My Dialogue Sucks: Tips For Improving Dialogue In Your Novel

I have just submitted the first few chapters of my thriller novel, Pentecost to my writing group for critique. The responses have been great on plot but truly, my dialogue sucks! (and I am using the English spelling before everyone starts sending me typo notices)

So here are some articles and links that I have been reading to try and improve my dialogue so hopefully they will help you too.

  • Dialogue is not conversation” from Robert McKee ‘Story‘. Conversation is boring, repetitive and concerns inane things. Dialogue moves the plot along, reveals character and every word is necessary to advance the story. As Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘a good story is life with the boring bits taken out’.
  • Very few writers get away with writing in dialects, (think Irvine Welsh) but for most readers it is very annoying and disturbs the flow of reading so don’t do it.
  • Dialogue breaks up monotony of paragraphs of exposition/description and makes the story move faster (JA Konrath). It is better to reveal story elements in dialogue than exposition. It should be natural, but not too natural (as above, it is NOT real conversation). Avoid adverbs and dialogue tags where possible i.e. Jill said wryly. Reading it aloud helps.
  • On attribution and dialogue tags from Let The Words Flow. He said/she said is needed but not every line which can be distracting. But be careful of the opposite extreme so the reader loses sense of who is speaking.
  • Dialogue should reveal emotion through words, not through adverbs. Don’t say “angrily” when you can use angry words and describe the character/action portraying anger. (Show, don’t tell!). From Blood Red Pencil.
  • Don’t use dialogue to explain the back story, saying things like “As you know John, we have already navigated the lost world of Aurion and found the golden goblet…” . From Poewar, which also has some great exercises for dialogue.
  • For a brilliant chapter on dialogue, read “How not to write a novel” which parodies the author who is too good for the word ‘said, as well as examining misplaced exposition, random adverbs, failure to identify the speaker and more in a laugh-out-loud writing book.
  • My primary flaw seems to be that my readers don’t think my character would talk the way I have written, so my dialogue does not match the person created in the reader’s head. This is good in a way as I have evoked a specific character in their minds, but bad as I have clearly got the ‘voice’ wrong! Holly Lisle’s advice helps here, “writing good dialogue comes from being able to hear voices in your head that aren’t there“, and the voices have to belong to the specific characters. I am planning to read my chapters out loud and rectify the issues. I am still on first draft so I am not fretting too much but dialogue is one of the areas that has stopped me writing so I want to continue learning about it.

Do you have any tips for writing dialogue? Or any good examples in books I could read?

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You can now get free chapters of Pentecost on the Facebook page by clicking here.

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Image: Flickr CC Streetfly JZ

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Comments

  1. says

    Good dialogue in movies and T.V. inspires me. I love Diablo Cody, who wrote the screenplay for “Juno” and “United States of Tara” on HBO. Also, Nick Hornby does a fantastic job. I think the best dialogue are the kinds of things you think to say after a conversation is over and you smack yourself on the forehead and say, “Why didn’t I say THAT?” You make your characters say them instead.

  2. says

    I have dealt with dialogue as both a writer and editor and it is one of the biggest challenges for many writers. My best bit of advice is to read all dialogue to yourself in a mirror. Try to imagine that it is the character talking to you. Does it sound realistic, interesting, in sync with the character, etc? Then ask yourself, “If I were at a dinner party listening to this conversation, would I stay and listen or walk away?” If you wouldn’t stay and listen, your readers probably won’t waste their time with it either… head back to the desk and work on it some more!

  3. says

    I’ve done workshops on dialogue — I’ve got a summary with some examples as a handout on my website, http://www.terryodell.com

    I’ve found dialogue relatively easy, because my characters insist on talking to me. All Day Long. I just transcribe it for the first draft, then go back and “listen” to what I’ve written.

  4. says

    One more must about dialogue–it should be there for a reason. No matter how witty or wonderful the dialogue is, its purpose is to move the story forward by revealing plot, conflict or character. One of the mistakes I see the most with my writing coaching clients is dialogue that is the novel equivalent of “shooting the breeze.” Dialogue is there to create conflict and it should reflect conflict. No– “hi, how are you–I’m fines.”

    Regarding attribution–that’s another common beginner mistake. Trying to avoid “he said, she said,” writers use words like uttered, repeated, inquired, etc” For the most part, stick to “said,” unless you use something like shouted or whispered to show tone. You can avoid the attribute by putting a “show don’t tell next to the dialogue like this:

    “They forgot to put green peppers on the pizza.” She frowned and picked up the phone.

    “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

    “It’s the principle.”

    “You can’t eat principles. I’m hungry.” He snagged a piece of pizza, whipping it quickly away when she tried to smack his hand.

