by Teagan Berry
Every writer has something that they struggle with. It’s just natural for this to happen – we’re not perfect. For some, it might be descriptive abilities they lack. For others, character development might be their weak link. But what I’ve noticed tends to be the most common foible among writers, is their ability to write convincing dialogue.
For some reason, dialogue has never really been a big issue for me. Instead, I have an ongoing problem with character descriptions. But for those writers that dialogue doesn’t come naturally to, I have some tips and suggestions which will hopefully help.
1. Stay away from simple back-and-forth exchanges.
If you find your dialogue sounds similar to this, it’s time to go back and revamp it.
“Good morning, Sarah.”
“Good morning, Melanie. Did you get the homework done from last night?”
“Homework? Of course I did. I finished it right after I got home.”
“Right after getting home? Wow, aren’t you dedicated!”
“Dedicated! I just wanted to get it out of the way!”
If you notice, while reading this exchange, not only is it very wooden, but both Sarah and Melanie are repeating back part of the sentence in their response. Though this tactic can be used occasionally, it’s recommended that you don’t too often. Here, there’s no variety to the conversation and it’s very predictable. Instead of doing this, you want to mix up the dialogue a little. Try throwing a wildcard into the conversation, or have one of your characters respond with an off-topic question.
2. Sometimes silence is key.
A lot of writers believe your characters always need to have a response – this isn’t true. Silence is a very useful technique to not only help bring in some suspense, but also tension. Think about normal conversations you have. There are times when silence is the best response. Well, that also works for your characters then.
3. Don’t always have the perfect comeback.
If your characters always have the perfect thing to say, it’s going to make them sound pretty unbelievable. No one is quick enough to have the perfect comeback every time. Sure, you can allow a character every now and then say a witty remark a normal person wouldn’t be able to think of, but remember, you’re trying to make your characters a realistic and relatable as possible – so don’t let them get too witty.
4. Make sure your characters sound their age.
This is a common mistake among writers. If your character is supposed to be seventeen, make sure they sound it. Don’t know how a seventeen-year-old talks? Do some research on it. Listen to what the current speech patterns are like. You want to make your readers believe your character is real, so they need to sound authentic. The same works if you’re writing an older character as well – there will for sure be differences between how a retiree speaks and a teenager. If you’ve done research and you still can’t seem to get the dialogue right, try writing as a character close to your own age.
5. Don’t be afraid to have your characters cut one another off occasionally.
Stylistically, it can be very difficult to capture the way we speak to one another naturally. There will be things you need to change in order to make your dialogue readable. With that said, human nature makes us but one another off, so try to include this at least a little bit into your dialogue. Don’t put too much of it in – it will confuse and frustrate the reader if used too frequently – but the occasional cut off will help keep your dialogue moving.
6. Your characters shouldn’t have perfect grammar ALL the time.
Unless your character is some prim-and-proper person with a stick up their butt, perfect grammar 24/7 is a no-no. In reality, no one really speaks like that, so why should your characters? Leave out the occasional beginning to a sentence, or drop a g. Keep it real.
7. You don’t have to have an explanation.
“That’s great news!” she said excitedly.
Does something look wrong about that dialogue line? It should. You’ve just told your reader your character thinks the news is great twice. Once with her use of the word ‘great’, and the second time with the added explanation of ‘excitedly’. This is a common mistake a lot of writers make. I’m guilty of it too. How do you fix this? Just get rid of the ‘excitedly’ and leave it as, “That’s great news!” she said.
8. Body language is just as important as the words you use.
When people talk, they use their bodies as an extension of their words. Hands especially become very important tools to help get your point across, though eye rolls, raised eyebrows, and many other things are also important too. Make sure your characters use body language while talking. It’s another tactic to make them appear more realistic to your readers. Don’t use it so much that it takes away from the actual dialogue, but make sure it’s present.
9. Read it out loud.
Lastly, and sometimes most important, read your dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t sound nature coming out of your mouth, it won’t sound natural to your reader.
So there you have it. I hope these tips and suggestions help you or anyone else you know with dialogue struggles. Please pass this along if you know someone who needs some help with this. As always, if you have any other suggestions, feel free to let everyone know in the comments section below.
Happy writing everyone!
Guest post contributed by Teagan Berry. Teagan writes books, watches sports, and reads. She started her blog initially to beat writer’s block, but it’s turned into so much more.
Good post! Just a note: in Number 7, there are actually *three* things telling how “great” the news is. One is the word “great.” Two is “excitedly” (yuck). And Three is the exclamation point.
I’d also like to mention that I noticed several typos in the piece. Next time perhaps you could hire a proofreader?
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Reblogged this on Beyond the Precipice.
Thanks for the reblog! You’ve won a copy of The Navigators by Dan Alatorre. To receive it, please reach out to me via my “contact me” page.
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Great post, Teagan. Makes sense to keep these points in mind while writing. Thank you for the wonderful post.
You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!
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Reblogged this on My Writing Blog and commented:
I think I do most of these, although I do love my adverbs – and exclamation marks!! But then, I am quite an excitable person! 😉
No adverbs, ask Stephen King.
I like 7 and 8 the best. In Hills like White Elephants, Hemingway uses terse language, omitting explanations and using body language to make his point.
Really interesting article, Teagan. Thinking about how silence plays a part in dialogue is a great tip.
Thanks! I find silence is one of the most underrated dialogue techniques, don’t you?
Thanks for the tips, Teagan. I’m doing Camp NaNo and these help.
Thank you! I’m doing Camp NaNo as well! Hope yours is going well!
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Ugh! Still can’t decide on where to begin my novella. I have the ending scene in my mind, but not the start. Maybe I’ll start from the end and work backwards. I am such a pantser. Hahaha!
So am I! Pantsing is the way to go sometimes though 🙂 Start from the end and let your characters tell you where to go from there 🙂
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Reblogged this on Kim's Author Support Blog.
Great advice! Thanks! Dialogue is something I’ve always struggled with… the only one I would argue with is #3: re: the ‘perfect comeback’… some of my favorite stories, have the best one-liners… i.e. “Oh… well, I aim to misbehave…” lol. Thanks again for the reminders. 🙂
THIS is perfect. Dialogue frightens me. Which is funny, I am a fairly fluent talker! Although, you broke my heart with #3. I’d love to be able to be that kind of person!!!!!!! I know people like this and it isn’t fair!
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
Check out this post by Teagan Berry on the difficulties of dialogue from Ryan Lanz’s blog.
Reblogged this on Anna Dobritt — Author.
Thanks for the reblog Anna!
To the list, I’d add: Don’t use dialogue as an info-dump. As a rule, short, meaningful exchanges are better than long, ramblings ones. Of course, there are always exceptions…
Helpful post. Pinned & shared. 🙂
Love this! #3 and 4 especially speak to me. I offer feedback on a lot of amateur work, and nothing turns me off more than the very common habit of writing out-of-touch characterizations of a particular demographic’s speech patterns and vernacular – whether that demographic be bounded by age, class, location, race, whatever it may be.
Thank you for reading.
Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner.
Thanks for the reblog!
Reblogged this on WILDsound Writing and Film Festival Review.