Five Tips for Writing Dialogue

1. Make it realistic but not too realistic.

Dialogue needs to ring true, but completely realistic dialogue can be trying to read, so avoid most of the pauses, repetitive lines, sentences trailing off, rambling, wordiness, and interruptions. Be sure to use contractions so it doesn’t sound stilted.

In this example, a wordy line is pared down.

“I am going to have to go to the store later today.”

Better: “I have to go to the store.”

2. Use the speaker tag “said” and use it without adverbs.

Not everyone agrees with this guideline, but author Elmore Leonard is a firm believer. He says, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ ‘cautioned,’ ‘lied.’”

And: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

3. Avoid mentioning characters’ names.

Repeating characters’ names in dialogue sounds unnatural because most people don’t continually say the name of the person they’re talking to, especially when there are only two people conversing.

Take this example.

“Catherine, what did you find at the antique store?” Ruth said.

“An old typewriter,” Catherine said. “Do you type, Ruth?”

“Yes, I do, Catherine.”

4. Eliminate redundancies.

Though redundancies might be realistic at times, they tend to slow down the dialogue.

In the first example, the character states the same thing twice. In the last two examples, the dialogue in combination with the speaker tag/action is redundant.

“I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I’m sick.”

“Sorry,” he apologized.

She nodded. “Yes.”

5. Use actions sparingly.

Some writers fall into the trap of inserting actions into nearly every paragraph of dialogue. This results in characters who can’t seem to sit still because they’re constantly nodding, crossing their arms, pointing, shaking their heads, rolling their eyes, and shrugging.

Hope these tips help make your dialogue shine.

—The Editors

Reference

Elmore Leonard, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (New York, NY; HarperCollins, 2001), 23, 29.

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2 Responses to Five Tips for Writing Dialogue

  1. Normandie says:

    I’d add: Let the dialogue reveal character and motivation. How the characters interact, their tone and the things they discuss, can reveal a lot about them if used well. This keeps the action in the immediate and allows the writer to avoid telling. I love it when I come across a writer who has mastered the art of great dialogue.

  2. Lorie Jones says:

    Thanks for sharing that great tip, Normandie. We love it when writers have mastered the art of dialogue too.