7 Tips: How To Write Better Dialog

So why am I writing a piece about dialog? There are two main reasons. First, I’ve noticed that even some of the best writers, i.e, those who can craft a great plot, create great characters, and write beautiful exposition, can write wooden dialog.  Sometimes the dialog doesn’t sound like the character, but rather like the author holding up cue cards.

Second, I’m a far cry from Shakespeare, but I almost always receive compliments on my #dialog from critique groups and beta readers. In college, my creative writing credits were in screenplay #writing, and I think that’s where I developed good dialog skills.

So here are #writingtips to help you out, if you find yourself struggling. Please pardon my occasional extreme examples, I just can’t help it.

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Original Photo – Statues by Tim Evanson used under CC License – Chat Bubble Modifications by E. San Giacomo

1. Forget yourself and let the character do the talking

Remember, the reader will continue to read because the character is interesting. Therefore, bury your own ego and let the character say the things they would say under the circumstances. Of course you have to factor in the aspects of the character, like their age, gender, and education.

And the Lord ascended the mount, and upon seeing the gathering crowd, he turned to his disciples and said,”Yo Pete, got enough grub for all these folks to chow down?”

2. Forget the long speeches

Even if your character is giving a speech, remember to break it up with beats, like adjusting their posture, dramatically pausing, or taking notice of the crowd’s reaction. Dialog really needs to be short and snappy and complemented with actions.

Here’s a sample of a character giving a speech from my yet unpublished #ShortStory Little Red Revolution. Notice how I break up the speech.

John stood tall at the podium. “So the company has the nerve to call the latest contract an offer.” He shook his head. “Well, where I come from it’s called an insult!”

The crowd applauded and cheered.

“No more zeroes for our mining heroes!”

While John stirred hearts and minds, he saw a pasty-gray looking man skulk over to a dark shadow cast by a staircase along the back wall. With everyone’s attention fixed on the podium, John knew that he was the only one who took notice of the strange man.

This is quite different from the John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s about 80 pages without a break.

3. Forget about grammar

Notice that I said grammar and not punctuation. Dialog has to be properly punctuated in order to be understandable. However, people do not speak in grammatically perfect sentences. Learn to ignore your word processor when it’s warning you about sentence fragments and other errors. “Okay?” See, that’s not technically a complete sentence, but it will work as dialog.

4. Don’t forget that you’re writing literature

When one character says something that makes the other character surprised, taken aback, or fumble for a quick response, show some sort of reaction other than another line of dialog.

“I‘m your father.”

“Really? I never would’ve guessed.”

“And I murdered your mother.”

“Let’s go get a burger and talk about the good old days.”

5. Don’t use forms of address

People just don’t talk like that, especially family members. I’ve seen it way too often where each character starts or ends their dialog by addressing the other character by name.

“Bill, I’ve got something to tell you.”

“I’m all ears, Bob.”

“Bill, promise you won’t get angry.”

“Only if you keep repeating my name, Bob.”

“I don’t do it all that much. Do I, Bill?”

“You certainly do, Bob.”

“Well Bill, I learned it from you.”

Of course there are times to use it, like a commander spouting orders, or a formal setting, or anger and frustration.

“Dammit, John,” Phil said as he threw the folder on the desk. “How many times do I have to explain this to you?”

6. Don’t forget to read and watch

Many self-help authors always remind us that a good writer does a lot of reading. True enough, but you can also learn something by actively watching a movie. Don’t underestimate the abilities of quality screen-writers when it comes to dialog. I can’t list all of them, but consider the following…

“The Thing” The original from 1951 by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby.

“My Favorite Wife” (1940) starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) d. George Roy Hill, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford

googlecov2

***Ragged Souls on Amazon***

7. The dreaded info-dump dialog

This happens when a writer tries to create too much back story and character description through dialog.

Brandon held out his hand and showed the little box to Susan. Her eyes brightened at the sight of the gold foil wrapping and the intricate red ribbon adorning the gift.

“On this day, July 15th, 2014, I’d like to present this gift to you on our thirtieth wedding anniversary,” Brandon said.

“As a retired English teacher, I appreciate your proper use of an indirect object pronoun after a preposition,” Susan said.

“Perhaps you should sit on the green chaise lounge and open your gift. It matches your eyes and accents your red hair.”

“Oh yes, remember? It was the robbery at the furniture store where we bought this lounge that started your career as a private detective.”

Of course I’m sure there are many other examples that you can use to fine-tune you own dialog. If you can think of a few more, please share.

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15 thoughts on “7 Tips: How To Write Better Dialog

  1. I like it. Sad, though. I can’t do the info dump. I shall deign to remove it. It is amazing how movies and TV shows can really help solidify dialogue. When you can hear it, you get a much better feel for it and an understanding of how it would sound.

    Do the hashtags bring in a lot of peeps?

    Like

    • I think that authors sometimes put their noses up at film and television. That’s a mistake.
      You can info-dump under the right circumstances. Think about a detective revealing how the crime was commited…it works. Best example, think about Harry Potter learning about magic at Hogwarts.

      Not sure about the hashtags. Most of the social media guru’s say to do it. But I haven’t been practicing it long enough to really see a difference. Google+, twitter, facebook, et al all recognize hashtags. I can’t see it hurting.

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  2. Hi Ernesto, as mentioned on G+ – Interesting points, thanks for sharing! It’s sometimes difficult to balance engaging dialogue with the need to get the plot across. I’ve recently uploaded a short story and was quite conscious of the exposition-y dialogue. Would love to hear your thoughts!

    http://www.thelockedroom.com/2014/04/the-locked-room-private-eye-by-pj.html

    Word doc is available to download here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8j9GJFmERpEaG9RZU5kUGg2aTQ/edit

    Thanks so much, really appreciate it!

    Like

  3. In addition to sci-fi, you need to consider writing humor. These were WONDERFUL examples and SO WELL communicated, they had me literally laughing out loud! In fact, I got so sucked in, that I forgot my refried beans I was making for lunch until they started to burn! (Not happy about that, but at least you already had me in a great mood.) Awesome post! 😀

    Like

    • I love a good bean & cheese taco, or a healthy dollop of refried beans with my enchiladas.
      Sorry about the lost beans but glad to have made you laugh.

      Actually, I inject moments of humor in all of my stories (except the story Gematria Squared).
      The Lighter Side of Horror is a working title for a partially written collection of horror themed comedy short stories.

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  4. Great post Ernesto. Like the examples of ‘what not to do.’

    Structure question – in the following tiny piece of dialog, should I put the descriptive section (his accent….) on another paragraph?

    “Nice to meet you,” she said.

    His eyes never left mine.

    “The pleasure is mine.” His accent was foreign, but his English was perfect.

    Also – the he said, she said. How do you know when to use it or not?

    Like

    • Is that the internal thought of the listener? It should start a new paragraph and perhaps extend it as the listener tries to determine the type of foreign accent.
      As for tags, use them to keep the reader informed of the speaker of dialog. If there are only two characters having a conversation, once you tag one line, it should be plainly obvious which character is speaking next. Also, break it up, (point #4) Describing the reactions or feelings also serves to identify the speaker.

      Like

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