Some writers have an ear for dialog the way some actors have a knack for accents. Other writers struggle. The good news is that the folks with an aptitude for it can always get better, and the strugglers can learn to write zingy dialog.
Your goal as a writer is to write realistic conversations that reveal who your characters are without loading the dialog down with all the garbage we frequently talk about. You know what I mean—all the ums and ers, the hello-how-are-yous, and the like. As Dana Isaacson pointed out, dialog is real conversation, only better. Oh, and extra points if it forwards the plot, as well.
Part of writing good dialog is mechanical, and part of it has to do with content, and I’ve got tips for both.
1. Limit exposition in dialog
Dialog is not the place to have a character explain his entire backstory, or detail how a technical feat is possible. Doing this undermines your characterization because your character wouldn’t really be talking like this. Yet, we’ve all read books where this happens.
Bob: “Yeah, my daughter has her surgery tomorrow.”
Sue: “That’s Zelda, your seventeen-year-old with the ingrown toenail, right? I can have my daughter Lisa, who is in Zelda’s classes, bring her homework assignments, if you want.”
That’s not how people talk. In real life, this exchange might go as follows:
Bob: “Zelda’s surgery is tomorrow.”
Sue: “I remember. Does she want Lisa to get her homework assignments?”
You have to trust that readers will pick up on the key points, or you need to establish them earlier, or put them in narrative or internal thoughts.
2. Use “said”
Ninety-eight percent of the time (yes, that number is completely arbitrary), you should only use “said” as a dialog tag. Eschew words like hissed, hollered, retorted, whispered, etc.
“Said” is largely invisible to readers, while other tags are distracting.
3. Limit descriptive actions tacked onto your dialog tags
This advice might be the opposite of what you’ve heard before. I am not saying don’t ever tuck a piece of action between dialog bits; sometimes pairing an action with words can give them emphasis, reveal that a character is lying, or convey other important story information. I’m saying you should use these actions sparingly, and consider giving them more weight by separating them from the dialog tag.
In other words, you don’t need a long string of phrases like, “Everett said, tamping tobacco into his pipe,” or “Lana said, tucking her hair behind her ears,” or “Clyde said, reaching into his pocket for a gun.”
That structure gets monotonous.
Instead, when an action is important, set it apart:
“It’s time.” Clyde reached into his pocket and withdrew a gun.
4. Don’t be afraid of white space—delete dialog tags and actions
Readers love white space. It makes for quick reading. Especially when you only have two characters in a scene, glory in the opportunity to write rat-a-tat dialog not weighed down by tags or actions.
Jenny glared at Gunther. “What the hell do you mean by that?”
“But I don’t want a divorce. I love you.”
“Oh, right. Where I’m from, people don’t try to poison people they love.”
The above snippet of dialog is nonsense because we don’t know the context, but you know perfectly well who is speaking without tags or actions associated with each line. Try taking all the tags out of your dialog in a two-person scene and add back only as many as necessary for clarity. Aim for zero by making your characters sound so distinct that readers automatically know who’s talking.
5. Don’t overuse names
For some reason, writers tend to toss speakers’ names into dialog much more often than occurs in real life. If you’re sitting at home with your spouse on a Wednesday evening, the conversation doesn’t go like this:
“Thelma, please hand me the remote.”
“Sure thing, Rog. Here it is.”
“Think nothing of it, Roger.”
You don’t talk like that, so don’t make your characters talk like that. Use names sparingly.
Finally, if you want to get better at writing dialog, then …
Listen to people’s conversations and try to write them down. Then cut out the stuff that’s not important and study what you have left. Do this over and over again to develop an “ear.” Do it in specific settings if you’re trying to figure out how a particular character should sound.
She’s a teenager? Go to a high school football game or the mall and eavesdrop (unobtrusively).
He’s a dockworker? Go to, well, the docks (or a nearby bar).
She’s ninety-two? Visit a nursing home.
You get the idea. Put these tips into practice and pretty soon your critique partners or reviewers will be raving about your dialog.
Have a dialog tip to pass along, or a dialog pet peeve? Share it with us!