But when it is done correctly, dialogue has the potential to build conflict and suspense in a story, unfold action, and reveal your characters’ personalities.
Good dialogue can make a story soar and bad dialogue can make it sink. We are all capable of creating dialogue that makes our stories take off, we just need to know where to start and what steps to take.
Here are 5 common dialogue blunders and what you need to do to fix them.
1. It Doesn’t Progress Your Story
All dialogue must move the story forward.
Meaningless chatter is normal in every day conversations, but it doesn’t belong in your story. At least, not in every line of dialogue. I’ve read several books where characters banter back and forth with no end goal in sight, simply to fill space. This kind of dialogue is, well, boring.
“It’s nice outside, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s the perfect temperature. Do you have any plans this weekend?”
“My sister-in-law is coming into town, so I’ll probably spend some time with her. How about you? Any plans?”
“Nope. Just work.”
This is the kind of dialogue you want to be on the lookout for. In small quantities, it’s okay. We all want to create authentic dialogue for our characters and sometimes that means letting them talk about the weather. But if these are the kinds of conversations that are leading your story, beware.
Are you scared that a majority of your dialogue looks like the above passage? Ask yourself this:
If you answered yes, then you know your dialogue doesn’t advance your plot. It fell into the pointless gibber-jabber category, a deep dark hole you don’t want your dialogue to go down.
When you’re writing your dialogue, you want to be able to answer ‘yes’ to a majority of these questions:
Does it create curiosity?
Does it build tension or suspense?
Does it reveal the unexpected?
Does it create conflict?
If a conversation relates to a character’s goal and escalates the conflict, then you know it’s moving the plot forward.
2. You Use Invasive Dialogue Tags
Ever hear the phrase “said is dead”? Me too, and I wish I could meet whoever came up with it and tell them to go bury their head in sand.
This short phrase has misled a great deal of aspiring writers, making them believe that using said as a dialogue tag is boring and repetitive.
But this isn’t true.
The great thing about using said is that it fades into the background. It’s an invisible dialogue tag. It doesn’t distract readers from the actual conversation taking place, which is what you want. What you don’t want is for your readers’ attention to fixate on the mechanics of your story.
Here are some examples of intrusive dialogue tags you should stay away from:
I’ve never heard anyone laugh an entire sentence or giggle spoken words. Have you? Instead, try writing it with a line of action like this:
He laughed. “I can’t believe you said that.”
Using the occasional asked, shouted, or whispered is fine, but the main point of dialogue tags is to let the reader know who is saying what, not to distract them from the actual dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue tags, every writer at one point or another has added that pesky adverb to the end of their dialogue tags. You know, those words ending in -ly.
He said angrily.
There’s no need to use adverbs when you can use the words and actions of your characters, like this:
Sarah stamped her feet down the stairs. “You need to get out of here.”
“You don’t really want me to leave,” I said, placing my hands on my hips.
She narrowed her eyes at me. “I mean it. Get out now.”
These beats of action are just as good, nay, better, than using telling adverbs and feeling the need to explain your characters’ emotions to your readers.
The problem with adverbs is that they tell rather than show. If the dialogue is well-written, then the readers will know if the character is angry without you having to inform them.
Look at another example of telling that isn’t directly related to dialogue:
Lucy was nervous about the encroaching final exam. She thought she did not study enough to get a good grade.
Look at the difference when the sentence is rewritten to show:
Lucy gripped her pencil in her sweaty hand. She stared down at the test in front of her. Already, the answer to the first question evaded her, making her cringe in her chair. She passed a nervous hand through her hair and muttered, “I’m going to fail this test.”
I replaced the passive verbs with strong action verbs (gripped, stared, evaded, passed, muttered) and it made a world of difference, didn’t it? The first sentence tells the reader how Lucy feels, whereas the revised example gives the reader a visual image of how Lucy thinks and feels.
