Theoretically, dialogue should be simple to write.
We talk to several people daily, we form our own conversations, and we listen to discussions all around us. With so many real life examples, shouldn’t it be easy to craft written dialogue that sounds as good as spoken conversation?
Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy. Dialogue in your novels can come across as clunky, repetitive, or too verbose if you aren’t careful. There’s a fine line between lifelike dialogue and conversations that are so realistic they become dull.
Follow these five tips to write dialogue for your novel that feels both authentic and captivating.
Find Meaning Behind Every Word
Daily conversation is filled with chatter, repetition, and distraction. We ramble on about the weather, say the same thing three times over, and lose our train of thought easily. While writing dialogue in the same way would be realistic, your reader would quickly find themselves bored of weather conversations.
Avoid small talk and chatter when crafting your dialogue. Every word should be impactful and have direct relation to the plot. When you write out conversation, each sentence should give insight to something about your novel, whether it is used to discuss the plot, describe an important event, or give background to a character.
As you write dialogue, stop after a full conversation and read over it. After every sentence, ask yourself if the phrase directly relates to the main idea of the conversation. If not, strike it or summarize it. Your dialogue may begin to feel barren after several strikes, but it will be much more interesting to read.
If you need to illustrate small talk, summarize it instead of writing it out bit by bit. Instead of rolling through several lines of greetings between a group, you could sum up the small talk with a simple statement like the following:
“The group exchanged pleasantries and observations on the weather before turning their attention to more pressing matters”.
This shows the readers that the characters had a friendly conversation, but doesn’t drag the reader through their introductions line by line. It also saves you from having to write out several lines of meaningless conversation.
Remember that readers should want to read every line of your dialogue. They don’t want to read over pleasant greetings between friends, they want to read the impactful conversation that makes your book unique.
Perfect Your Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are an important part of crafting conversation. Done right, they flow smoothly as part of a discussion. If done wrong, however, they can detract from the dialogue you worked so hard to write.
A common trap writers can fall into is mixing up their dialogue tags with things like “Susan exclaimed” or “Susan exaggerated” or “Susan announced” instead of using the common “Susan said”. While the variety of these tags might be appealing upon first glance, using these diverse tags can quickly overcomplicate your conversations.
Complex dialogue tags filled with hundreds of different synonyms can needlessly draw your reader away from the dialogue itself. Your dialogue should speak for itself, and your reader should be able to discern the tone of the dialogue without descriptors tacked on to tag.
Keep your tags simple. “Said” works fine. You can spice it up every once in a while with different colorful tags, but don’t be afraid of using “said” more than once per written conversation. A different tag should be unique and impactful, but to make it that way, stick to simple tags for the majority of your conversations.
Keeping with the theme of simple dialogue tags, steer clear of adverbs. It can be so easy to tack on a “suddenly” “sadly” or “angrily” to convey the mood of your speaker. However, these can seem repetitive and lazy. Instead of adding adverbs, add actions to your character.
Take this phrase for example:
“I’m alright,” he said sadly.
It is a very plain piece of dialogue. The speaker is obviously sad, but you’ve told the audience very plainly and directly, leaving them no room to inference or imagine how he is expressing his sadness. Instead try this:
“I’m alright.” Stephen shoved his hands into his pockets and punted a lonely rock across the pavement.
The tone of that action leaves the reader to think that not all is right with Stephen, without them being directly told that he’s upset. Instead of adverbs tacked on to dialogue tags, get creative with your scenes to really immerse your reader in what is happening.
Even better, look for places where you can eliminate dialogue tags altogether. If you have a conversation occurring between two people, you don’t need a dialogue tag after every spoken line. Once the reader understands which two people are speaking, they don’t need a tag telling them who is speaking after every line. When they see spoken phrases bouncing off of each other, they can assume the conversation is between the same two people.
As you write your dialogue tags, always remember that less is more.
Don’t State the Obvious
When you can show something without a character directly telling it to the audience, do it.
While it may be tempting to slip introductions into dialogue, you risk them sounding overly obvious and clunky.
This overstating can happen when a character mentions the name of someone the audience has not yet seen. The writer is tempted to give the reader context through dialogue, but if done wrong, the context detracts from the realism of what’s being said.
Take this situation for example. A husband arrives home late where his wife is waiting.
“Where were you?” she asks.
“Oh, just at my best friend Jack’s house,” the husband answers.
It gives the reader context, but it sounds clunky. If these two have been married for a number of years, and Jack is the husband’s best friend, he wouldn’t need to remind his wife who Jack is. That detail is included solely for the audience and disrupts the flow of conversation.
Instead, you could do something like the following:
“Where were you?” the wife asks.
“Oh, just visiting Jack,” the husband answers.
“How was he?”
“Fine… We had an argument again. He hasn’t been the same since the divorce…”
“Well, you all have been friends for years, surely you can get through this one.”
Not only did that dialogue give some information about the visit, it gave the wife an opportunity to tell the audience about Jack’s relation to them in a more natural way. You can illustrate connections through dialogue, or just through simple prose, just don’t be unrealistically obvious.
Keep Dialogue Characteristic and Cliché-Free
Beyond tags and repetitive phrases, it is so important that your characters sound like themselves.
Most people in real life don’t talk as if they’re reading straight from a thesaurus. If you wouldn’t talk that way, don’t make your characters do so! While a thesaurus may come in handy when crafting your story, leave it out of the dialogue decisions unless you’re trying to make a character come across as someone who is recognized as way too wordy.
While you want to make your characters sound authentic, be wary of clichés. It can be easy to slip in a few phrases you’ve heard jokingly used in a rom-com, but to a reader they just come across as inauthentic and overused. Even if you would use these clichés in your own conversations, keep them out of your book.
Phrases you’ll want to be on the lookout for are things like, “I’m just doing my job”, or the age old romantic line of “It’s not you, it’s me”. Your reader has probably heard these in several other places over their literary years, and re-reading them in your novel isn’t particularly interesting.
If you find yourself slipping in a cliché, ask yourself why you’ve decided to include it. Do you like the message it is sending, or are you just adding it to fill in space? If you’re filling in space, follow one of our first rules and delete your cliché. We want to keep this dialogue as concise possible without any filler phrases.
If you do want to keep the message of the cliché, however, find another creative way to phrase it. This will let you still keep the intent of the phrase, but give you the chance to find more meaningful phrasing.
Speak Dialogue Out Loud
The whole intention of dialogue is for it to replicate real, spoken conversation. So when reading through your most recent passage, why not read it aloud?
If you have a few writer friends or just some pals who like to help you out, sit down with a page of dialogue and take turns reading it aloud like a script. This is an easy way to figure out if your lengthy sections of dialogue sound realistic or not.
Ask your friends for input as you read aloud. If someone is speaking a phrase, it may be easier for them to say that something feels awkward to read or difficult to say. Take their feedback and tweak your dialogue so it flows smoothly when said aloud.
Overall, the best dialogue will be simple, realistic, and concise. Any dialogue you write should have the intention of driving the plot forward with its revelations and conflicts. Keep the surrounding dialogue tags simple to draw your audience into what is being said between characters.
When all else fails, double check your dialogue by reading it out loud! If it doesn’t sound like something that would be said in conversation, tweak it until it reads like true spoken word.