Dialogue is an integral part of any story, but how do you write compelling dialogue? Here are five tips to help you on your way!
- Listen to how people speak in real life.
This gives you a good idea of how people truly interact with one another. You will probably find as you’re listening that sentences don’t get finished and there are lots of filler words like “er” and “um”. People often speak over one another and change topics at the drop of a hat.
Once you’ve listened to a few conversations, begin to write them down.
Now, once you’ve written these conversations down, you’ll find that real-life conversations don’t translate well on to the page. Somehow, you need to get the essence of that conversation written down but without all the unnecessary, boring stuff. The goal here is to give the impression it’s a real-life conversation.
How do I do that? I hear you ask.
Well, first, you cut out all the needless crap.
2. Cut out the needless crap.
Get rid of most of the “ers” and the “ums”. Take out the boring bits.
Don’t take all of the “ums” and “ers” out though, because using a few of these words in the right places can make your dialogue sound authentic.
Essentially, cut out the dead-wood but leave the essence of the conversation behind.
3. Try not to use adverbs.
Simply put, an adverb is a word that describes a verb. For example, he ran quickly.
Some writers use adverbs in their dialogue. This can really weaken your writing. Take the below example:
“No, really?’ he said, sarcastically.
This can be improved like this:
“No, really, Sherlock? I never knew that. You are so clever.’
When you’re writing your dialogue, it’s best to try and convey the mood and meaning behind the words by the way people speak and the words that they use rather than with adverbs.
Basically, to use a very over-used saying, show don’t tell.
Get the personality of the characters across in your dialogue. Don’t tell us that they’re sad, or pissed off, or ecstatic, show us! Do that by how the characters interact with one another and the words they use. If they’re angry they might speak in short sentences and through clenched teeth, for example. If someone is sobbing there will be lots of stops and starts in the conversation.
Good dialogue backs up characterisation.
4. Use the verb said.
It’s very tempting to use words other than “he said,” or “she said,” to jazz up your writing but the fact is you don’t need other words.
Using the verb said is all you need. You see, the word said is easier on the eye, so much so that, when we read, we seem to automatically pass over this word like we would a comma or a full stop. And, if you do want to mix things up a little bit, you don’t need to put said at the end of every line of dialogue, as long as it’s obvious who’s talking.
Fenrik reclined on the black leather couch, under the large draped window in his office, casually reading The Gate, Devilsgate’s one and only newspaper, owned entirely, of course, by himself. It was, after all, important that the people of the City were given information about what was going on in Devilsgate and he didn’t want the truth to confuse things for them.
‘So Funestus Black is the favourite to win at the forthcoming elections. I would never have guessed,’ said Fenrik, straining his eyes to read the small print in the paper, his bushy eyebrows knitting together like the pelmet hanging over his window. He leaned over and clicked on the small brass lamp that sat on the oak table next to the couch.
‘Who would have thought it, eh brother? Regina Fludd drowning in the water bowl of her pet Chihuahua,’ said Vigor, draining the last dregs of Hell’s Tempest from his tumbler. ‘Such a tragedy.’
‘Indeed,’ said Fenrik, cracking a smile as he looked over to Vigor, ‘Just like Funestus’ interview. Remind me, did I give him permission to speak?’
‘No. I don’t think so brother. The Rat. Would you like me to bring him in?‘ asked Vigor, leaning forward in his seat in anticipation, his long pointy tongue running along his thin lips.
Fenrik held up his hand. ‘Not yet.’
5. Read books.
And, more controversially, watch good television shows and films.
This is a very important point for learning the general art of writing, not just for writing good dialogue.
If you read and read widely, you will automatically pick up how to write. You’ll learn new vocabulary, you’ll pick up the rules of writing and how to write good dialogue.
I also believe a good way of picking up the rules of dialogue is to watch good television shows and films. Many people think that television and films are somehow lesser types of entertainment and that writers can’t learn anything from these mediums.
I disagree. Have you listened to some of the fantastic dialogue in, say The Sopranos? That is one of my all-time faves! And what about the fabulous and clever dialogue in Tarantino’s films? (Inglourious Basterds, or Pulp Fiction, anyone?)
These scripts are written by people who excel in their fields. They are the experts. And where better to learn the craft of good dialogue than at the feet of the master’s?
So, those are my five top tips.
What are your top tips for writing dialogue? Is there anything else you would add to this list?