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What makes good dialogue?

I come from a family of book-lovers and artists, so I've pretty much been reading my entire life, and I've been writing for almost just as long. I've had a lot of people tell me that how I write characters interacting is really good, and not to toot my own horn here but I'm pretty proud of some of the dialogue I've written, too. But I've also reread a lot of my old works, as well as other books that I've loved at different stages in my life, and for a long time I've wondered this: is the quality of written dialogue weighed objectively or subjectively?

If I wrote a dialogue scene now and showed it to two different people, and one person liked and the other person hated it, how would I know if their criticisms were based off of how objectively good (believable, understandable, etc.) it is, or based off of their own personal like/dislike for the dialogue itself? If I showed a written conversation between two Gen Z characters to a 50-year-old and a 17-year-old, or vice versa, would their opinions be towards by the structure of the dialogue or the dialogue itself? The reason this confuses me is because both opinions are valid and even sometimes crucial when trying to see if dialogue is good, but there are some books where the dialogue structure is "unconventional", for lack of a better word (e.g. characters talking in disjointed, uncomplete sentences) that obviously still work, and the same applies for "conventional" dialogue that is mind-numbingly unengaging.

So how do you guys think dialogue quality is gauged? Do you prefer judging it according to how it makes you feel versus how well it puts for the message? Does it entirely depend on context? How do you find the balance? Is this all just an incoherent train of thought? I'd like to know what anyone else thinks.
 

pmmg

Vala
You need more beta readers :). Two is not enough to break a tie.

i think dialog should…. Reveal the character, convey the information, grip the reader, move the story along, and seem natural and not shoe horned in.

There may be a science to it, but there is also an art form. It will always be both objective and subjective.

How do you feel about it? Cause maybe the two readers are both wrong.

Could you post or send me the scene in question?
 

TWErvin2

Auror
Think about your target audience when determining dialogue that one might enjoy or dislike.

The dialouge should read as authentic, releveant, add to characterization/discovery and/or move the story/plot forward.

Readers can be helpful, understanding that you cannot please everyone.

Go and study the dialouge of authors you enjoy, especially with novels/characters similar to what you're attempting to write. What elements made it appealing to you as a reader? Take notes and then do what you can to apply it to your story and characters and writing style.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
Liked is a weak word, while hate is a strong one. So if one person liked it, but another hated it, then most likely you have problems.

Dialogue should say a lot with very little, and much of the time dialogue does all the work of the scene. It's not like a real conversation, and a lot of people think they're good at dialogue because they have "fun" conversations, but they actually need to unlearn all of that to learn how to write dialogue. A lot of times you need to cut your dialogue by half, or even two-thirds, and convey all that wit and emotion into just a few lines. Then keep that pace up because your first draft of dialogue might not even say half of what it needs to.

You've got to cut to the point. Then you need more good points to make.

And that's just the standard advice. That's dialogue 101. If your story is in 3rd person POV, then that character's dialogue should flow seamlessly with the character's narrative voice. In every scene there's a crux, or a point, which makes the scene worth telling, and your dialogue like everything else should build around it. And you should use your dialogue to tell us things about the character speaking, like what they're focused on, how they say it, and so on.

IMO, writing dialogue is one of the hardest and most important writing skills, and it's always worth finding ways to do better at it.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Writing this as someone who doesn't have English as a first language. The way people say things, even in literature, depends on their culture and their language. The way we as Swedes express things isn't the same as the way an American or a Frenchman would say things. Thats true even in literature. What works as dialogue in Swedish would probably come across as terse to the point of unreadability in English, in part because Swedish doesn't have the nuances of English and in part because we Swedes tend to be very brief and to the point.

So how your dialogue is judged is subjective, and will vary with the reader. That means one of the questions you need to consider is who will read your book. You also need to consider how the dialogue moves the story forward, and that will vary with the sort of scene you've set it in. Whilst you can write pages of dialogue which resemble real life conversations, what you'll find is that a good editor will ruthlessly pare it down to something which keeps the story moving. In real life conversations we can see and hear how people are reacting and thinking, but in a book that can only come across when we as authors write the words describing this. Thats another reason to keep the dialogue short and focussed, because you need to add these feelings and expressions without slowing things down. It is a balance.
 
For me, it's easier to say when dialogue is bad than when it's good. If it's good, it fits smoothly into the story and it's what I expect. If it's bad, I get annoyed with it, and that, I'm very much aware of.

What makes dialogue bad is when it's unbelievable. Characters are saying things that don't make sense for those characters. A five-year-old child is delivering a lecture worthy of a long winded professor (the only way this would ever work is if we're told right off the bat, either in prose or in the other characters' reactions, that this is no ordinary five-year-old). Or, and this example is from someone's draft I once beta read (and I gave them this feedback), Protagonist #1 literally bumps into Protagonist #2 (this is how they first meet), and instead of saying something like, "Hey, watch where you're going!" Protagonist #2 immediately launches into a lengthy diatribe with lots of words rarely seen outside of an academic essay.
 
