Diagnosing Dialogue

Dialogue is difficult to get just right and, like many others, I struggle with it mightily. Even so, I love writing good dialogue. But, if it’s so hard, why do I like it?

  • I love how good dialogue shows us more about a character than the author could ever tell us.
  • I love the energy that comes from tight crisp banter between characters.
  • I love how good dialogue can control the pace of a story.
  • I love the feeling I get when someone tells me that my dialogue sounds real.

But what is good dialogue? What is real dialogue? And how do we write it? Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.

  1. Record and listen to real conversations among friends. Now compare what you thought was said, to what was actually said. The lesson here is that real dialogue should not be your goal. Real dialogue is terrible–full of pauses, ums, stutters, repetition and bad grammar. What you need to strive for is dialogue that sounds like what you thought you said.
  2. Strip it down. This trick is one of my own inventions. If you have dialogue and it’s just not working, copy/paste it into a new document and spend a few minutes stripping away everything except what the your characters say–kind of like a stage play. When you read the dialogue with all the exposition and attributions stripped away, does it hold up? Does it hold your attention? If not, then it still needs work.
  3. Cut the fancy tags. Attributions are those verbs we add to dialogue. He said…She asked. Many times you don’t need them at all. When used, their purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. Don’t get cute, and don’t break out the thesaurus. If you find yourself striving for tags like he queried or she opined, you already know your dialogue is weak and you’re looking for a crutch.
  4. Don’t overuse names. People rarely use each other’s names in conversation. If you find yourself starting every other line with someone saying someone else’s name, then you’re characters don’t have strong, original voices. Maybe they both sound like you. Maybe they both sound like each other. Whatever it is, you’re having trouble distinguishing between them. Clear that up and you won’t need to keep repeating names.
  5. Stories are all about conflict, and dialogue should be no different. In many conversations the different players have competing motives. If Sam has a slightly embarrassing secret, Alex can’t just ask her what’s bothering her. She has to tease it out. And Sam has to resist. Try thinking of the conversation like a fencing match. It’s boring if there’s a single lunge and it’s all over. Lunge, parry, riposte, counterparry, lunge, dodge…
  6. Dialogue CANNOT be predictable. Take another look at that real conversation you transcribed and notice how much of a real conversation is predictable. Compare these rather mundane examples:

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Yes.”
    “What?”
    “Pizza”
    “Was it good?”
    “It was great”

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Pizza. It was great”

    By eliminating the expected responses, the dialogue gets tighter, crisper, and more compelling

What tips for writing dialogue do you have to share?

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8 thoughts on “Diagnosing Dialogue

  1. Excellent list. The only thing I’d add is to go easy on the dialect. It can be very tiring for readers to have to wade through paragraphs of “I’s jes sayin’, Massa, dat I ain’t pos’tive ’bout dis sentince.” It’s better to get the point across via word choices, I think.

  2. Dale,

    This sounds like great advice for creating good dialogue, which has always been my weakest point. I talk way too much and listen far too little. I will be sure to utilize the processes you recommended. I’m hopeful it will give my dialogue new life.

    Thanks! *Michael Huff*

    Michael Huff about.me/huffhimself [image: Michael Huff on about.me]

  3. All good tips. I find it helps to channel inner voices talking to each other as I write dialogue. Of course, if you aren’t blessed with psychotic features, you are at a disadvantage.

  4. Though I’m a newbie as a serious writer, this is one area where it looks like I’m doing it right. I don’t use very many tags. Once the conversation has started, there don’t seem to be a need for the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’. Although I occasionally use tags like ‘she whined’ or ‘he yelled’, it is because the words could be said in 2 different ways in the scene. Using each other’s name should only be used to either start conversations with others around or for emphasis, in my opinon.

  5. I believe I write decent dialog, partly from the experiences of having written a ton of scripts and partly from luck. My biggest struggle with it is, actually, the “he said” type of attributes when there are more than two people involved in a conversation. When there are only two, I can skip them after the pattern of the conversation is established. But with three or more people, it can be unclear who is saying each line.

  6. Your suggestion #1 is excellent – to record what we actually hear with what we thought we heard. It drives home the point that dialogue has to promote the story, not ramble with chatter.

  7. Dale, great points on dialogue. Some go beyond the tips I read oh those many years ago I “studied” writing to give clearer points about it.

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