10 Tips for Writing Impactful Dialogue

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photo courtesy Flickr’s Βethan

Therese here. Today’s guest is author Catherine McKenzie. Catherine’s latest novel, Forgotten, releases on October 16th in the U.S. I love the premise of this book. Check it:

Emma Tupper, a young lawyer with a bright future, sets out on a journey after her mother’s death: to Africa, a place her mother always wanted to visit. But her mother’s dying gift has unexpected consequences. Emma falls ill during the trip and is just recovering when a massive earthquake hits, turning her one-month vacation into a six-month ordeal.

When Emma returns home, she’s shocked to find that her friends and colleagues believed she was dead, that her apartment has been rented to a stranger and that her life has gone on without her. Can Emma pick up where she left off? Should she? As Emma struggles to recreate her old life, everyone around her thinks she should change: her job, her relationships, and even herself. But does she really want to sacrifice everything she’s working so hard to gain?

(Psst. Want an inside peek? Click here.)

I’m so pleased Catherine is with us today to share her best dialogue tips with us. Enjoy!

10 Tips for Writing Better Dialogue

Whenever I think about what makes good dialogue, that old adage about pornography comes to mind: I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. You know what I mean, I’m sure. The dialogue in some books just seems to flow and sound like real people. In others, not so much. So, that being said, if it’s really something that’s undefinable, how do you do it? I don’t pretend to have all the answers[1], but hopefully the tips below will be helpful. Happy writing!

 

  1. It’s okay to use identifiers like “he said”, “she replied”, he “asked”, but try to minimize them when you can, especially if only two people are speaking. Make your characters distinct enough that the reader can follow who’s speaking through 4-6 lines of dialogue without you having to tell them. Too many identifiers are an easy way to not make your characters distinct. Put in the work. It’s worth it.
  2. Related: avoid using too many adjectives (“he exclaimed, she gasped, he screamed”). The tone should be conveyed through the words used and the reader’s knowledge of the characters. Show, don’t tell.
  3. Dialogue is especially good for conflict or resolving conflict. You don’t need to use dialogue for getting a cup of coffee or making a grocery list. It should be for the big moments.
  4. Related: PhotobucketDialogue should sound real, but that doesn’t mean dialogue on the page is exactly like snippets of dialogue you overhear. You can usually cut out the “hello” “how are you?” parts of conversation.
  5. Watching a good movie or television show is usually a great place to get a “feel” for writing dialogue. Examples of fast-paced, intelligent dialogue that will get people turning the pages: The Newsroom, Gilmore Girls, The Wire. Listen to the “beats” with your eyes closed. Internalize them.
  6. Read dialogue out loud. Or better yet, get someone to read dialogue out loud with you – like a script reading.
  7. Don’t use dialogue to convey large chunks of information. People don’t usually give speeches unless they’re actually giving a speech. People also don’t tend to narrate what they’ve just done (unless they’re annoying).
  8. Convey emotion through your words. If you want to show that someone’s emotional, for example, have them stumble, or stop and start what they are going to say, don’t write he said, emotionally.
  9. Speech has a particular punctuation to it. For example “Hello, Catherine”, rather than “Hello Catherine”. Make sure they don’t talk too formally. “It is my intention to ensure you are …” should be “It’s my intention to be sure you’re” unless speaking formally is that character’s defining characteristic. It’s important to get this part right. Mistakes take people out of the story.
  10. Give each character a distinct voice. Even if people are from the same place, they speak differently depending on education, age, sex etc. Don’t use clichés. Listen to your friends. Notice that one might say “a couple apples” while another might say “a couple of apples.” Some people swear more than others. Etc.

 


[1] In fact, the tips below are not all my own, but come from a collaboration with the author of Jessica Z. and Two Years, No Rain, Shawn Klomparens, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of teaching several dialogue clinics.

Have dialogue tips of your own? Feel free to share in comments!

Readers, you can learn more about Catherine at her website, or follow her on Twitter. Write on. 

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About Catherine McKenzie

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN and HIDDEN were all international bestsellers and have been translated into multiple languages. HIDDEN was a #1 Amazon bestseller, and a Digital World Bestseller for five weeks. Her fifth novel, SMOKE, will be released on October 20, 2015. You can preorder Catherine's upcoming release, SMOKE, on Amazon. 

Comments

  1. says

    Good stuff to keep in mind as I enter into revision on my MS. Thanks for sharing and congratulatiions on your book. Sounds very interesting!

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  2. says

    Good stuff, Catherine. Believable dialog must be imperfect. Real life conversation is mostly a series of shortcuts and code but it communicates just fine. Regional speech magnifies the easy slurring of words that are perfectly understood. ‘S’up?’. ‘Fugetaboutit’. ‘How y’all?’ ‘Wudhelow?’ (Georgia for ‘what did he allow’ or, as a Yankee might say, ‘what did he have to say?’ Juicy, colorful stuff.

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  3. says

    Catherine,
    Thanks for the tips on writing dialogue. One would think dialogue would be easy to write because we hear it all the time. As you point out, dialogue in fiction must achieve different goals than real-life conversations. Thanks again, Catherine.

