From Serviceable to Memorable: 5 Principles for Dialogue That Delivers

Ned Stark
Ned Stark

For my “writer self,” cracking (or clicking) open a new fantasy novel is one of the most exciting ways to spend my free time.

It’s also one of the most terrifying.

After all, I don’t really know what I’ll find inside, and encountering a badly-crafted story is more than disappointing. It’s downright painful.

I’m sure you could name many issues that hamper your literary enjoyment, but for me, one the biggest is subpar dialogue. I encounter it in books both traditionally and self-published. The story concept may unique, and the plot clever. The prose may even be compelling, well-paced, and active. Overall I’m intrigued…

Until the characters open their mouths.

Nothing makes me shut a book faster than stilted, on-the-nose dialogue from characters who all sound alike. I write my fair share, of course, and read plenty more as a consultant and editor. From both sides of the page, I know how tough it can be to get dialogue right.

And of course, it’s rare to fulfill your own craftsmanship expectations in early drafts. But sometimes, even in later drafts, we writers barely revise dialogue. Or worse, we revise only until it serves basic plot movement and some character development. Then we call it a day.

Why call it a day at serviceable, when great dialogue can be so memorable?

Recently I asked myself this question. For me, the answer was returning to some favorite fantasy novels to unpack why the dialogue was so compelling. So far my study has uncovered five principles I’ll be using in future revisions of my work:

1. Memorable dialogue is about more than plot and character.

In fact, it is rarely about them at all. It’s about theme. Readers love it when characters pause to reflect on humanity, the universe, or some big idea about life. This is the province of theme—which means determining your story’s theme early in the revision process makes dialogue rewrites much easier.

I call these thematic bits of dialogue “nuggets.” Though the world of the story may be vastly different than our own, nuggets provide an immediate bridge. Often, they are the primary place where characters reach out of their worlds to touch the readers’. Sprinkled carefully throughout the book, nuggets add depth and richness to the story.

This does not mean, however, that our characters just sit on their porches musing about life, or monologue in back alleys. It means that here and there, in unexpected moments, your characters share an observation on the larger issues of justice, courage, faith, power, or whatever thematic idea drives your story.

The best nuggets, I’ve noticed, are beguilingly off-handed.

2. Memorable dialogue serves the action rather than driving it.

Overall, rich and expansive dialogue is the province of novels. But visual storytelling—most often discussed in filmmaking circles—is still (arguably) the most powerful method for telling tales.

By visual storytelling, in this case, I don’t mean illustrations or a graphic novel. I mean prose that is vivid, telling the story through image and action rather than relying on talk to carry the plot.

Our words are only as powerful as our actions. This is as true in life as in fiction. What readers see in their minds’ eye, through described body language, physical action, or environmental detail, often creates more emotional impact than the words that characters speak.

For example, is a character furious at a friend’s betrayal? Let her clench her sword, white-knuckled, and dig her heels into parched soil as she poises for battle . . . rather than giving the “I’m angry! Let’s fight!” speech.

Let your characters’ talk enhance and deepen action, rather than driving it; otherwise, you’ll ending up with a “talking heads” novel. (Which sometimes work, but they’re terribly tricky!)

3. Memorable dialogue is rooted in strong characterization.

“Hold it,” you say. “Doesn’t dialogue aid my characterization?” For the reader, absolutely. But for the writer, dialogue is aided by strongly-drawn, three-dimensional characters.

Hemingway went so far as to say that even the term “character” tempts us to create cardboard cut-outs whose talk rings hollow:
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the novel.
Do you know your story people so well that you know what they talk about, and how they talk about it? If you don’t know your characters, your audience will know you don’t . . . by their words.

4. Memorable dialogue sounds like real talk but is not.

I first encountered this principle in screenwriting. Yes, what your characters say must sound like authentic conversation. But let’s face it: great dialogue is not conversation. It’s art.

While real conversation happens spontaneously, great dialogue has only an illusion of spontaneity. It needs to sound like real talk, but it also needs to be crafted for maximum reader impact.

Naturally, first drafts are riddled with the “hi’s” and “how are you’s” of mundane interaction. Characters’ conversations wander off-track, sometimes for pages. As you revise, shed everything unnecessary.

Why not open the conversation with a daring accusation instead? How about dropping an informational bombshell? Sometimes even just having one character answer the other with silence can transform a mundane conversation into a showstopper. Not only does this keep the action snapping, but it also leaves the audience starved for information . . . which keeps them turning pages

5. Memorable dialogue is enhanced by physical props.

George R.R. Martin does this brilliantly, and I suspect he learned it in his early days as a TV and film writer. Actors hate delivering lines without something in hand. Consequently, TV and film writers often include a prop that livens up the delivery of the dialogue.

