Want to know the most important thing about writing dialogue in fiction? If it sounds like a conversation you'd hear in the real world, you've gone horribly wrong somewhere.
Seriously. The next time you're on a crowded bus or sitting by yourself in a bustling restaurant, just listen to the two people closest to you talking. You'll hear them...
All of which is fine in the real world, but hopeless for novel writing.
Writing dialogue isn't about replicating a real-life conversation. It's about giving an impression of it. And, yes, improving on it.
If fiction is like real life with the dull bits taken out, exactly the same thing applies to fictional conversations. The role of the writer is to select what is important and then distil it down to its very essence.
The rules below will help you to write realistic dialogue that keeps your readers gripped – and definitely no dull bits!
It's obvious, really. Just as a description of two young lovers spending a perfect day out at the zoo doesn't constitute a plot (not unless the girl falls in the lion enclosure!)... so two people chatting about nothing much at all (and not disagreeing with each other, either) doesn't constitute dialogue.
Pleasant conversations are great in real life. Even if nothing especially interesting gets said, who doesn't like chewing the fat with a neighbor over the fence or a friend over coffee?
Listening in on those conversations, as a third party, would be about as exciting as watching laundry dry. So make sure you don't subject your readers to tedious, yawn-inducing dialogue in your novel.
How do you ramp up the excitement? Easy...
Give the two characters conflicting goals – one of them wants one thing, the other something else. Even if it doesn't end in a shouting match here and now, the underlying tension will be all you need to keep the readers turning those pages.
To illustrate that, take a look at this example...
"What are we having for dinner?" asked Jane.
Bill opened the fridge, shifted the milk to see to the back. "How does steak sound?"
"There's chicken if you prefer," he said.
"No, steak is fine. With mashed potatoes."
A perfectly nice conversation, the kind we all have everyday – but hopeless for the purposes of novel writing. Add some conflict into the mix, though, and it might look something like this...
"What are we having for dinner?" asked Jane.
Bill opened the fridge, shifted the milk to see to the back. "How does steak sound?"
"We haven't had steak since last Saturday," he said.
"I know. And the Saturday before that and the one before that! Don't you ever fancy something different, Bill?"
Much more interesting. Why? Because the dialogue is in conflict. Jane wants one thing and Bill wants something else...
And when characters have conflicting goals, consequences are sure to follow later in the novel.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with having some everyday conversation in a novel. The rules of dialogue, along with every other kind of novel writing rule, are there to be broken.
Sometimes a simple exchange of information between characters will be exactly what is required.
But for the most part, go for tension and disagreement and conflict between the characters. Besides, writing dialogue is much more fun that way!
"When characters have different goals and are intent on achieving them, conflict results. If the stakes are high and both sides are unyielding, you have the makings of high drama."
– James N. Frey
Even if a passage of dialogue in your story is full of juicy conflict, you still may need to delete it if it's not serving a storytelling function. If the speeches in the novel don't meet at least one of the following criteria, they should be cut.
Conversations in the real world often have little or no point to them, with the circumstances of the people involved remaining unchanged at the end.
Your dialogue, therefore, should advance the plot in some way.
How will you know if it does? Ask yourself these questions...
I'm sure there are plenty of other criteria to use, but they give you the idea. If a conversation is in some way related to a character's goals and conflicts (which you can read about in the section on Plotting a Novel), it's moving the plot forward.
If the characters are talking about nothing important, the dialogue is filler and should probably be removed.
Note, though, that some "pointless conversation" in a novel is good. After all, you've got keep the dialogue authentic – and we all talk about the weather or what we want for dinner.
Keep the chit-chat to a minimum, though. And always ensure that, if a passage of dialogue starts out being about nothing of any importance, it quickly gets to the point.
"The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story."
– Anthony Trollope
Just as advancing the plot is one way of giving dialogue a purpose, so too is adding to the readers' understanding of a character's personality.
So maybe the speaking character tells whoever is listening about a formative event from their childhood, or about their love for their family pet, or about their dreams for the future.
These revelations might not affect the plot, might not be important for the telling of the story at all. But they help to explain the character's motivation for wanting whatever it is they want. And doing that not only helps us to get to know them better (which is never a bad thing), it also gives us a greater insight into why, precisely, they are chasing their goal.
One other thing worth mentioning...
Dialogue is one of the most important tools there is in demonstrating the relationships between different characters.
The way two people speak to each other tells you virtually everything there is to know about how they get along. And demonstrating this to the readers, particularly the relationships between the major players in the novel, certainly gives dialogue a purpose.
What kind of information? Anything that is crucial to the understanding of the story. Let me explain that...
Every novel has plenty of "dry facts" that the reader needs to learn...
Details that are not a part of the story but are nevertheless important for understanding it are known as exposition.
The key to exposition, which always runs the risk of boring the readers (and make them skip ahead), is to present it to them in bite-sized pieces. This makes the potentially dry facts more palatable and doesn't significantly disrupt the forward momentum of the novel.
And guess what? Dialogue is one of the best methods there is for getting information across in a bite-sized way. Heck, if you do it skilfully enough, the readers won't even know what is happening!
