5 Quick Tips For Better Dialogue In Fiction

For fiction writers, dialogue is one of those tricky things you really have to master and it certainly takes time. My dialogue certainly sucked when I was writing the first book, and I continue to focus on learning how to improve it.

dialogueIn today’s guest post, Irving Weinman, author of Write Great Dialogue: A Teach Yourself Guide gives us 5 tips that should help that improvement.

(1) Dialogue brings your characters to life.

It’s the direct speech of your characters. Dialogue presents not just story information to your readers but shows your characters’ emotions – their desires and fears, what they really mean rather than pretend to mean.

Do they speak more slowly or more quickly when they’re happy? When they’re angry? When they command or when they beg? Do they use a more formal or a less formal way of speaking when they’re delighted? When they’re offended?

Do they generally say what they mean in a straightforward way, or do they start and stop and seem to forget what they intended to say? Or do they speak ironically, and does this show that they’re sceptical or trying to be funny?

Your dialogue is a key way of making your characters different from each other – of making them individuals, more real and more interesting to your readers.

(2) Where do you find dialogue to write?

You find it in yourself. You’ve been speaking it all your life, taking part in all sorts of conversation, from the details of every day, to joking around with your friends, to speaking quietly in love, of love. You remember the way your family talks, you remember how different friends and acquaintances speak. And since you want to write, you’re obviously a reader who’s come across characters in fiction that you like, that are memorable because of their dialogue.

Look closely at some of it again, and jot down a few quick notes about why you like it. Do this with several authors you like. Then try it out in your own writing. Don’t worry, you won’t be cheating, you’ll be learning to write your own good dialogue. Start listening to conversations around you; keep a small notebook and set down what strikes you as real and interesting ways of speaking. As a writer, you sort of spy on life!

(3) Avoid the adverb trap

Keep ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ (identifying narrative) to the minimum necessary for clarity in a scene of dialogue. Effective descriptive narrative is great mixed in with dialogue, but take care using a single adverb to explain the tone or emotion of what a character says. This can be a trap because, first, the dialogue itself should reveal that tone or emotion. And it can be a trap because it often results in a cliché that says less than nothing, that turns readers off. For example, ‘she said coyly,’ or ‘he said roguishly,’ or ‘he said beseechingly.’ If you think of writing ‘she said nervously,’ think again. You might come up with something more specific that keeps the reader’s attention better, like ‘As she spoke, her thumb rubbed across the tops of her fingers.’

(4) Regional and foreign accents

Accents are of course part of how some people speak. But a little goes a long way. Don’t overdo it: you risk making it too difficult to read and understand, or too boring or silly to keep ‘listening to.’ For example: If the Austrian doctor is speaking English to the patient who’d had a skiing accident, don’t have her say, ‘Ve vant you to valk vell.’ Having her say ‘We want you to walk vell,’ indicates the accent without the distraction of sounding silly, and it also indicates the emphasis she puts on the final word.

(5) Different levels of speech

Remember that most adults use different levels of speech for different listeners and in different social or professional situations. You generally don’t answer a five year olds’ question about what makes a rainbow using the same language you would to the same question from a bright fifteen year old, when you might use the term the ‘refraction of light.’ Or a question by the boss: ‘What do you think of Charlie Smith?’ would be answered in terms of the job’s jargon – efficiency, analytical ability, teamwork, etc. But ‘What do you think of Charlie Smith?’ asked by a friend in a pub might get the answer, ‘He’s eye candy!’

What are your tips for writing great dialogue? Please do leave a comment below.

write dialogueWrite Great Dialogue: A Teach Yourself Guide is available on Amazon and all online bookstores.

irving weinmanIrving Weinman is the author of six critically acclaimed novels Taylor’s Dummy, Hampton Heat, Virgil’s Ghost, Easy Way Down, Stealing Home and the latest, Wolf Tones, published in 2009. He founded and directed the Key West Writers’ Workshop and was on the board of directors of The Key West Literary Seminar. He has taught fiction writing in the United States and in England, most recently running workshops and master classes for the MA in Creative Writing and Authorship at the University of Sussex. He has reviewed fiction for, among others, The New York Times, The Times and the Times Literary Supplement. With other Sussex writers, he helped found and runs Needlewriters, a Lewes-based reading series of poets and fiction writers. He is currently working on a volume of short stories. Irving Weinman lives in Lewes with his wife, the poet Judith Kazantzis.



Top image: Bigstockphoto.com dialogue between man and woman

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  1. says

    Thanks for the tips. As an author and avid fiction reader I completely agree with you. Intrigue and mystic form the basic essence of any good story coupled with effective dialogues. Keep sharing. Looking forward.

  2. says

    I Love dialogue. I think one of my tips would be to have your dialogue show your character’s personality. Sure they can say information that moves the story forward, but each character can do it in their own unique way that shows how different they are.

    Great post.

  3. says

    I really like this post, and especially the first tip. One of my biggest mistakes in the past has been to make each character sound the same through dialog–and I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes of nearly all beginning writers. Thanks for the great post!

    • says

      Ditto. I’ve struggled a lot with making characters have their own way of speaking that doesn’t all sound like me. This post has some great advice! I like the idea of writing down real dialogue that strikes a cord.