Props keep characters from losing groundedness in the physical world. Have you ever read a long passage of dialogue, with no reference to the environment, only to wonder where the characters were, and why? Environment is a key story enhancer. Props—part and parcel of the scene’s environment—accentuate dialogue, in particular.

Props can also be great metaphors for what’s happening in the dialogue. Consider one dialogue-driven passage in Game of Thrones, where Ned Stark visits a member of Robert Baratheon’s court whom he does not entirely trust.

As the conversation unfolds, Ned is offered cold milk. When the milk arrives, Ned finds it so overly sweetened he can barely choke it down. That milk, as a prop, becomes a chilling metaphor for the syrupy lies he’s being fed in the conversation. He has no choice but to choke them down, too.

Overall, dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. Left unattended or underdeveloped, it can drive away an audience or disappoint them. Carefully crafted, it can draw them back to your story again and again.

I hope you find these five principles as helpful as I have. In the mean time, how do you handle dialogue revisions in your work? Have you found a game-changing technique or had a memorable experience (positive or negative)?

Which contemporary authors are the best at writing dialogue? What makes their dialogue so compelling? Please share below!

Lisa Walker England writes a weekly illustrated fantasy serial, blogs about the art of storytelling, and develops sequential multimedia properties with two artist friends.

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Madwriter1970
Madwriter1970
7 years ago

My favorite dialogue-author is Larry McMurtry, particularly his Lonesome Dove novels. I’ve always figured I’d be doing pretty well if I could write dialogue with half the crackling realism that he does–even his most minor characters have distinct voices.

eds_garage
eds_garage
7 years ago

I like to have several different character notebooks that I keep pertinent information in. This way, not only are my characters their own, I don’t mess up any of the details in my writing.

livin4mydream
livin4mydream
7 years ago

I am not a big writer of things, but I am a big reader! I can say from personal experience that I have closed countless books before reading even halfway through it, because it started feeling like a waste of my time. Give me a good story-line, some romance, and a point to the story, (don’t forget a happy, unexpected ending), and I’m happy!

Aprella_
Aprella_
7 years ago

I just discovered this site and so much helpful information! 
This insightful post about dialogue! I always find this one of the hardest things to write.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Aprella_
7 years ago

Aprella_ – Glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful. Dialogue is my hardest area, for sure! Good luck.

Emily
Emily
7 years ago

Thanks for a very insightful post. I’ve never put too much into dialog even though I know I should. I tend to overdevelop a character’s background while my their personality wooden – yeah, I’ve been told that.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Emily
7 years ago

@Emily – I do the same. Lots of background, but immediate on-the-page personality is really lacking. That’s something I’m working on in my current work, Rise of the Tiger. I was surprised when I put it online; I thought people would be interested in the action and plot, but I found that the most painfully human and dialogue-driven portions were the ones people took time out to say hey, “I REALLY enjoyed that chapter!” Because of that feedback, I’m going to focus a lot more on dialogue and immediate personality development in the next draft, plus letting those human passages have their due.

JenniferDarnell
JenniferDarnell
7 years ago

My rule of thumb – if my character was real, would he or she say ‘this or that?’ If so, how would it be said? Phrases and verbal mannerisms must fit the character.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  JenniferDarnell
7 years ago

JenniferDarnell – Excellent point! I love that rule!

Stephanie
Stephanie
7 years ago

Great post. I, too, have a fear of starting a book with great expectations and quickly finding it to be sub-par. Because of that, I’m not a big risk-taker with what I read and generally stick to genres and authors that I’ve enjoyed previously. As a writer, though, I put a lot of effort into believable dialog. If I develop a character, for example, who is ‘street tough,’ he/she shouldn’t talk like they have an Ivy League college education.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Stephanie
7 years ago

@Stephanie – I understand that fear and experience it myself pretty much every day! I think as writers we will always view what’s on the page as way less epic than what’s in our heads. For a long time, that fear kept me from sharing my writing, but I’ve since learned to accept the fact that it’s a Work In Progress. Something less epic on the page today is my chance to make it MORE epic tomorrow! Even if there are still 1,000,000 steps to go, we have to think about the ones in front of us. Good luck!

Rob
Rob
7 years ago

Everyone should read your point 4 multiple times till they get it. I can’t stand reading small talk unless it serves a very real purpose, and it rarely does. I’ve heard writers whine that they want it all to sound reeaalll… but it really doesn’t need to sound real. It needs to sound right.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Rob
7 years ago

@Rob – GREAT quote. Can I share that on Twitter and quote you?    
        
“[Dialogue] really doesn’t need to sound real. It needs to sound right.”

