5 Steps to Writing Better Dialogue
Throughout my writing journey, there's always been that one element I struggle with above all else. That thing which makes all the difference in your story, brings your characters to life, and helps your writing jump off the page. The dreaded D word. Dialogue.
While I've accepted that writing dialogue is a fairly universal struggle, this hasn't really made the process much easier. Even some of the greatest writers still note dialogue as their biggest obstacle. That's why I've pooled advice from a few of those greats and compiled this list. While writing is far from a perfect science, these steps have already made a difference in how I approach dialogue. Using these tips the next time you sit down to write will make for a smoother process and a better command over how to write conversation.
1. Have a Purpose
The most important thing to remember when it comes to dialogue is that every line your characters speak should serve a purpose. Some will tell you that every line should move the plot forward, but I don't personally subscribe to this. Rather, I like to follow the fairly simple rule that every line must have a reason behind it. This can include any number of things- maybe you're trying to tell the reader something about your character, or set up a red herring, or lay the foundation for a big reveal. It doesn't necessarily matter what the intention is, so long as there is one. Purposeful dialogue will elevate both your characters and how an audience responds to them; it's what allows readers to look back and see the meaning in each line. If you can't explain the why behind at least 90% of the dialogue you've written, it's a good indicator of more work to be done.
2. Know Your Characters
Just like people you meet in the real world, every character you write should have their own personality and manner of speaking. The first step to honing this is getting clear on who your characters are. Once you lay the foundation for who you're writing, how you should write them starts to become much clearer. There's plenty of exercises and methods for developing your characters, but the most helpful approach I've found involves following three key steps. First, it's important to have a character biography. This should describe your character's life leading up to the start of your story. Everyone's parameters for this will look a little different, but the point is to get clear on what has shaped your character and why they are the way they are.
Second, you'll want to establish a character profile. This is where you take the info gathered from a character bio and put it in context of your story. It's the place to answer questions of what your characters wants, why they want it, and what that arc will look like. Third, you'll begin rounding out your character. For me, this means understanding them both in and outside of the story world. This can usually be achieved by asking questions (How would they react to x? Where would their head be during y? What would they say if z?) or by writing scenes that have no place in your actual story (your character's first date, them ordering at a drive thru, etc). For all three of these steps, don't be afraid to get specific. Even if something never explicitly makes it into your story, it will still inform and influence the way you write each character.
3. Be Realistic (Not Mundane)
While dialogue that's too flowery can be distracting, dialogue that tries too hard to be realistic can take readers out of your story just the same. The key is writing dialogue that will ground your story, but is still dynamic enough to keep an audience entertained. In other words, you must maintain an understanding that what you're writing is fiction while crafting characters that feel like real people.
In this case, "realistic" is a pretty relative term that can only be defined by the world of your story. Let's look at Harry Potter as an example: This franchise has plenty of language that would never be used in the real world, but is still easily digestible. Why? Because in context of the wizarding world, everything feels real. The characters have magic, but they still navigate romantic toils, still deal with insecurities, still experience racism. These are all real problems people face (and discuss), just placed in a magical setting. What makes sense as dialogue in a futuristic sci-fi will differ from what makes sense in an eighteenth century drama, and so on. It's all about defining the reality of your specific story, then sticking to it. First build your world, then mold your characters, the way they speak, the problems they face, to whatever it is you've built.
4. Read It Aloud
Always, always hear your dialogue out loud before you commit. In my experience, this is key to unlocking your character's voice. Knowing what you do about this person, does it sound like something they would say? Moreover, does it sound like how people speak to each other? For example, consider a married couple having an argument. If they're married, you'd expect some degree of comfort or familiarity, meaning they probably wouldn't speak in long, formal sentences. They probably wouldn't use each other's names every other line. They probably wouldn't need to detail the entire history of their marriage ("After nineteen years together, your affair back in 2002, and my cancer scare, this is what I get?").
The good news is that if your characters are well defined (see step 2), you're much less likely to fall into these traps. When it comes to the later stages of a story, I usually ask a friend to read lines with me. This not only helps me get a feel for how it sounds, but what the overall flow is like. Once you hear the dialogue out loud, awkward phrasing or unnatural topic changes will make themselves known. It's especially helpful to involve a third party because they'll have an organic reaction to the words, which will then inform the phrasing, pacing, and general readability.
5. Cut to the Chase / Keep it Simple
Not every scene is meant to start at the beginning. In fact, sometimes you'll do much better to start in the middle and provide the most pertinent info, rather than spend a page building up to one or two key lines. Avoid heavy handed dialogue that goes on for too long or only serves as exposition. Again, you want your characters to sound believable, and I don't know anyone who gives their entire backstory in casual conversation. In making your characters believable, you also want to avoid stereotypes or overdoing it when it comes to profanity. Unless it's crucial to understanding who your character is, these types of details will only detract from your story. Remember that the purpose of dialogue is to reveal more about the characters, but that action will also play a big role in this. If every detail of your characters, their lives, and their relationships has to be explained outright, you're not effectively doing your job as the writer.
These are the steps which have allowed me to rewire the way I think about dialogue. The truth is that when you write something "bad," it almost always has less to do with the writing itself than it does your own perspective. Most writers are too close to their work to see it for what it is. But if you can learn to dissect your writing and begin looking at it through a nearly objective lens (Does this work? What techniques are at play? How are they informing the story?), your abilities will only improve.
Remember that any story you tell, no matter how simplistic or fantastical it may be, will rely on dialogue to ground it. So really, the best advice I can give is to focus on becoming a student of dialogue. Be an active listener. Keep a running list of interesting things you hear throughout your day. Read, watch, and take notes on your favorite lines. Learn from the best. Develop your critical ear. With enough time and effort, you'll be well on your way to dialogue mastery.