6 Ways to Write Compelling Dialogue for Your Book
Dialogue is an indispensable part of every story, one that authors use to bring literary conversations to life. Good dialogue not only makes characters seem believable; it uncovers their layers and exposes their flaws, strengths, aspirations, and other human-like complexities that make readers vouch for them. It also pushes the plot ahead, charges scenes with emotion and makes the dynamic of human conversation and interpersonal drama palpable to anyone reading.
While capturing the natural flow of human communication sounds like a fairly straightforward task, getting dialogue right on paper requires an ear for realistic speech patterns and a flair for knowing when to trim the fat. Unfortunately, most writers, accomplished ones too, often struggle with this and end up with a discourse that either sounds unrealistic or downright redundant. To help you navigate this tricky aspect of writing, we’ll explore a few ways to write natural, compelling dialogue for literary works spanning all genres, along with some useful tips for every novelist looking to write and publish a riveting tale.
Here are six definitive ways to craft crisp, memorable dialogue:
1. Get to know your characters’ distinct voices: Everyone has a unique way of communicating, something we pick up as an outcome of our background, education, social circles, and colloquialisms predominant in the neighbourhoods we grow up in. Start by observing people in a public setting and notice their mannerisms, accent, quirks and speech impediments, if any. Remember to stay true to the period and setting of the book and accurately capture the way people would have spoken during the era in which they lived. This method works even for nonfiction when you need to write actual excerpts of conversations you’ve had with an interviewee or write representative dialogue of what someone may have said. You could also use body language to make every character easily identifiable and not spell it out for the reader with excessive dialogue tags. For example, showing a woman laughing at her husband’s joke at the annual office party but curling her fingers into a fist beneath the table says a lot about the relationship between them.
2. Establish a clear sense of purpose or intent for every line of dialogue: Dialogue is an integral part of character development, but it’s effective only when included for a reason. Good dialogue must perform one or more of these functions:
- Enrich a character’s personality and deepen characterisation. Ask yourself if the dialogue sheds some light on what the character wants, knows or truly feels about a person or situation.
- Advance the plot by increasing suspense or intrigue for what is to come.
- Break up the exposition by dramatising scenes and keeping readers hooked.
3. Use dialogue to drive and dramatise conflict: Conflict, both internal and external, is the essence of dramatic storytelling. It’s what makes the hero tick and gets readers to turn pages in anticipation of the climax! Dialogue can be pretty effective in portraying conflicting goals that characters hold on to. When characters have opposing views or motivations, consequences are almost sure to follow. Throw some conflict into an otherwise comfortable setting that’s composed of pleasantries and perfectly ordinary discussions, and you have yourself something to keep the readers hooked. You could also introduce verbal arguments or hidden tension to showcase interpersonal drama. If they have nothing to argue about, then include a few lines of pleasant conversation, interspersed with some tension that hints at the conflict to come.
4. Keep it concise: The best dialogue is brief. It’s unnecessary to go into lengthy exchanges to reveal an important truth about the characters or expose their thoughts and motivations. Dialogue needs to provide a break from the exposition, so having it go over for pages and pages would defeat the purpose. While on the subject of keeping it concise, it’s best not to make any room for small talk, fillers or fluff like the “umms” and “ahhs” you see in everyday conversation.
It’s also wise to implement the “show don’t tell” strategy in the dialogue-writing context. This means that your exchanges must imply information and let your readers connect the dots and make their inferences. Remember, never underestimate your reader by writing dialogue that insults their intelligence! Most readers like to visualise the scene, pick up the cues, and arrive at conclusions instead of being told what to think.
5. Stick to simple dialogue tags wherever possible: Dialogue tags, sometimes referred to as speech tags or attribution, are what writers use to indicate which character is speaking. These tags can be found in three different places: before, after, or in the middle of dialogue. For example:
“Did you get my letter?” asked Katie.
The phrase “asked Katie” is the dialogue tag in the sentence.
Stick to using simple dialogue tags with words like “said” or “asked” instead of distracting the reader with flowery ones like “gasped”, “belowed”, “proclaimed”, etc. While it’s okay to use the fancy ones sparingly, the rule of thumb is to keep it direct or remove the tags altogether by making your dialogue self-explanatory. Here’s where having a unique character voice or distinct body language pays off because it can help you avoid unnecessary dialogue tags. Ask yourself this- “Would the reader know who was speaking if I took this out?” If the answer is “yes,” kill the tag!
6. Convey subtext and leave some things unsaid: Subtext constitutes all the subtlety and nuances that are not explicitly conveyed through speech. It’s the underlying meaning of everything being stated and the emotion behind a character’s lines. Using subtext can help make your text richer and your dialogue more meaningful. When you repeat snippets of conversation at crucial junctures, it can bring the entire story full circle thematically, primarily because of the underlying subtext. Say something once, and it’s an ordinary line. Say that line twice and it begins to take on new, even iconic, meanings! In the novel The Princess Bride by William Goldman, a Spanish fencing master by the name of Inigo Montoya repeatedly said “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”. But once the readers learn the reason behind his signature line, seeing Inigo deliver it once again towards the end of the novel made it absolutely timeless!
When you write the dialogue or behaviour of a character, consider all of the things that can impact what they say or do. As David Baldacci recommends, make sure you know your character’s current emotional situation. An angry character from one chapter might still be bitter in the next one (unless something has happened to soften them up, in which case the dialogue must show it). Imagine you are that character and try to feel what they have just been through.
Another trick recommended by most authors is to apply the iceberg theory in the dialogue-writing context. It posits that writing is most effective when we show our readers only the tip of the iceberg and let them unravel the rest.
Keep revising segments of your dialogue to avoid any kind of redundancy or awkward wording.
This way, you’ll also be able to decide whether or not to keep certain lines. Sometimes, discourse from a specific character may not necessarily contribute to the emotional depth of the narrative.
Now that we’ve gone over some techniques to make conversation flow naturally in your prose, let’s look at some standard rules of formatting dialogue:
- Indent each new line of dialogue.
- Keep dialogue tags outside the quotation marks.
- Use a new paragraph every time a different character starts speaking.
- If you quote someone within a quote, use single rather than double quotation marks.
- If a character’s speech is interrupted by a dialogue tag or action, close and re-open speech marks. For example, “I wish you would stop interrupting,” she said, holding up her palm, “and let me finish!”
- If one person’s dialogue is interrupted by another speaker, use em dashes (a long dash like —) to indicate abrupt endings. For example:
Abigail started to explain herself. “All I wanted to say was—”
“I don’t want to hear it.”, interrupted Michael.
- If one character speaks over multiple paragraphs, the opening quotation marks are placed at the beginning of each paragraph. However, the closing quotation marks must be placed only at the end of the last para.
- Use a separate sentence for actions preceding or following the dialogue.
Lastly, before we wrap up, we would like to leave you with a timeless piece of advice that helps every writer in every aspect of writing – read more to write better! If you want to see the various dialogue tips and rules in action, read authors whose works are associated with different qualities of memorable dialogue. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an excellent example of witty dialogue that helps readers understand the relationship between characters. Similarly, Tolkien’s lines for Gollum in The Hobbit create a distinct character voice and a catchphrase that’s been repeated by fans for years to come!
The next time you sit down to write and publish a volume, use these tips to enhance your book with some great dialogue. With time, practice (and occasional eavesdropping to let people inspire the way your characters talk!), you’ll be well on your way to writing realistic, meaningful conversations that elevate your characters and make their lines and lives eternal!