The way we as Swedes express things isn't the same as the way an American or a Frenchman would say things. Thats true even in literature. What works as dialogue in Swedish would probably come across as terse to the point of unreadability in English, in part because Swedish doesn't have the nuances of English and in part because we Swedes tend to be very brief and to the point.
I haven't noticed that in the translated from Swedish books I've read. Maybe they just had good translators. Or maybe it isn't quite as glaring a difference as you think?
 

Avery Moore

Troubadour
Really good topic of conversation. Dialogue is definitely my favourite part of any story to write. I personally think that the most important thing about dialogue is that the character's personality always shines through. Essentially, when communicating information, every single character is going to do it in a completely different way, with their own unique voice. For instance, take a simple greeting and introduction. You're never just going to get, "Hello. My name is Bob. Nice to meet you." What you're going to get is;

"Greetings stranger. I am Lord Augustus Reginald Winston Von Lictenstein the third. It is an honor to make your acquaintance."
"'Ello there, chum! Name's Reggie. Always nice ta see a new face round 'ere."
"Well, aren't you a handsome one? You can call me Valeria. I hope I'll be seeing a lot more of you."
"My name is being Pedro. I am having much happy to be meeting of you! I sorry, my English... No so good."
"Who's this? Why's he here? Someone get rid of him please."
 

Mad Swede

Maester
I haven't noticed that in the translated from Swedish books I've read. Maybe they just had good translators. Or maybe it isn't quite as glaring a difference as you think?
That may be because a good literary translation is an interpretation not an exact translation. I've been supervising the translation of my books in preparation for publication in English, and its surprising what a difference language makes.
 
For me, it's easier to say when dialogue is bad than when it's good. If it's good, it fits smoothly into the story and it's what I expect. If it's bad, I get annoyed with it, and that, I'm very much aware of.

Oh, yeah, this is true. Dialogue could be defined as 'good' when the reader doesn't really register it as separate from the story, because that means it flows so well that their mind doesn't bother to focus on it as a device. If you can pick dialogue out from non-dialogue, then that probably means it's either jarring or completely out of place from the story. Thanks for this :D
 

pmmg

Vala
Oh, yeah, this is true. Dialogue could be defined as 'good' when the reader doesn't really register it as separate from the story, because that means it flows so well that their mind doesn't bother to focus on it as a device. If you can pick dialogue out from non-dialogue, then that probably means it's either jarring or completely out of place from the story. Thanks for this

I am not sure I can go that far, I do think dialog should stand out as different.

Anyway, I tend to find in my own writing, that a pattern emerges, I set up the scene, explain the room, the characters start talking, and its mostly dialog after that, with some few interjections to say someone moved, or picked something up or such. The dialog to me, is showing the inner workings of the characters (I dont write omniscient, so getting into actual heads is not how it goes). For myself, I think I would like to break the pattern more, and will probably do so in the re-write. Natural flow is not the same as not wanting the dialog to stand out. It usually stands out all by itself as the places where there is more white area on the page. Long blocks of thick text are much more likely to make me skip ahead.

Dialog rarely flows well when itself is long blocks of thick text.
 
Dialog rarely flows well when itself is long blocks of thick text.
That very point has made me rewrite some of my dialogue scenes, or scrap them altogether. I seem to have a tendency to write long winded explanations of this and that in the mouths of characters, in my first drafts. Paring it down and putting those details elsewhere, if they're needed at all, is my next phase.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
But I've also reread a lot of my old works, as well as other books that I've loved at different stages in my life, and for a long time I've wondered this: is the quality of written dialogue weighed objectively or subjectively?

If I wrote a dialogue scene now and showed it to two different people, and one person liked and the other person hated it, how would I know if their criticisms were based off of how objectively good (believable, understandable, etc.) it is, or based off of their own personal like/dislike for the dialogue itself? If I showed a written conversation between two Gen Z characters to a 50-year-old and a 17-year-old, or vice versa, would their opinions be towards by the structure of the dialogue or the dialogue itself? The reason this confuses me is because both opinions are valid and even sometimes crucial when trying to see if dialogue is good, but there are some books where the dialogue structure is "unconventional", for lack of a better word (e.g. characters talking in disjointed, uncomplete sentences) that obviously still work, and the same applies for "conventional" dialogue that is mind-numbingly unengaging.

Stories evoke emotions and from a reader's perspective, they generally approach things from an emotional angle. You don't want a beta reader to approach things objectively, because that's not how a typical reader is going to approach a story.

A reader always brings in there personal baggage. Sometimes an author can exploit this to their advantage. Eg Nostalgia for a time and/or place. That personal baggage can and will affect how a story is received, and it's something that can't always be accounted for. Say you name a character Rachel. Some people may have fond memories of the first Rachel they met. Others may have terrible memories of a a Rachel they hate that will overshadow the writing.

There are stories I've read in my 20s that I've revisited and they don't hold up. But those same stories are still read and received well by people in their 20s. And vice versa. There are stories I hated in my 20s that I love now. That's why intent and intended audience is so important. Generally, you don't ask a middle age man/woman about how engaging Dora the Explorer was for them.