Frank P
Frank P
7 years ago

I really appreciate your second point above. I see quite a few instances where people use their character’s speech to tell what’s going on rather than let it actually unfold cinematically. Readers want to live in the story, not get a lecture on an event. I struggle a bit with repetition when it comes to action + dialogue that covers the same thing. Like – She clenched her sword tighter. “You’re pissing me off.” etc. I have to work on that.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Frank P
7 years ago

@Frank P – The best thing I ever did as a writer was study film and screenwriting. It might sound tangential, but it improved my fiction writing a lot. I am always struck by how visual the best novels are–not only in action but also in symbolism.

Kimber
Kimber
7 years ago

You touched on one of the things that really annoys me about a lot of books. All their characters sound the same. Something I hate even more is when writers desperately try to make their characters sound different by giving one of them an odd dialect ‘accent’ or some speech impediment. I read a book with a stuttering character, which is fine, but he stuttered every word throughout the whole book. P-p-p-penguins are m-m-m-making t-t-too m-much n-n-n-noise. Like that! Argh! Even though he was a sympathetic character, I was glad when he was shot.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Kimber
7 years ago

@Kimber – Great point you make. Thanks! And I’ve been guilty of the very example you cite . . . [blushes]. 😉

Melanie
Melanie
7 years ago

I’ve been told I write dialogue well *primps* and I’m quite happy about that, because bad dialogue upsets me greatly in a book. I think the ultimate test is reading the dialogue out loud, maybe even with someone else, and making sure it actually sounds like something a real, live person would say. I love Hemingway’s lesson to write people, not characters.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Melanie
7 years ago

@Melanie – This is a great point. Last week I was able to participate in a live reading from my work in progress, Rise of the Tiger, as well as numerous other author’s works. I was struck by how helpful it was hearing the dialogue performed out loud. Wow. We writers should schedule a party or get-together just to do reader’s theater for each other!

Writingmytruth
Writingmytruth
7 years ago

Loved this post! Particularly this part
“Do you know your story people so well that you know what they talk about, and how they talk about it? If you don’t know your characters, your audience will know you don’t . . . by their words.”
I know that I struggle with dialogue. Knowing what they are interested in or how educated they are definitely affects how they speak. I’ll be bookmarking this page 🙂

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Writingmytruth
7 years ago

Writingmytruth – I’m excited to know it was so helpful. (I should probably bookmark the page too . . . it’s so easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees when I’m doing my own writing. I wrote this partially so I can “verbally slap myself” when I need it during dialogue revisions!)

efpierce
efpierce
7 years ago

I think that you have hit the nail right on the head with this post. You really know your stuff and I have learned something today. 🙂

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  efpierce
7 years ago

efpierce – Thanks much! Glad it was so helpful. I’m always learning — we all are — and dialogue has been area of particular struggle for me (which I didn’t get into as much in the post), so I guess I have (and will continue to!) spend a lot of time thinking about it. Here’s to better dialogue all around.

leestephens
leestephens
7 years ago

Thank you Lisa for this insightful article.  Dialog can really be a demon sometimes.  I’m gonna keep this one in my notes!  I hope you don’t mind but I linked to your article from my little blog.  http://storytellerlee.blogspot.com.  Thanks again!!
Lee

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  leestephens
7 years ago

leestephens – Not at all! So glad you found it helpful. I’m going to tootle over to your blog and check it out!

James J. Snedeger
James J. Snedeger
7 years ago

I’m not sure he’s considered contemporary anymore but I sure loved T. H. White.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  James J. Snedeger
7 years ago

@James J. Snedeger – Great example! What about his dialogue especially gripped you? Was it the individuality of the characters’ speech, or the musicality, or its pithiness? Or something else?

Charliesgirl
Charliesgirl
7 years ago

Extremely helpful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and knowledge.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Charliesgirl
7 years ago

Charliesgirl – Thanks for stopping by! Writing dialogue is always a work in progress. 🙂 I always learn a lot by putting my observations in writing.

Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

I think that two of the greatest writers of dialogue are Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino.  They both excel at item no. 1 in your list, which is thematic dialogue.
For an example of thematic dialogue in television, I recommend Elmore Leonard’s show Justified on FX.  The themes of each story often subtlety resonate in moments of dialogue.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

Antonio del Drago – I love Justified! One of my mentors in the Act One program used to write for that show; it’s incredible. Tarantino is a master too. Which comes back to the notion of studying dialogue through film and TV. There’s just so much to be learned from that medium.

Sparkie
Sparkie
7 years ago

All five points are good ones, but I especially like the fifth.  Thinking about it now, I’ve seen other examples of ‘props’ used effectively.  Thanks for sharing!

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Sparkie
7 years ago

@Sparkie – Once I discovered that thing about props, I started seeing it everywhere, and feeling like my dialogue passages were “empty” without it. There’s another great example in Game of Thrones (the book) where Jon Snow (or is it Tyrion Lannister?) uses a turkey leg as a prop at a dinner table scene. The scene would be so much less without that silly bird leg and what it contributes to the conversation!

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