Just beware of characters telling each other things that they already know. A husband, for example, would never say this to his wife...
"Mary, my sister, had to take Florence, their miniature poodle, to the vet again."
The wife will already know that her husband's sister is called Mary, and that Mary owns a poodle called Florence. Information like that is there solely for the benefit of the readers, and it makes the dialogue sound horribly stilted. So don't do it!
And that's it: three ways to make sure that every line of dialogue you write has a purpose.
Once you're satisfied that you are advancing the plot, characterizing or providing information, you can stop worrying about if it "belongs" and concentrate on all the other rules for writing good dialogue...
"When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing."
– Enrique Jardiel Poncela
Actually, all writing in a novel should flow effortlessly. With dialogue, though, it is doubly important. The conversations need to read effortlessly and look good on the page. There are three ways to achieve this...
You know what dialogue tags are – he said, she said and the like.
They're useful little things. But beware of overusing them. Conversations in a novel will sound like games of ping-pong if you have a tag after every single line...
"Hello," said Frank. "How are you doing?"
"Fine," said Mary. "I hear you're getting married."
"That's right," said Frank.
"When's the big day?" asked Mary.
"Next week," said Frank.
On the other hand, beware of using too few tags as well. Why? Because there's nothing more annoying for a reader than having to count back lines to work out who is speaking.
Another trick is to stick to the simple tags – like said and asked. Using tags like exclaimed or interjected or screeched makes the dialogue sound amateurish.
Adverbs make it sound amateurish, too (as in, "Mary said excitedly"). If you want to demonstrate Mary's excitement, describe her fidgeting in her chair or bouncing on the balls of her feet while she speaks.
One important rule of novel writing is to keep the readers reading. Duh! Boring them is likely to have the opposite effect, which is why it's so important to make your passages of dialogue flow beautifully.
Here is why varying the length of the lines matters...
...it can all sound a bit same-ish. A better conversation would look like this...
That's not a blueprint, of course – just one "top of the head" example of how to shake up your dialogue.
It's very rare for people to talk and do nothing else. Often, they have conversations while cooking the dinner or trying to fix the radiator.
Even when they are "just talking," they're usually doing something – drinking coffee, watching the world go by, whatever it may be.
To help your dialogue flow (and keep it authentic), you simply need to mention these everyday, insignificant actions...
Even if two fictional characters are having a conversation while sitting still in a featureless room without windows, they will still cough or scratch or pick threads off their clothes.
Why is it important to break up the dialogue with little snippets of prose?
Because having one line of speech, followed by another, then another can sound like ping pong again – even if you do vary the length of each line.
To overcome this problem, simply freeze a conversation for a few sentences while you...
This before/after example demonstrates all of the key points to remember when writing dialogue that flows...
"What do you fancy for dinner, Sarah?"
"What have you got?" she enquired.
"Not much," Frank admitted. "I think I could stretch to pasta, though. And there's cheesecake for dessert."
"Cheesecake's my favorite," Sarah replied.
"Then later I thought we could catch a movie," Frank said cautiously.
"We could," Sarah said. "But I've got a better idea."
"What do you fancy for dinner, Sarah?"
"What have you got?"
Frank opened the fridge, stood on his tiptoes to search the top shelf. "I could stretch to pasta," he said. "And there's cheesecake for dessert."
"Cheesecake's my favorite."
"Then later I thought we could catch a movie."
"We could," Sarah said as she poured the Chardonnay. Large glasses. "But I've got a better idea."
"Dialogue is like a rose bush – it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don't want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along."
– Nigel Watts
To write good dialogue, cut it to the bone – and then to the marrow. Never use ten words when five words will do. And if you can get the job done in three words – or even with a simple gesture like a shrug – so much the better.
Concise dialogue isn't realistic. In the real world, very few people have the ability to say what they mean without throwing a lot of empty words into the mix. The paradox, though, is that it will seem realistic. And it will certainly be a lot more gripping for the reader.
Here is an example of what I mean...
"Hi, John. How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks, Mary. And yourself?"
"Oh, I can't complain," she said. "Actually, I'm glad I bumped into you. Are you coming to the party tonight?"
"I hope to, Mary. It really depends if I can get off work early."
"Have you asked your boss?"
"Not yet," John admitted. "McNulty's having a bad day, to tell you the truth. His ex-wife called. She wants money again. I'm waiting to pick the right moment."
"Is there ever a good moment with that man?"
"Sure," John said. "Catching him somewhere between his third and fourth scotch usually works."
"Hi, John. Coming to the party tonight?"
"If I can get off work."
"Have you asked?"
"The boss is having a bad day," he said. "Ex-wife troubles. I'll pick my moment."
"Is there ever a good moment with McNulty?"
"Sure. Somewhere between his third and fourth scotch."
Much better, right? But how do you achieve that? Here are a couple of specific things you can do...
Bottom line? Trust your ear. Revise your passages of dialogue again and again during the editing phase of the novel writing process. Whittle them down a little more each time until they're perfect. Then when you don't think you can edit them any more, go through them one last time and cut out something else!
The only caveat is that some people are more long-winded than others – in the real world and in novels...