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  4. says

    Great post, Catherine. The tip I’d add is to make sure that the dialogue also has action somewhere. While some direct dialogue back and forth can be effective, I still want to get the sense of place and the action happening in the scene besides just the talking, whether that’s at the beginning, end or interspersed throughout the conversation. I also like to know what *isn’t* being said – the internal thoughts, too.

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    • says

      I agree. Even if you’re just sitting around talking, there’s something going on. The TV is on, or you’re drinking a beer, or someone’s on fire in the background. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment in my life when something wasn’t happening while I was talking to someone. It’s a good way to spice up the scene, as you said.

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    • says

      Yes! Good action can convey emotions and reactions just as well as dialogue–and in some cases, it’s better because it shows rather than tells, or avoids very obvious dialogue tags, or . Even little actions such as having a character pull out a tissue after a line of dialogue, for example, can add a pause between lines of dialogue, show how distraught the character feels, and avoid the need for a tag such as “she said sadly”. And it definitely shows that something is occurring other than speaking.

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  5. says

    I can’t tell you how off-put I am by dialogue tags. Good job on calling them out. Number 10 stood out the most for me though. I think a lot of people really struggle with giving each character a distinct voice, because it’s so easy to write a piece of ourselves into our characters.

    The benefit of sitting down and really thinking about how each character sounds; how their upbringing affects their speech, how they emphasise certain words, etc, is essential. Thanks for the post!

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  6. says

    Excellent tips, and this actually made me snortle (snort-chuckle):

    “People don’t usually give speeches unless they’re actually giving a speech. People also don’t tend to narrate what they’ve just done (unless they’re annoying).”

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  7. says

    All excellent tips. One addendum to #7: when there is a large amount of information to be shared with the main character (as in a mission briefing or similar scene), one way to get away from the long blocks of dialogue is to narrate a summary of the information and have the MC react to the most important part–even repeat it in dialogue.

    “Wait–you’re saying our suspect meant to leave the gun?”

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  8. says

    The Gilmore Girls is an excellent example of smart, snappy dialogue. Since I love writing dialogue, it’s not surprising I love the show.

    Thanks for the tips about reserving dialogue for important scenes and eliminating things like greeting. Documenting trivial matters through dialogue slows the pace of a story.

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  9. Sarah says

    Love this! Thanks for sharing the tips (as I am still learning and so grateful to those who share) and the book sounds amazing! Added to my To-Read list a few minutes ago!

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  10. Hilary says

    I’d add :

    – you can eliminate tags by having characters address each other by name – which identifies who is NOT talking, and can identify who is, if characters have different names for each other, so if you have two parents and a child talking, and someone says, “Mum, can I … ,” you can be sure who said it.

    – Character development and changes in relationships during the course of a novel can be reflected in the names characters use for each other – e.g. from “Miss Bennett” to “Elizabeth” to “Darling”, or in changes to the character’s voice – if they either get an education, or get in with the “wrong” crowd – or just grow out of using, “Dunno.”.

    – Characters, as real people do, will vary in how often they use each others names, from twice a sentence to never.

    – If a character is hidden or disguised, the tag could indicate where their voice seems to come from, e.g.
    “Is that you, Mary?” said the wardrobe. Use sparingly!

    – If there is action going on at the same time as talk, there could be two threads in the plot being advanced simultaneously.

    – Most real conversations are NOT good communication – there is lying or not-listening or misunderstanding or sarcasm or teasing or thinking-out-loud or interruption going on. The more that’s going wrong, the more interesting the dialogue can be – but misunderstandings should ideally arise from differences in characters’ points of view or experience, not just randomly e.g. if a carpenter asks a stationer for a file …. And interruption and contradiction says a lot about those characters’ relationships.

    – If a character’s voice doesn’t match other facts about them, e.g. a judge with a strong accent who swears a lot, there could be a very interesting reason – or bad writing!

    – A character may use a different voice in different circumstances – and when they switch, or use the “wrong” one, the reader knows that something significant is happening.

    – Interesting people in interesting situations have interesting conversations. If you’ve followed all the tips and the dialogue is still dull, then it may be that the characters and/or the plot are the problem.

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  11. says

    Love #6. When I read my dialog out loud, I realize how much I can cut out without confusing the meaning.

    That darned exposition is insidious! It finds a way to sneak in somehow. But when I hear it instead of just seeing it, it becomes so obvious.

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  12. says

    Okay, this is bugging me, so I’ve got to ask–number 2 refers to “adjectives” but the examples given are verbs. I’m confused. Could you clarify? Other than that, terrific stuff. I teach a workshop on dialogue, and I think I’ll incorporate a few of the points you’ve made. Thanks.

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  13. says

    A very useful post. The thing I would add is when a character asks another a question don’t get the other to answer it directly. Either ignore it or answer it obliquely – makes for much more realistic and interesting dialogue. People are usually much more interested in their own agenda than other people’s.

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