    The above dialogue only uses said once, but you know who’s talking, and it also reveals character. He’s laid back; she’s into control. And I never said he’s laid back or she’s into control in the actual scene.

    One of the best ways to get to know how your characters talk is to have imaginary conversations with them. Imagine sitting them in a chair and picture them and their mannerisms and pet phrases and then talk to them. You should be able to hear the rhythm of their speech if you’ve created a REAL character. Good dialogue starts with complete, fully developed characters, which is something I teach in my Novel Writing Made Easy system. You need to know your character’s ticks and voice inflections and sentence lengths and whether they like big words or little words or have a favorite phrase they use over and over.

    Enough said.

      • Rod says

        On that snippet I guess it is impossible to know if it advances the plot, but it does reveal something about the characters which would probably be boring if it was done in description. As I write that I find myself trying to imagine an essay entitled “Pizza and Plot” . . .

  5. says

    Love this post. I’m going to include it in our 5/21/10 Best Articles This Week for Writers.

    Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages has a good section on dialogue. The best tip I ever came across for writing dialogue was to read it aloud. If I can tell who is speaking, and I can hear the tension, then I am happy enough to move on. As with everything else though, I love the advice about making sure there is opposition in every scene. That’s especially true of dialogue. Who wants to hear two people agreeing with each other?

  6. says

    A key point to remember is that real people don’t speak using perfect grammar. They run words together, mix up tenses, interrupt each other and don’t finish sentences. People use contractions, stuffer, and stumble over words. The absolute easiest way to make your characters believable and real is to make their dialogue believable and real. The dialogue has to sound like real people speaking to one other the way they would in real life.
    Even dialects can be accomplished if you speak in a dialect – just listen closely to yourself (or someone you know) and write what you hear. It’s not easy, but it adds dimension to the characters and to the dialogue.
    Each character should have his/her own set of speech idioms which makes recognizing speakers easy for the readers. Example: if a child stutters, he should be the only one of your characters who stutters. Make it part of the Character Chart you’ve prepared for each of your characters. Get a Character Chart at http://bit.ly/cuNP4s – it can be modified to suit your needs, and is copyright-free.

  7. says

    An novelist knows what to do when he gets suppressed the ideas of yours could also help an novelist to get bloom again if they use it in an proper way to utilize them properly.

  8. says

    Great tips, Joanna. Dialogue tends to be my strong suit, but when it fails, it’s usually for one of two reasons: (1) the dialogue serves a plot purpose rather than a character purpose; or (2) male dialogue sounds too feminine.
    If you find that the dialogue isn’t in the voice of the character, ask yourself, are the words coming from the character, or from the author’s need to move the plot in a particular direction? If the latter, look for a character-driven motivation for the speaker to steer the conversation that way, and experiment with different wording to make the dialogue more authentic.
    Keep in mind that men tend to be more direct in their speech than women. So while a woman might ask, “Do you want to go out to dinner tonight?” a man would more likely say, “Let’s go out to dinner tonight.” That’s not to say you can’t have a role reversal. But that dynamic should be part of the overall character development, and the dialogue should merely reflect it.

  9. says

    I always used to have problems with dialogue – I was so wrapped up in setting the scene and painting a picture for the reader that I forgot to focus on what characters said to each other, and every character ended up talking like me! The best dialogue enhances the character so that you can leave out the attribution tags and readers still know who is talking. I read plays, and decided to put my two film degrees to good use, and studied the way dialogue is portrayed on film. I got a much better grasp of how dialogue works in fiction rather than real life, and now I try to “play a movie” of the scene in my head, and write down what my characters say to each other.

  10. says

    I have been told my dialogue is my strong point. When told it gave me a confidence boost. If only I could get my descriptions to work the same way for me.
    I become each character and imagine them chatting. I cannot do this for a field or leafy lane. :)

    Interesting article.

  11. says

    Try to avoid two very similar characters talking. I t should be possible to tell who is talking by the language that they use. I have sometimes collected all the speech from each character and run analytical software like reading age and Gender Genie on each seperately. So for instance when one of my characters, in ‘Side Effect’ who is a professor, is talking to his teenage daughter, he should come up as male on Gender Genie with a high reading age, and the daughter should be female with a reading age several years younger. Things like sentence length and linking words make a big difference.
    See Side Effect to see if you think it works. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Side-Effect-Like-Falling-ebook/dp/B003VS0DUA/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1314190211&sr=1-2)

  12. says

    I love the dialog that Harper Lee gives her characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. She writes dialog so specific, seldom needs tag lines are needed.

    Give it a read, or a reread. This book helps me every time.

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