Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about writing strong dialogue:
QUESTION: “I honestly feel like my dialogue could be a lot better. It either feels too stiff or too rambling. Do you have any advice about how to get better at writing dialogue?”
Dialogue is a natural part of life, serving as a bridge between individuals and characterizing the speaker. Just as conversing is important in any relationship or interaction, dialogue between characters is critical to a story. It provides readers with a direct link into the scene and gives us a glimpse into the immediate thoughts of characters. However, crafting authentic dialogue is a challenge that many of us struggle with. It’s easy to overthink the dialogue, resulting in these common dialogue mistakes.
Mistake #1: Using formal dialogue that doesn’t sound natural
Avoid excessively polished dialogue that comes across as stilted and unnatural. You wouldn’t have this conversation with a friend:
“Hello, Morgan. You are looking better today.”
“Thank you for noticing, Alex. I am feeling a lot better. I do not feel as sick as I did yesterday.”
“That is good news, I hope your health continues to recovery.”
People use contractions in everyday use, so they should occur in your dialogue as well. Additionally, while we call out names in order to get people’s attention, we don’t normally address someone by name when we’re talking exclusively to them. The above conversation would probably look more like this:
“Hey dude, you look so much better today!”
“Oh, thanks! Yeah, I definitely don’t feel as bad as I did.”
“I can tell. I’m glad! Get more rest.”
Overthinking the dialogue can result in rigid conversations that don’t actually take place in real life. Making the dialogue realistic to your setting is important to keep in mind, as well as remembering your character’s personality and how their diction might differ from one another. Going back through and reading your dialogue out loud is a good way to ensure it sounds realistic and natural.
Mistake #2: Using dialogue that sounds TOO natural
On the other hand, many people say “um” and “like” in real life, sometimes multiple times in a sentence. That’s just the natural way we speak when we have to pause and think about what to say. However, readers don’t want all these placeholders when they’re reading text. While those superfluous bits are normal for everyday conversations, dialogue between characters is not meant to contain such filler. Reading someone say “um” between every other word can make it hard to decipher the meaning of the dialogue.
Maybe a character is talking to their high school crush and gets flustered while stumbling over their words. In that case, the ums and likes would add important characterization to the scene, conveying the overwhelming nerves that take over in the moment. These techniques can have an effective impact when used carefully, but they should be used sparingly — in most instances, try to instead let descriptions of body language and natural pauses in dialogue convey the characters’ emotions.
Mistake #3: Not inserting enough dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are such a natural part of stories that they are almost invisible. Yet, while readers don’t often notice them at all, there’s an art to these little markers. The main purpose of dialogue tags is to prevent confusion about who is speaking. They serve a functional purpose before anything else. Using not enough dialogue tags can lead to confusion about which characters are saying what, particularly if there are three or more people involved in the conversation. If a reader has to go back to count the lines in order to figure out who is speaking, you need to add more tags.
Mistake #4: Going crazy with dialogue tags
While some people tend to forget dialogue tags, others make them more complicated than they should be. An overzealous author might write the following scene:
“Where were you last night?” she demanded angrily.
“None of your business,” he muttered quietly.
“What did you say?” she shouted loudly.
“I said it’s none of your business,” he screamed back.
This exchange features redundant markers, particularly the adverbs describing the dialogue tags. The dialogue itself, along with actions, should convey the tone and mood of the speakers, so words such as “angrily” or “quietly” should not be necessary. While you may think you’re adding more description to the scene, you’re just being repetitious. Supplementing the dialogue with details about the scene can be more effective than adjectives and adverbs. You also don’t need to insert tags with every piece of dialogue, especially if it’s just between two people.
Some writers try to avoid “said,” opting instead for strong verbs (such as “demanded,” “muttered,” “shouted,” and “screamed” from the example above) to keep the text interesting. However, these can interrupt the flow of the story. Sometimes it is best to keep things simple. The majority of dialogue tags in your story should be “said” or “asked” so that you can focus on creating powerful imagery by showing the emotions and actions rather than telling them.
The above scene could be rewritten with fewer dialogue tags and more descriptions of the scene, such as this:
She heard the door creak open and looked up. “Where were you last night?” She asked, slamming her book shut.
“None of your business,” he said, avoiding eye contact while hanging up his coat.
“What did you say?”
He turned abruptly, looking into his wife’s eyes with a piercing, bloodshot look. “I said it’s none of your business.”
Mistake #5: Filler dialogue
Just as every word in your story should have a purpose, dialogue is no exception. You should never use dialogue as filler or small talk; instead, be intentional in creating meaningful interactions between characters. Dialogue can characterize characters in important ways or move the plot forward by having a character accidentally let a secret slip out. While dialogue can be a useful tool to add information to the story, avoid using dialogue to summarize events, and don’t use conversations as a way to dump information all at once. Pacing is critical to stories and specifically to dialogue as well.
As with any writing technique, it takes time and many drafts to hone the art of dialogue. Also, remember that dialogue entails more than just the spoken word, so don’t rely solely on words to convey thoughts, emotions, and information. Dialogue is just one tool in the writer’s toolbox, so use it masterfully in order to create complex characters and an engaging story.