The Basics of Well-Written Dialogue

Creating effective dialogue can be one of the most difficult challenges when writing believable characterization. Listed below are some tips on how to bring your characters to life.

The Importance of Dialogue

Dialogue is not just for communication between the characters, but is used to enhance the story in other ways; therefore it must do one or more of the following:

  • Provide information about the plot, characters’ histories, setting, and theme
  • Reveal individual character and motivation
  • Create nearness and intimacy (build reader empathy)
  • Move the plot forward and/or increase its pace
  • Create or add to existing conflict
  • Remind the reader of things they may have forgotten
  • Foreshadow what is to come

If your story’s dialogue does none of these, delete and try again. Every word spoken by your characters should move the story forward, so try to have at least two of the above points.

How to Use Dialogue

When using dialogue to tell the back-story, be careful not to ramble. Unless your character is un-naturally gabby, keep it short and conversational.

Although it’s on the list above, be very careful when using dialogue to introduce exposition and back-story. Always ask yourself: would I say this in a conversation? How would this particular character say it? We usually don’t go on and on about the past, especially with friends who probably already know it.

Keep Dialogue True

Dialogue imitates but does not replicate real speech. It’s a condensed version of real speech, without a lot of chatter.

Most people don’t speak in perfect grammar. Real speech is sloppy. People leave out words, compress phrases into single words, use contractions, interrupt each other and talk in slang. Your dialogue should be the same.

Get into the habit of listening to the ways different people talk. Usually, how a person talks also depends on whom they’re talking to. Add these phrases into your writing. When writing dialogue, make every word count.

Use Dialogue to Create Emotion and Conflict

Your dialogue should be a reflection of your characters emotions at the moment. To keep it from being artificial, step back and envision what the internal struggle is that your character is feeling. Dialogue sounds the most realistic when it is created around the character’s emotions.

Creating Your Character’s “Voice”

The term “voice” is what authors use to describe each character’s way of speaking. Use language particular to a character and reflective of their background and personality and maintain it throughout the story.

People often have habitual phrases and/or mistakes that they tend to repeat. Don’t overdo it, but do keep it consistent.

Use dialects that distinguish the character. If one character were from the U.S. and another from England, the way they say the same word might sound completely different.

Take A Breather

Never have long stretches of dialogue. Break up large blocks at strategic places with physical action, replies, description and other story elements.

He Said, She Said

Always clearly indicate who’s speaking using ‘he said’, ‘she asked’, etc. Never force your reader to stop and have to figure out who’s saying what. This is especially crucial when several characters are conversing.

Never let acknowledgements get in the way of your story. Cute tags like “he barked” or “she whimpered” pull the reader’s attention out of your novel’s spell and aren’t needed when dialogue is strong. The tone of a character’s language should emerge from both the words themselves and the dramatic context.

Use adverbs at the end of dialogue judiciously. Once in awhile, you can use a phrase such as, “I’m going to take the bus,” he said angrily, but using a tag at the end too often becomes annoying.

Keeping It Real

The best way to determine whether your dialogue sounds authentic is to read it out loud. Better still, is to have another person read it to you.