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Writing Better Dialogue

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, Aug 10, 2011.

  1. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

    Writing engaging dialogue can be a serious challenge. It can end up sounding artificial, stilted or tedious.

    Do you have any tips for writing great dialogue?
  2. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    You can't be a shut in. I think most people who can write good dialogue are social creatures. Get out there and talk to people, and LISTEN to them talking as well. Only through a large collection of such memories will you be able to synthesize realistic speech.

    Using forums and messengers doesn't count. People 'speak' differently in each one.
  3. Theankh

    Theankh Scribe

    I agree, I think listening to others talk can be a help.

    Learn to talk yourself if you can. Most of the time when I'm writing dialogue, I'm imagining how it would sound if I said it. If it sounds unnatural, I change it.
  4. I hate diaglogue that sounds too contrived. Readers aren't looking for talking robots, they want to hear characters that sound real in terms of personality. Ask yourself, what would my character truly say? Don't ask what you would say? Your characters have to take on a life of their own through dialogue. So, the best advice (I think) is to be honest.
  5. Leuco

    Leuco Troubadour

    I agree with everything already stated.

    But you know, I think if you have interesting characters and conflicts, the dialogue seems to come more easily. If nothing's happening, then the dialogue will be very dry. And even though it's fantasy, characters need to be somewhat realistic. We need to think about how they would feel and how they would react. And as writers, we shouldn't be afraid to use exclamation points. Characters should show emotion.

    Also, nonverbal language is important too. Sometimes characters talk with their expressions, body movements, or actions. It also helps keep out the "he said, she said" monotony.

    Honestly, something that has influenced my dialogue, and my work in general, is comic books. Not very epic fantasy, but some are soap opera-ish with lots of drama (like the old X-Men books from the 80's) written in a story-board fashion. Plus they have lots of dialogue bubbles that make it easy and quick to read-- and I'm sure you'll agree that writers should read a lot! For me, I guess it's like cheating. But Ray Bradbury used to read a lot of comic books too! Also, good illustrators catch the nonverbal language which could be used as a reference.

    I think comic books make for good research, unless of course, you want your heroes to talk like Shakespeare. Then you'll obviously need to do more sophisticated reading.

    Maybe Thor... :)
  6. pskelding

    pskelding Troubadour

    Without good characters who have motivations and reactions dialogue will fall flat.

    That being said there are a few exercises you can do to try and improve your writing of dialogue.

    One recommended by Michael Stackpole is to write out your scene with dialogue tags; he said, she snarled etc using 2 characters. Then remove all the tags. If the word choice for each character doesn't show who they are and their emotion or motivation then you need to work on it. I found this helped me quite a lot because it forces you to focus on your characters' word choices more than dialogue tags to show differentiation.

    The other thing that I found helps me I learned from Joe Abercrombie. That is to put some body language or movement into the dialogue. Like -

    "I can see what you mean.", he waved the cigar before placing it in his mouth and lighting it. "This is going to be bad business." He turned to enter the house, pulling a gun from his under his coat.

    That's a really simple version but using body language to show your characters mood or habits can help distinguish them from each other and make the dialogue come more alive. When people talk to each other they give non-verbal body language clues all the time. Sit in a coffee shop sometime and watch 2 people talking you'll see what I mean. The subtle head tilt, the wandering eyes, leaning forward, relaxing back with an arm draped over the chair etc.
    Kate and Angharad like this.
  7. Dante Sawyer

    Dante Sawyer Troubadour

    Use examples from your own life. If you have two characters, one quiet one outgoing, have the outgoing one dominate the conversation. Don't describe someone as dull and quiet and then have them give some great uplifting speech. It makes your writing less believable when you do that. Allow a character's personality come through in dialogue. Don't force anything. It'll only detract from the character development.
  8. Motley

    Motley Minstrel

    No monologues and don't get stuck with rigid complete sentences. People often talk in fragments. Also, never write small talk unless it's sole purpose is to show how awkward or boring a character or situation is.

    I recently read a (self-published) book where every line of dialogue was an expansive sentence. It was tiring and unrealistic.
  9. Angharad

    Angharad Troubadour

    Some great suggestions here. I agree with Motley: People don't usually talk in complete sentences and dialogue written in complete sentences sounds stilted and unnatural.
  10. pskelding

    pskelding Troubadour

    Motley and Angharad's advice is very good also. Run-on sentences, fragments, interrupting, slang, accent and register (formal/informal) all affect dialogue. You might have a well bred character who speaks in good complete sentences whereas one who's just a commoner wouldn't. And other races might speak the common language with accented words or mistakes etc.