A story is life without the boring bits. It's not about reality it's about presenting the illusion of reality. Dialogue is the same way. Dialogue, like all things in a story, must have purpose, to advance the plot, to expand the world, or to reveal character. It can do one or all of these things. But IMHO, like writing a scene, OK dialogue does one of these things, good dialogue does two, and great dialogue does all three without the reader overtly perceiving they're being fed information. It does this while being engaging and maintaining that illusion of reality/authenticity. Because in real life a conversation meanders, it's full of Ums, Ahs, awkward pauses, and non sequiturs. From the outside looking in, its more often than not quite boring.

So how do you guys think dialogue quality is gauged? Do you prefer judging it according to how it makes you feel versus how well it puts for the message? Does it entirely depend on context? How do you find the balance? Is this all just an incoherent train of thought? I'd like to know what anyone else thinks.

Now in terms of feedback, all critiques are subjective, and should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if they take extreme stances. Critiques don't always identify the right things. More often than not, they point at symptoms rather than causes. Sometimes the writer doesn't provide enough context and a piece of dialog comes off flat. Other times a reader may have missed something because they got distracted for a moment and the dialogue comes off flat. Provide the right context and one simple word like "FIRE!" can make the audience gasp.

I'm also very cautious about how much weight I give praise as a indication of quality. Just like a reader can miss something and reach a negative conclusion, a reader can miss something and reach a positive conclusion. For me, a good indication of this is if they praise me for something I didn't intend. Now there's always room for happy accidents, but usually, I want to be doing things on purpose.

All in all, I take the totality of what critiques say about the story, add them to my own perceptions, and come up with a best course of action. I try to worry less about if dialogue is good or bad, but rather I focus on if it does its intended job or not when working in conjunction with the prose. Because if it functions as intended, then I'd say more likely than not, it'll be "good" or at least good enough.

my2cents
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
That very point has made me rewrite some of my dialogue scenes, or scrap them altogether. I seem to have a tendency to write long winded explanations of this and that in the mouths of characters, in my first drafts. Paring it down and putting those details elsewhere, if they're needed at all, is my next phase.

IMHO, there's nothing inherently wrong with long bits of dialogue as long as they're engaging, they fit the character, and they're doing what's intended. There are some people who just don't know when to STFU. And there are some who are terse. There are people who will have lots to talk about in the moment, because they came back from a fantastic vacation, and there will be those who just want to sit and listen to their friend talk about their vacation.
 
IMHO, there's nothing inherently wrong with long bits of dialogue as long as they're engaging, they fit the character, and they're doing what's intended.
The dialogue I've revised or scrapped didn't.

There are some people who just don't know when to STFU.
I've had lots of fun writing a character like that, too. And now I'm going to have to change that scene because I've changed the parameters of that particular story, so some details of the scene no longer fit. But I want to keep the motormouth character. So I'll probably revise rather than scrap.
 
I think I'll go a step further than everyone here and state that there is no such thing as "Objective quality". All writing, including dialogue can only be judged subjectively. Yes, there are some guidelines you can follow, like "make it in character", or "must move the story along", but those are just guidelines.

The only thing you can say about the quality of dialogue is does it achieve its intended purpose for the intended audience. But that might still feel bad to one person and good to another. Just read some literary classics from 100 years ago. The dialogue (and all other prose) will feel very different from that of a book today. Does that make it bad? Or better? Neither of course. It just means that the audience was different.

As for believing what people tell me, I always have a hard time doing so. Might just be imposter syndrome of course. But especially for people I know who give me feedback, their feedback will be colored by their opinion of me. It's hard to get objective feedback, if such a thing even exists.
 
Good dialogue is dialogue that isn't realistic but keeps the reader believing it is, heh heh. Generational differences shouldn't affect much, but readers of whatever age are going to have different tolerance levels for flawed dialogue just like they do for flawed stories or writing in general.

The best way to study dialogue is screenwriting, it's the focus of several good books on the subject. Reading screenplays is also a streamlined way to study dialogue. It's one spot where 99.9% of what you learn in screenwriting applies to novels or any storytelling.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I agree with pmmg about breaking the tie, but I'd back up and say that the question isn't useful to answer. Like and dislike, good and bad, are too broad to be of use to a writer.

There are some fairly objective aspects to dialog you can look at. The most obvious is consistency of voice. Does the character sound like the same character across the span of the story? And does that character sound different from other (main) characters? That's something you can judge for yourself first, then rely on an editor or beta readers to point out places you missed.

Clarity is a second aspect. Is it clear who is speaking? I regularly get so caught up in the conversation I get sloppy about dialog tags, or other methods of indicating speaker. Here again, your own eyes first, then an editor or reader.

If the speaker is something specific, especially something specifically contemporary, then you probably are going to need some help. Age, education, all sorts of social conditions and background, and even context (is the conversation on a playground, in the classroom, at church, before angry parents, etc) are all going to come into play. And any reader who fall into that particular group is going to have a sharper and more critical ear than will some others. I can't be any help there, as I write historical fantasy and am able to play both fast and loose, though there are challenges peculiar to that genre as well.

Once all that is done, only then can one begin to talk about liking and disliking. That's actually an easy one. Some will, some won't, and there's not a thing you can do about it.
 
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