Few storytelling elements in a novel are as powerful as dialogue. Writing good dialogue is a crucial way of letting characters speak for themselves outside of the narrative voice, and it’s one of the best ways of conveying personality and flavor.
And, as with any powerful device, it can be abused. Over-use of dialogue has become really rampant in the manuscripts I see. I constantly see authors contorting their novels to shoehorn everything into dialogue because they haven’t yet mastered other storytelling techniques.
Dialogue cannot be everything, and, in fact, it’s almost always best when it’s used judiciously. Even novels that appear at first blush to be almost entirely dialogue are clever in the way they weave in other crucial storytelling elements, particularly motivations, physical description, inner thought processes, and context and exposition.
Here are some tips for utilizing dialogue effectively.
Good dialogue is an escalating joust between characters with competing interests
Above all, characters in a novel must want something and be actively going after that thing. The second they put their interests on hold to serve some other separate narrative function is the second they stop feeling human.
So, for instance, when characters are reduced to asking a bunch of leading questions that don’t make any intrinsic sense just so the author can smush in a bunch of information, it won’t feel remotely real. No character should be forced to set aside their motivations for the author’s convenience.
Characters need to be utilizing their words to try to get what they want. Even characters who are nominally aligned might have different ideas about how to achieve a goal. They should always have an angle.
Sometimes you’ll see characters in novels bantering back and forth in a way that is meant to be witty unto itself, reveal character, or just fill space. Unless it’s just so insanely unbelievably clever that the writer somehow makes it work, usually this aimless banter feels hollow and far less interesting than the author thinks it is.
A good conversation is an escalation. The dialogue is about something and builds toward something. If things stay even and neutral, and it mainly just feels like everyone has all the time in the world to chit chat aimlessly, the dialogue just feels empty. Weave cleverness into dialogue that otherwise has a point, don’t just show chit chat for chit chat’s sake.
Characters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.
Good dialogue is not weighed down by exposition
When the dialogue is carrying exposition and trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of very unnatural and unwieldy things. You’ll see things like:
“Remember that time we stole the frog from Miss Jenkins and she ended up giving us two hours of detention and that’s how we met?”
“Yeah, totally! And now we’re in 6th Grade and have to dissect frogs for our science project, which is due tomorrow. I don’t know how we’re going to get it finished in time.”
So much of this dialogue would already be already apparent to the characters. They’d know how they met without having to talk about it, they’d know they’re in 6th grade without having to talk about it, they’d know the science project is due without talking about it. So it’s very clear to the reader that they’re not talking to each other: they’re really talking to the reader.
Exposition and dialogue only really mesh when one character genuinely doesn’t know what the other character is telling them and it’s natural for them to explain at the moment they’re explaining it, but even then, try first to find a more active way for the character to make a discovery.
Otherwise, if you’re just trying to smush information into your dialogue, your reader is going to spot the artifice a mile away.
Good dialogue evokes the way people actually talk in real life without sounding precisely like the way people talk in real life
Paraphrasing Elmore Leonard, good writers leave out the boring parts. This goes doubly for dialogue: it’s usually best to cut to the chase rather than spending time on the pleasantries that normal people use in everyday conversation.
Having an “ear for dialogue” means being able to create an effective illusion. Do not insulate yourself from criticism by saying “but this is how people really talk.” You’re not trying to imitate how people really talk. You’re trying to write effective dialogue in a novel. It’s not the same thing.
In real life our conversations wander around all over the place, and a transcribed real life conversation is a meandering mess of free association and stutters. In a novel, a good conversation is focused and has a point. It’s like real life dialogue with the confusing bits stripped out. As my former client Jennifer Hubbard wrote, “good dialogue sounds like conversation, but is not an exact reproduction of conversation.”
And in a novel, dialect, slang, and voice is usually used sparingly unless you have a very specific reason for being precisely accurate. Just a hint of flavor is often enough to get the gist of an accent or dialect across without interfering with the reader’s ability to understand what the character is saying. So for instance, if you tell us a character has a French accent, the reader will infer the accent without you needing to spell every single word phonetically.
Good dialogue reveals personality. Characters only very rarely say precisely what they are thinking.
Human beings are not very articulate creatures, and we’re not wholly self-aware. Despite all the words at our disposal, words tend to fail us at key moments, and even when we know what we want to say we spend a whole lot of time trying to describe and articulate what we feel without being quite able to do it properly. We misunderstand, overemphasize, underemphasize, grasp at what we mean, and conversations go astray.
So when two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling and/or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. Good dialogue is instead comprised of attempts at articulation. There’s a whole lot that is kept back, because we rarely put our unvarnished feelings out there.
Now, this shouldn’t be taken too far. A conversation shouldn’t be an endless string of misunderstandings (unless you’re Samuel Beckett), but the way in which characters express their feelings and how they articulate what they’re feeling is one of the most important ways of revealing character. Are they reserved? Boisterous? Do they bluster? Hold back?
Characters who say exactly what they mean are generic. Characters who talk around their emotions and objectives are much more interesting.
Good dialogue goes easy on the exclamations and exhortations
When a character overuses “Ughs” and “Blechs” they can easily sound petulant. When they overuse exclamations, they can exhaust the reader with their excitability. When they overuse verbal tics and crutches, they can drive the reader crazy.
Interjections and grunts are kind of like carpet cleaning concentrate. They must be diluted or you’ll burn a hole in the floor.
Good dialogue is boosted by dialogue tags, gestures, and action
Poor maligned dialogue tags!!! Every couple of years some advice makes the rounds that advocates stripping books of dialogue tags so that the person who is speaking is solely apparent through gestures and context.
This is overkill. Get behind me, dialogue tags, I will defend you until the end!
As long as you mainly stick to said and asked, your reader won’t notice they’re there, and they’ll be much better able to track who is saying what. Yes, don’t overdo dialogue tags and look for ways to add meaningful gesture and action to back and forths, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The key on the gesture and action is not to simply use it to break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful, which is hard to do.
Good dialogue is unexpected
There’s nothing worse than reading a stretch of dialogue where the characters are saying precisely what we think they’re going to say.
The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us.
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Art: The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir