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
Hmmm, I resemble some of these remarks. Notably number two. Very good post here, Nathan. Personally, I like writing dialogue. Sometimes though, I like it too much, and my characters talk right through what they should be doing or thinking on the page. A lot of my edits are of the "this bit of conversation doesn't actually accomplish anything" variety, and as you have pointed out to me already, it tends to kill whatever tension and/or conflict you are trying to build. This isn't to say that dialogue can't effectively carry out conflict and tension, because it can, but writers should certainly be aware of just how easy it is to slip into the habit of letting the characters ramble on longer than necessary.
Chuck H. says
Thanx. I needed that.
Ishta Mercurio says
See, THIS is one of the reasons we need agents. I would happily fork over 15-20% to someone on my team who knows this stuff and can articulate it so well and has my novel in their hands.
I'm glad you mentioned that good dialogue needs action and gestures and tags to back it up and flesh it out. It is hard to do, but I agree that it's better with those things. And I also appreciated the note that good dialogue has to go somewhere; it's a good thing to bear in mind whenever I'm writing a scene.
Josin: you can get Screenwriting software? I never knew that. Cool!
sally apokedak says
I'm reading along in my email and I get to this bit with Vladimir Putin and I think, "How odd. The email must have malfunctioned and cut off the post."
But, surprise, surprise…
Deepa Seshadri says
Awesome post! Now i need to re-read my chapters. lol
Ex. #1 of bad dialogue sounds like a 30 Rock script, which I love.
My struggle sometimes is that, as a comedy or humor writer, my use of bad dialogue is on purpose.
Hopefully it's so evident that my reader (who may be an agent/publisher) *gets* it.
Any thoughts on how that can go wrong in the 1st 30 pages?
Glad to hear someone sticking up for the humble dialogue tag. If this craze for stripping continues, we'll need to deploy the services of Period Locators in the future. Plus, we'll all be naked.
Conor Neill says
I used to build multimedia learning environments and began working with movie directors in an effort to increase the realism (and thus learning) of the learning environments. One movie director explained something that I will never forget.
He said that movies do not try to create a version of reality. Great movies are "heightened reality". Normal life, normal dialogue, is mundane and plodding… Great movies flow from exciting action to intriguing deep dialogue to new discovery about lead character… in a way that is not real, but is how our minds imagine (and maybe how dreams are structured?).
RE: the dialogue tags.
I firmly disagree that writers should limit themselves to said and asked. Dialogue tags are a useful tool in a writer's toolbox. If I can convey a characterization in one word that would otherwise take three or more words, I'm going to do so. Shout, shriek, holler, howl, yell, bellow, yowl…they all convey different volume levels and characterizations. Likewise, mumble, mutter, and whisper all convey an array of attitudes that can be useful to a writer.
Can dialogue tags be abused? Of course! Most of the time, characters merely say something, and using said is appropriate. But part of the training to become a better writer is to find that personal balance of too much vs. just right. This piece of advice is too harsh and in its own way, just as damaging as any other absolutism that comes out of an authority's mouth. Or fingers as is appropriate.
Julie Kingsley says
"Interjections and grunts are kind of like carpet cleaning concentrate. They must be diluted or you'll burn a hole in the floor."
Love that! I'm writing a middle grade boy futuristic adventure and I'm finding I have some grunts, but I think they might be coming from me. Not sure.
I wrote a blog post on how watching the Housewives of New Jersey can teach you effective dialogue beats. Ever heard those ladies fight?
Ah, Samuel Beckett – I'm still Waiting [for the point] of Godot.
The Red Angel says
Thanks for this guide, Nathan! It'll be very helpful for me in the future because sometimes I write poor dialogue that falls into Rule #1 (dialogue shouldn't tell too much), and then even I get bored of it.
Kathy McIntosh says
Good stuff. Loved the carpet cleaner example. I recently read a Robert Parker novel in which no one asked a question, they said the questions. Glad to see you approve of asking.
"Dr. Goosepimple, I'd like you to meet Mr. Hardwick. He'll be your security chief for the expedition."
"We're peaceable scientists and we know how to comport ourselves in the jungle. We don't need to be escorted by armed men."
"Yes, but the enigmatic Baron Van Sinster is funding your research, and he believes security is a top priority."
"I spent seventeen years in the bush, Doctor. And you may think you know your way around the woods, but these ain't like any woods you've ever seen. There are guerrillas, gorillas, and space-panthers. There are mosquitoes with six-foot wingspans."
"Do you even know anything about our research?"
"I'm just paid to shoot things."
"Wonderful. We'll have to stop periodically and explain what we are doing to you and tell you what our incomprehensible jargon means."
"And I'll probably have to tell you about my guns, so that when the attached grenade launcher on my H&K MP5 becomes relevant to the story later, the reader will already be aware of it."
"Yes. It seems our ignorance of each other's specializations is going to be a helpful expository device."
"I think we shall be the best of friends."
Nathan Bransford says
I should have said "mainly" said and asked. I agree that sometimes it's fine to deviate, though I still believe deviations should be used sparingly and only when truly necessary.
Kenneth Mark Hoover says
Good advice, thanks. 🙂
Jude Hardin says
Mostly good advice, although I do dispense of dialogue tags altogether whenever possible. Here's an exchange I wrote this morning:
My shirttails hid the little .38 strapped to my waist. I unlatched the deadbolt and opened the door. “Can I help you?”
“Mind if we come in for a minute?” the skinny one said.
“Who are you?”
“We work at Moe’s. In the kitchen. I’m Lester, and this here’s Earl.”
“What do you want?”
“We just want to talk. We overheard you talking about the Harvest Angels. We have some information you might be interested in.”
“The room’s a mess. Hang on. Let me get my jacket and I’ll step out there with you.”
“Come on, mister. It’s cold as shit out here. And what we have to say needs to be said in private. If you know what I mean.”
“Like I said, let me grab my coat and I’ll–”
That’s when the fat one named Earl bulldozed into me, driving me backwards into the room. I landed on my ass. He straddled me and pinned my wrists to the floor. He was enormous. I couldn’t move.
I only used one tag, but I don't think there's any confusion as to who's speaking. Is there?
I was sure I was wrong (as I surely was) but I smiled as you mentioned Samuel Beckett because the first thing I thought of was Quantum Leap.
I'm a big fan of your "You might also like…" that are now at the bottom of your posts. I just checked out "What writing and lying have in common." Love it!
Well, I finally discovered my one problem with writing dialogue. I DO always say what I mean, exactly what I mean. If I realize I've made a verbal error, I will stop and correct myself. It's become a running joke with my friends. I know that most people are not so straightforward, but I never translated it into writing dialogue.
J. T. Shea says
'As you know, Bob,' said Basil Exposition, 'we are both human beings, intelligent primates, living on Earth, a vast rocky sphere orbiting the Sun, an even vaster ball of incandescent gas, itself revolving and orbiting amid countless similar balls, formed billions of years ago from the primordial stuff of the Universe…'
'No, I didn't know that,' said the other intelligent primate when Basil finally stopped speaking, 'and my name's not Bob!'
Thanks for some great tips. I also learnt that conversations should be in line with the character. However punchy that line may sound,would that character speak that way?
Babylon Rising says
@Hanna -thanks for the comment about dialog, Hanna. I thought I was being lazy when I had one character respond with something completely off the wall instead of a direct response to what was said. I'm a little ADD, and I do that quite often when someone is talking. It isn't that I'm not paying attention, it's that whatever the person said triggered either a memory or a thought, and if I don't follow-up on it, I lose that that thought completely. It might reappear days later! But I'm happy to know that my characters can respond as they will, while contemplating what was actually said to them.
may the pop be with you says
You give great advice, here, especially your point about dialogue tags. Sometimes, people try to either eliminate them or switch them up from "said" and "asked" and end up having the opposite effect from what they intended.
Carla Marvin says
Fantastic post, very helpful! Thank you!
Bought my copy of Jacob Wonderbar and loving it so far, so wanted to let you know 🙂
I am writing my first dialogue in my composition class next week. I'm just a little nervous about it. I'm writing about a conversation between 2 people with a social problem. One character is the problem and the other is the solution. I can make up a characters. I'm just now learning proper writing skills and have no clue where to begin….any thoughts? Thanks-Heather
Kely Leiter says
This is such a helpful article that I think all new writers would get a lot out of, so I recommended it on my blog for beginning writers. https://the-beginning-writer.blogspot.com/2012/03/fridays-link-roundup.html
Thank you for sharing!
Linnette R Mullin says
Great post! 😀
NAHURIRA CESC SAMUEL EASYDEE says
this's helped me more on developing my movie dialogues!
Thanx Nathan,I'ii always 'read yo brain!'
Tim Reynolds says
I wrote my first of the four in the saga and is on the market as Cans of heat by Tim Reynolds you can read the first forty pages on line on amazon or barns and nobble.
I am a dyslectic and have been told my book will suck you in and make you forget any thing you were to do. My mom said they should be out lawed for that reason.