Overall, you want to show rather than tell your readers what is happening in your story, and a good way to do that is by keeping your dialogue tags simple and eliminating as many adverbs as possible. Make sure they aren’t littered throughout your story. It’s a sign of weak writing.
3. All of Your Characters Sound the Same
If you read through the dialogue of your story, eliminating all action and dialogue tags, would you be able to tell which character said what?
Sometimes, new writers get into the habit of making all of their characters sound the same. In real life, the way a ten-year-old girl talks is much different than the way her grandpa does. The same should ring true in your story.
There are several ways you can make sure each of your characters have a unique voice:
Use different words. Does one of your characters have a specific catchphrase or word they like to say a lot? Maybe one of your characters doesn’t like to swear, whereas another curses like a sailor.
Vary sentence length between characters. Does one character speak in short, clipped sentences while another speaks in long, elaborate ones?
Consider their social background, occupation, and where they live. A college graduate with a Masters Degree in Literature might have a wider vocabulary than someone who dropped out halfway through high school. The way people speak also varies region to region. I don’t normally encourage the use of dialects and accents, because they can make text very difficult to read, but you can cleverly add in a “ya’ll” if your character is southern or a “wee” if they’re from Ireland. Just don’t go all Mark Twain on your readers.
Your characters should speak different because they are different. They look different, dress different, and think and act in ways individual to who they are and how they perceive the world around them.
This is how we are in real life, too. We all have different quirks and mannerisms. When you establish what these are for each character, giving them a distinct voice is easy.
4. It’s Too Realistic or Too Formal
One day, I was paying extra attention to the way I spoke, to get an idea of what to do and what not to do in the dialogue I was writing at the time. I discovered that my words are clumsy, I have a difficult time articulating my thoughts, and I say Um way too much.
In real life, our conversations are full of hesitations and repetitions.
But in our stories, the dialogue we create should give the impression of “real talk” without actually including all of the blunders, stutters, and the meandering trail of thoughts.
Dialogue should be focused and have a purpose.
There’s also such a thing as being too formal with your dialogue. Readers will give you grace if one of your characters is a scientist or a teacher who speaks with an enhanced or complex vocabulary, but you’ll need other characters to help balance this out.
One way you can do this is by taking advantage of sentence fragments and writing incomplete thoughts, like this:
Instead of: “I’m not sure I like the direction you’re taking this one, Bob.”
Try: “Don’t like where you’re going with this, Bob.”
Say the sentences out loud to yourself and you’ll probably think the first sentence sounds too wordy or clunky. The second sentence seems more real, like something you’d hear in a normal conversation.
You can even utilize poor grammar in your dialogue as long as it isn’t excessive or doesn’t distract your reader from the point your character is trying to make.
5. Your Dialogue is Flooded With Exposition
Exposition is vital to any story. It gives valuable insight into the setting, characters, and background information. It can come out in several ways, but dialogue is not the place to do it.
When this happens, you risk falling into the ‘telling trap’ where you think you need to explain certain things to your reader in fear that they’ll miss it or won’t understand the subtext.
“I remember the day we met like it was yesterday. We ran into each other at the library and our books spilled everywhere.”
“Yeah, and now here we are in the same exact library trying to finish a project that’s due tomorrow.”
Seems pretty unnatural, right? Your characters already know how they met, so why would it come out in a conversation like this and in such a forced manner? When your characters’ dialogue is filled with stilted and strained sentences like this, it’s a sign you’re relying too much on your dialogue to fill in an expository gap and trying to catch your reader up on what is going on.
The only time you should use exposition in dialogue is when a character actually doesn’t know what the person speaking is telling them and needs it to be explained. If you do it like in the example above, it’s just a way of squishing additional information into your story.
When heavy exposition comes out in dialogue, it can potentially kill your story’s pacing and put your reader to sleep.
Dialogue can add volumes of depth and personality to your characters. Now that you’ve read this guide, I encourage you to go back through your own dialogue and see if there are areas you need to improve or strengthen.
What dialogue tips would you offer to other writers? What tricks have helped you create believable dialogue?