    Human - Go kill the big one!
    Orc - Kill da big un!

    Games Workshop (Warhammer / Warhammer 40k) make full use of this stuff in their materials and their authors put it into their books as well.
  11. Shadoe

    Shadoe Sage

    Try reading your dialog out loud, too. In character. If you feel uncomfortable saying the words, your character probably will too. Using movement to break up the dialog is also wonderfully efficient.
  12. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    I am always trying to fix the color on my Word document. That annoying green underline with the line "fragment, consider revising"
    I will have to go back and change it. Thumb my nose at the word editor. :)
    The nobles and noble born elves do try to speak properly, so they will speak in less fragments but even the best of speakers tend to cut out words.

    Melima, Duchess of Myil would speak more eligantly and in less fragments then farm born street orphan Dakara.
  13. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

    Ugh. Grammar check in MSWord hates my dialogue. I think about half of it gets green underlined as fragments. Then of course just about every paragraph pops up with red because I haven't added all my created words into the dictionary yet... As far as grammar goes I tend to ignore it when people are talking. Aside from proper placement of punctuation, the characters say what they're going to say, and the heck with MSWord's ideas of grammar.
  14. Shadoe

    Shadoe Sage

    I usually do my initial writing in Notepad specifically because the squiggly lines annoy me. And the autocorrect - ugh! I only put the thing in Word when I'm ready to spellcheck and go over my grammar weaknesses. If I'm doing the actual writing in Word, I turn all that stuff off.
  15. One thing you could do is watch a few siffy channel made for tv movies (that's spelled syfy when they do it, but anyways). Every line of dialog you hear, that is what your dialog shouldn't be. Actually, if you watch enough of them, you will start to recognize bad dialog so fast you will never have to worry about writing it.

    If self torture isn't in your list of teaching methods, then go with the reading it out loud. Actually, try reading the whole thing out loud, it is amazing how many things you can find that way.
  16. Thistlefizz

    Thistlefizz Acolyte

    I would recommend going to see live theater and paying close attention to how the dialogue moves the scene along. By the very nature of their medium playwrights are going to be very good and "showing, not telling". They can't rely on exposition, so the dialogue they construct will help you gain a clearer understanding of how good dialogue can progress a story. Pay attention not only to what the characters say, but how they say it. And pay attention to how they chance what they say and how they say it based on where they are and who they are with. That can really help you make your own characters' dialogue feel more natural.
  17. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    I read some advice that said don't try to make your dialogue sound TOO realistic. If you do your story may sound like this:


    "Hey. What's up?"

    "Nothing. Just watching some TV."

    "That's cool."

    Wow! It's so exciting! But yes, I have also heard the saying dialogue aloud. If it sounds stupid and clunky, then it probably will sound stupid and clunky when people read it.

    One thing that bugs me in fantasy specifically is when writers think they are being sneaky like this:

    "We must go to the Gamma Quadrant."

    "Yes, but everyone knows the Gamma Quadrant is infested with space-bugs. And of course your ex-wife lives there."

    "Yeah, I know. But I do want to visit my home planet, Golgor."

    I really hate that.
  18. Orson Scott Card had a funny video he put together that demonstrated the abuse of telling the reader something through dialog. The problem is that when someone states something that everyone already knows for the express purpose of telling the reader, it makes the reader feel dumb. A quick one line narrative telling the same thing is far better. I think the name of the video was 'Remind me', should be require watching for all new writers...well, in my opinion it should be. :)
  19. Angharad

    Angharad Troubadour

    I've heard sneaking in information through dialogue referred to as the "As you know, Bob" phenomenon. "As you know, Bob, the brain-eating zombies are always more of a problem on odd-numbered days of the month that start with a T."

    Here's a link:
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2011
  20. Kate

    Kate Troubadour

    I'm reading through a draft I wrote a few years ago, and one of the (many) terrible things that jumps out at me is the dialogue. A lot of it is blow for blow one liners and useless verbal meandering. A quick look in a couple of "how to write" types of books suggested that the dialogue should always convey something about the story, which I agree with. And then I read the advice above that says dialogue that gives away information is a no no, which I also agree with.
    Surely there has to be a bit of give and take between useless and useful information revealed by the dialogue. Perhaps dialogue should only reveal information about the person saying it?

    When I'm writing, I usually find that from the first line of dialogue the story takes a dive. So much so that in my current WIP I'm trying not to use it at all, sparingly at most. Anyone ever read a novel that has no dialogue at all?

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