24 August 2018

How to write great dialogue in fiction

Anna Davis, Curtis Brown Creative Managing Director
by Anna Davis How To ..., Writing Tips

Well-handled dialogue is one of THE essential ingredients of a good novel. And yet it’s something that many writers struggle with and even shy away from. The trick is to make your characters’ speech carry the ring and rhythm of real-life conversations without actually trying to recreate them verbatim, complete with all the er’s, um’s, repetition and waffle …

Here are just some of the things that really great dialogue can accomplish in your novel:

  • It brings the reader right into a specific moment of your story.
  • It gives the reader direct access to the voices of your characters.
  • It gives direct access to the events of your story as they unfold.
  • It’s a means of showing your reader more about who your characters are.
  • It’s a means of conveying information to the reader.
  • You can use it to misdirect the reader.
  • You can use it to carry the story – moving your plot along snappily, and showing rather than telling as you go.
  • It’s a very direct way of showing conflict between your characters.
  • It enriches the texture of your story, breaking through the narrative voice.
  • It’s an agent for humour, drama, heartbreak and more. It carries tone and emotional content.

Here are some tips on how to write dialogue – and what to avoid doing:

1. Don’t use any verbs other than ‘says’ or ‘said’ – and don’t use lots of adverbs

This is the writing tip EVERYONE gives when it comes to writing dialogue – but there’s a reason for it. It’s the moment to unlearn everything you were taught as a kid at school. Basically you don’t want a lot of ‘he expostulated’, ‘she contradicted’ etc. Neither do you need people exclaiming ‘enthusiastically’, ‘vociferously’ etc. Dialogue is best when it’s purest  – see if you can make it stand without too much supporting furniture. Give the reader the bare minimum of ‘he saids’ – just enough so we know who’s speaking. And sometimes try using a physical gesture or movement instead of a ‘Mother says’ to show us who’s speaking and what’s going on – eg:

“Why are you treating me like this?” Mother turned away.

Above all, keep it simple.

2. Don’t show people always talking in complete sentences

In real life, we often don’t say things in full, carefully, and in the correct words. Make your characters say things abruptly, or speak only a part or a fragment of what they’re trying to communicate. Also, we don’t always wait for each other to finish speaking. Have your characters cut across each other in ways that are true to them and their situation.

3. Make the language work with the emotion of the situation

The way we talk depends on what’s happening to us and who we’re talking to. If you’re talking to your scary boss, you would be measured, polite, respectful. If you’re talking to your naughty child, you’d be clear, authoritative – or perhaps irritable and desperate. Consider the situation and emotions of your character when choosing the words and the extent to which the character can articulate clearly.

4. Give your characters distinct and different voices

Make sure you differentiate clearly between the voices of your characters so that a reader would know who is speaking without a ‘he said/she said’. Giving voice to your characters through dialogue is a vital part of characterisation. If you choose words which are your voice rather than your character’s, the reader will know straight away and the magic will be broken.

5. Informality in speech

When we’re talking, most of us run words together rather than speaking correctly. ‘I had not known I would like it’ becomes ‘I hadn’t known I’d like it’. I’d recommend you run your words together in this way when writing dialogue – otherwise it sounds stilted and unreal. And always read your dialogue aloud after you’ve written it so you can check whether it’s flowing in a naturalistic way.

6. Sub-text

So much of the interesting stuff in dialogue is what’s not said – and sometimes that’s where the story is. Have your characters conceal their real thoughts and motives and let the reader figure out what’s really going on. You can even make your characters say the opposite of what they are actually feeling – play with this for dramatic effect and to give your scene some edge.

7. Avoiding answering direct questions

It’s quite dull when a character responds readily, immediately and completely to questions he or she is asked. In life we often ignore questions – and for reasons which could be dramatically engaging.

And now here are some things to definitely AVOID in dialogue:

1. Exclamation marks and italics

In an attempt to emphasise important points and heighten the drama, we often litter our dialogue with exclamation marks and italics. Frankly that all just gets a bit much. Go through your dialogue to weed these out and make it less ‘shouty’.

2. Overstatement

Watch out for those moments when your characters state the obvious – labouring a point or building to a shouty crescendo which feels dramatic in the moment of writing, but which, when you read over it, is clumsy, unnatural and perhaps cliched. Use the editing stage of your writing process to pull back on all this. Less is more.

3. Big blocks of dialogue/characters ‘banging on’

It’s offputting to readers when they encounter big blocks of speech. If you find yourself writing a piece of direct speech that goes on for more than a few lines without interruption, you could think about cutting it back – or you could break it up by interrupting it with interjections from another character. Potentially you may even want to show this material in a different way – eg by dramatising it rather than telling it through dialogue.

4. Too much information

Although it’s good to use dialogue to convey information, you should avoid info-dumping – this will weigh it down, breaking the illusion of reality and making your reader want to throw the book at the wall. Don’t have your characters dishing up information when it doesn’t feel like a natural part of what they’d be saying.

5. Repeatedly addressing characters by name

When you’re talking to people in real life, how often do you speak their name aloud? We might speak someone’s name to attract their attention or to emphasise a point – but not continually throughout a conversation – unless the speaker is a salesman.

I’ll finish by saying – as I often do – that dialogue is your friend. It can do amazing things for your novel and really bring it to life. It just takes a bit of work to get it working well for you.

Our six-week online course – Write to the End of Your Novel – includes a full module on writing dialogue, and our longer creative writing courses, both online and in London, all feature teaching workshops on writing great dialogue. 

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