If a character likes the sound of his own voice, don't make him come across as a strong and silent type. Equally, don't let him ramble on. You merely need to create the impression of long-windedness...
One way would be to have the viewpoint character stop listening and look out the window instead. Have her describe what is happening out in the street. When she "tunes in" to the dialogue again a couple of minutes later, you've successfully given the impression of someone rambling on without inflicting the words on the readers!
Every character in a novel is unique. They all look different. They all think and act in their individual ways. And it should be no different with the way they speak.
Having all the characters sound the same is one of those siren-howling signs of an amateur. So you need to work hard at giving each and every character a unique speaking voice.
How? It's actually very simple. Make sure that the words a character says are a natural extension of their personality. And achieve that by stepping into their shoes, so to speak, before you try to put words in their mouth.
Here are four questions to ask yourself when trying to find a distinctive voice for each of the people in your novel...
You will have already developed the characters before starting to write your novel. You'll know who they are and what makes them tick. (And you learn how to do that, of course, in the section on Creating Characters.)
And so, when putting words into the characters' mouths, you must simply make those words fit their personalities.
This means making a character's voice fit their background and occupation...
Note that it's perfectly acceptable to use bad grammar and poor word choice in dialogue. It won't reflect badly on you as a writer, because it is understood that it's the character speaking.
Just don't go over the top.
If a character's natural way of speaking is to use a curse word in every sentence, for example, you don't need to include every single one. The odd expletive here and there will give the reader the idea!
In real life, we all speak differently to different people, and it should be no different with a character in a novel. A tough city cop, for example, will have...
Of course, all rules are there to be broken, and having a character talk in precisely the same way to everyone, no matter what the circumstances demand, could be the key defining trait of a character with poor social skills.
But this is the exception that proves the rule.
We all enter into conversations knowing what we want to get out of them. And the way we often achieve this is by broaching a subject obliquely.
If we want to borrow money, say, we won't say it straight out. We'll start by asking the listener how business is or something.
Nevertheless, our agenda will be there. And we'll eventually steer the conversation to the heart of the matter (or else steer it away from the heart of the matter if our aim is to conceal information).
And it is exactly the same for writing dialogue for fictional characters. Two characters having a conversation in a novel will both want something, often opposing things...
Imagine a middle-aged woman sitting at the breakfast table. Her hungover husband walks in, looking like hell. We'll call them Sarah and David.
Here is how their conversation might go...
"Morning," said Sarah. "How are you feeling?"
"Could you manage some toast?"
"I don't think I could stomach it," said David.
Sarah poured him some coffee instead, with no milk, and asked him how last night had been."
"Good," said David. "The part of it I can remember."
Not exactly the stuff page-turners are made from. The dialogue fails to ring true because it's dull and obvious. The characters in this novel say precisely what we would expect two people in this situation to say.
But here's the thing: folks don't usually talk that way in the real world – and in a novel they never do. Instead, they...
Writing dialogue that has the ring of truth to it is all about reflecting this reality.
And so when Sarah asks her husband how he is feeling, he won't say "absolutely awful" – instead, he'll say he "feels great" or "just zippity, thanks!" or he might even ignore her altogether. (Authentic dialogue is often just as much about what characters don't say as what they do.)
Instead of asking David if he could manage some toast (boring!) Sarah could say, "I take it you won't be having extra syrup on your pancakes." And when she goes on to quiz him about his night out, David (not wanting to discuss it) could pretend he hasn't heard.
Here, then, is an improved version of the breakfast table scene...
"Morning," said Sarah. "You look good."
"Not half as good as I feel," said David.
"I take it you won't be having extra syrup on your pancakes."
No answer, not even a glance.
"Coffee it is, then," she said and poured him a large one. Black. As she watched her husband sip it and wince, she asked if his watch had packed up again."
"Only I could have sworn you promised to be home before midnight," said Sarah.
David sipped some more coffee, pulled a face. "Is this stuff fresh?"
"Learn to listen when you're talking to people. Listen to how people say things, to what they really mean, because people frequently say one thing and mean another."
– Nikki Giovanni
I suppose this is partly related to the previous point. But it's worth mentioning separately.
One way of adding authenticity to a passage of dialogue is to have characters talk about one thing... when they are actually talking about something else entirely.
A couple in a failing relationship, for example, might argue about what movie to watch tonight, and not what is really on their minds...
Last but not least, a look at the nuts and bolts of how to punctuate dialogue properly. Not a very sexy topic – but an important one to get right nonetheless!
The odds are that you're a keen reader (most novelists are). So you really don't need me to tell you the mechanics of how to set out dialogue on the page.
But if you're unsure of the answers to questions like these...
... check out my guide to punctuating dialogue correctly.
Those, then, are the "rules." But remember, rules are meant to be broken occasionally.
If you stuck to every piece of advice all of the time, you'd end up with dialogue that is almost too good. In other words, there's a danger of going overboard...
How do you know if you have gone too far? The same way that you assess all of your writing: put the scene aside for a day or two and come back to it with fresh eyes.
If you like what you read and it feels both sharp and natural, it's fine. If it strikes you as being a little too clever, it's crossed the line to being too good to be true.
Also worth checking out...