  4. says

    Good stuff. One of the first things I do when deciding whether to read a new novel is to flip through and look at snippets of dialogue. The adverb trap listed above always gives me pause – if the author has to explain the mental state of the character each time he or she speaks, it strikes me as incomplete scene setting and I’d expect to find more of that sprinkled throughout the story. Another red flag for me, and something I try to avoid in my own writing, is overuse of names in dialogue.
    “Say, Bob. Your hair looks particularly fine today. Are you combing if differently?”
    “Why, thank you, Mike. I’m blow drying.”
    “Looks great, Bob. Keep it up.”
    When we’re having back and forth conversations, we don’t tend to speak that way. That kind of dialogue in a novel tends to remind the reader that he’s reading. It breaks the spell.
    Love these tips. Keep ’em coming.

    • says

      Overuse of names is a big one, and I notice it so much in books now. But then, as writers, we are over-sensitive sometimes to ‘mistakes’ like these that other readers may skip over.

  5. says

    Dialogue is possibly more important than description, so it is worthy of paying attention to. However, I think adverbs have their place. While you don’t want to rely on them to describe how a person does something, if you completely eliminate them, it can make your words flat and lifeless. Adverbs can create music to the reader’s ears. asateenwriter.blogspot.com

  6. says

    #3 is my biggest problem – I always have to remind myself to avoid the adverb trap! I think I have too many adverbs in the draft I’m working on now, but I’ll worry about fixing those when I finish the draft and start editing. :)

  7. says

    I think dialogue makes your story. It connects your reader directly to your characters, while you narrate in neutral. If you know your characters well, you’ll hear them speaking inside your head. Then you just transcribe what they’re saying.

  8. says

    Dialogue is so important, so thank you for these tips. I really struggle with it and have to work very hard to make sure characters have their own voice (and then don’t lose them and all start sounding the same halfway through!).

  9. says

    I’ve found that when done correctly, dialogue is seamless. It tells you everything you need to know and you don’t even notice. But when it’s done incorrectly, it grates on you and makes you want to throw the book across the room. I know good dialogue from bad, but still haven’t quite perfected mine yet. I’m working on it.

  10. Matthew Eaton says

    I find Tom Chiarella’s method on breaking down the dialogue to make the most sense. It isn’t a real triangle where dialogue is a three pronged support system that the characters give a wink and a nod to the reader. The point is to make them the eavesdropper. Stop front loading your dialogue with things they shouldn’t know, and let them interrupt each other once in a while, you know?

  11. says

    One of the biggest tips I’ve received is to actually say the dialog out loud. If it sounds unnatural, it is!

    Another is to be careful of long speeches. We rarely talk like that, at least not out loud to another person.

  12. says

    I absolutely love to move works along using dialogue and to use dialogue to produce backstory. I often get tripped up though and start relying too heavily on dialogue. It’s really hard to find that balance of dialogue and narrative.

  13. says

    Todos as dicas que você me envia são maravilhosas! Eu como escritora sou uma eterna aprendiz. Sou muito grata por tudo isso. Parabéns pela sua boa vontade. Isso é lindo da sua parte Joaana.
    Deus dê bastante sabedoria para nos ensinar.


    Neves Maria (Brasil)

  14. says

    One of the best advice for writing good dialogue is to say it out loud. Odds are if it sounds wonky go back and edit. Also in addition to avoiding adverbs avoid synonyms for said like she explained , replied, ejaculated. Another tip is to drop the speech tags and Idenity who is speaking by describing their actions.

  15. Irving Weinman says

    There are a lot of good comments and ideas in this discussion. Reading your dialogue out loud to yourself (or to a good reader) can be a great help in actually hearing what works and what doesn’t. I find that if I’m struggling to figure out a character – who she/he really is, I get them into an argument. Even if I don’t use it in the novel, it gives me more insight into the character. This can be specially helpful trying to work out characters that you always find more difficult to write convincingly;in my case, for example, women.

  16. Sue says

    When I write, I find that the scene I am writing becomes a “movie” in my head which allows me to focus on the body language and the natural conversational flow between characters in the scene and write what I see and hear.

  17. says

    People often get hung up on sentence structure. This may come as a shock to you, but people sometimes speak a sentence fragment and move on. People use contractions when they speak. People even stop in the middle of a sentence and pause, and then go on to some other thought. Your dialog should not be a series of sentence fragments and unfinished thoughts, but the dialog should sound like something that real people in the real world would say. Every line does not have to sound like your 12th grade English teacher approved it. Relax and let it be natural sounding.

    “Do not be concerned about this situation. It will be resolved soon.”
    “Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine.”

    People sometimes sound like the second example in real life :-)

  18. John A Reynolds says

    I great site, with loads of helpful information. I am working on a postal course, writing about short stories. It would seem I have a problem with ‘expositional dialogue’ could you please explain in more detail how not to fall into this trap.

    Regards John

  19. Irving Weinman says

    Dear John,
    Put simply, this is the problem of two characters who are supposed to be talking to each other becoming unnatural or unbelievable because they’re giving each other too much raw information about the setting, the plot background or situation, which is better left to the narration in the story. Readers switch off because they know that people just don’t talk with each other like that. For example, if you’re writing a story whose plot is really about what happens to your character Bill just after his wife leaves him, you might begin:’ Bill’s wife had walked out on him again, but this time he knew she wouldn’t be back.’ This would probably give the background better than getting Bill into a bar and having him explain this in dialogue with the bartender. Why? Because you want your story to concentrate on what happens to Bill from this time, not on what has already happened. On the other hand, if you wanted the story to be about what led up to this point, Bill might well be the narrator, needing to tell the story to anyone who’ll listen. But if the bartender was busy, he really couldn’t ask Bill a string of leading questions – that would be ‘expositional dialogue.’


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