Dialogue is a building block of fiction, one of the key ways your readers will experience—and therefore enjoy—your story. Dialogue speeds up the pace of a story and forces your characters out into society and action. Dialogue sets your story in its place and time through vocabulary, grammar, and syntax (but not, for the love of all that is holy, dialect). In speaking the thoughts, feelings, truths, and lies of your characters, dialogue engages the reader and gives them what they need to live the life of your protagonist. The only reason not to rely on dialogue is if you’re not good at it.
Or you could get good at it.
Here are four ideas for how to write better dialogue:
Let your characters speak to—but not answer—each other
When we speak, we’re often listening not for the other person’s thoughts and ideas, but for the moment when we can jump in. That’s not ideal human behavior, but are you always writing the ideal human? Especially when your characters are frustrated, angry, distracted, scared, or impatient, let them speak without listening, without answering, without communicating. Let them lie, even when it’s not story-necessary that they’re liars. Let them leave out details the reader already knows. All of this could be a source of amusement for you, the author, and it creates energy and conflict in the scene. It also helps the reader see (the all-important seeing instead of being told) how your characters live in the world and in proximity to each other. Each character has an agenda or perspective; let them speak it or act it out. Eavesdrop a little, read a lot, and then play with how your characters interact.
Here’s a short scene from November Road by Lou Berney, set in the 1960s. Barone is a hired gun with a hand injury.
Barone wrote down the address and hung up. He went outside and looked around. A skinny colored kid was loitering at the bus stop across the street. Barone walked over.
“Do you know how to drive?” Baron said.
“Shoot,” the colored kid said. “Do I know how to drive.”
If Barone kept trying to steer and shift and flip the turn signal with just his left hand, his one good hand, sooner or later he’d end up ramming the Pontiac into a wall.
“I’ll give you a dollar if you drive me out to the Second Ward,” Barone said. “I’ve got a car.”
“Shoot. You’ll give me a dollar.”
“Two dollars. Take it or leave it.”
The kid drew himself up to his full height and glared. He weighed all of a buck twenty and couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old.
“I don’t do none of that,” the kid said. “I’ll tell you right now. If that’s what you after.”
“I want you to drive me to the Second Ward,” Barone said. “That’s what I’m after. How old are you?”
A lie. “Let’s go.”
See when the kid says “Shoot. You’ll give me a dollar.” He’s not saying it’s not enough, but his message gets through all the same. At the end, Barone’s decision to hire the kid happens entirely in the beat where Barone knows the kid just lied to him. “Let’s go” cuts to the decision being made, a deal struck.
Revise dialogue until it sounds like something someone might say
In your first draft, just write. But when you revisit your draft in the revision stage, look at your dialogue with a view to cut the unnecessary. No heavy exposition or backstory in speech; remember that especially when characters know each other. They use shorthand. They don’t have to say every word to each other. Story speech is not real speech. It’s stylized version speech that has a lot of work to do (see the next section)—but it should feel real. Your characters might struggle to make themselves understood; they could say the wrong thing or try to say it three different ways. Or maybe they go on and on until someone nearby gives them the big hook to stop. Characters should sound like people—but not like one another. Give speech rhythm or break it up with interruptions, or layer it, as everyone tries to get a word in edgewise. Let your dialogue do its job and then edit it to a fine, necessary point.
My favorite part about the sample scene above is that anytime you see the word “Shoot,” you know it’s the kid talking, every scene he’s in. No need for any dialogue tag because he doesn’t sound like Barone. “Shoot” is always followed by the kid repeating something Barone has said to him, a question flattened to a disbelieving non-question or a head-fake because the kid doesn’t understand what’s being said to him. In this way, this secondary character stands out and defines himself, even though he hasn’t revealed anything real about himself and has no name. But as a character, I believe him. He’s real.
Make sure your dialogue does more than one job for the story
Did I say its job? Singular? Actually, almost every word of dialogue should do at least two kinds of work for your story. A character’s words move the story forward and characterize the speaker. Or they characterize the speaker and tease out story information. Or they tease out story information (but not too much—resist exposition!) and drop a clue in the reader’s lap for later. If that sounds like a lot of work, well, yeah. Let’s go 101 on it. What does this look like? Usually dialogue will share information the reader needs about character or story, or you wouldn’t have included it. That’s one job. Now what else can it do? Can we learn more about the speakers by how they say it, how they rush in or hesitate, by how they say something at odds with what we know they said in a prior scene or at odds with who they are thinking about the situation in their interior moments? You might find this easier to do in revision, of course, when you might have to fold in new revelations about characters you just discovered and the clues you realized you need to plant.
“I don’t do none of that,” the kid said. “I’ll tell you right now. If that’s what you after.” In this one declaration, we get the syntax of a young, possibly undereducated kid, the short burst of anger or fear, and the fact that the kid knows what he might be propositioned for. His first thought is that Barone is buying sexual acts; this is a kid who has seen some things.
Read your book aloud, paying special attention to dialogue
Here’s the big test. You’ve written the messy first draft, and you’ve combed through the thing in successive revisions from high level to low level and now? Now it’s time to read that thing to yourself, every last word. Why? Whyyyyyy? “Lori,” you’re thinking, “do I really need this stage?” Your book sounds good in your head, no question. But if you want every advantage, read the book aloud to yourself. You’re listening for the sound of your sentences, for the rhythm of your sentences, for the missing words you won’t notice any other way, for the paragraph where you used the same fifty-cent word four times three times. Read it aloud also because this is the moment your dialogue has been waiting for: Does it sound like a real person could say it? Do you stumble over it when you read it aloud? (Think ahead to your audiobook reader. Can they perform these lines? Do you need all those dialogue tags or do you not have enough for those listening to the story?) If you find yourself skipping over the formalities of conversation—“Hello,” she said.—hello. As Elmore Leonard said, leave out the parts readers skip. Try to start conversations later and finish them earlier.
Barone walked over. “Do you know how to drive?” No hellos or pleasantries, no introductions. That’s Berney’s style but it’s also the sort of man Barone is. Abruptness makes sense within his character.
The point is that dialogue can lift a story up—and not only for the eventual reader, at job’s end. Letting your characters hash it out will teach you, the writer, so much about the people you’re bringing to life and the story you want to tell.
Do you have trouble with dialogue? Let’s….talk about that. On the Career Authors Facebook page.
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony Award- and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, and The Black Hour. She co-chairs the mystery conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago and serves as the national president of Sisters in Crime. Her new book is The Lucky One, set in a true-crime amateur online sleuth community.