Decoding Dialogue Writing: My Thoughts on Creating Natural Dialogue

Writing dialogue is sometimes the scourge of the writing process. Everyone is different, so it may not be the case for you. I figured since I’m working with writing and reading books and editing my own work, that I’d share a few things I have noticed along the way. It also helps in case I forget these things, then I can come back here and re-read so that I remember. 🙂

Keeping it real
Keeping it real

1. Stay in character. This is a pretty broad instruction so here are a few elements.
a. If your character has an accent, use it all through the book whenever you write dialogue unless there is a specific need for the  shift, for example exposure to a different culture or language within the story.
b. Know your character enough to know how they respond. A strong character will not have simpering responses without VERY good reason.
2. Keep it natural. This can be difficult. Please read the dialogue out loud to yourself. If you want to roll your eyes while you read it aloud, that’s bad news. Once you have read it out loud, give it to someone else and have them read it out loud to you. This allows someone who had no idea what you want to say to read it as the general public will.

3. No long sentences unless your character happens to be the kind who drones incessantly and without breathing. See? You wouldn’t put that in dialogue…too long. This should not be a worry if you do step 2. If you’re panting after you read a sentence, that’s a definite rewrite.
4. Most of our conversations are filled with punctuation. There are a lot of one or two-word responses. We blurt things out and then have to tack on a few more sentences to clarify. These are great opportunities to show how the character reacts to their own blunders. In between the dialogue are they blushing? Rubbing the back of their neck? Refusing eye contact? Stammering? Shrugging?

5. Use dialogue to show the reader key elements of your character that will be more poignant than simply writing them. This isn’t to use all the time, but a fair amount of dialogue is okay in some instances. If it flows well and seems natural, and the reader knows who is talking, then go for it!
6. Dialogue tags. This is a controversial one. Some “experts” will tell you to sprinkle your dialogue with the recommended “he said”/ “she said”. Personally, as a reader, I cannot tell you how absolutely annoying it is to read that amongst the dialogue. When used too often it detracts from the dialogue completely. When used to infrequently, the reader is left wondering who is talking. Though the simple rule of thumb is that you can safely omit tags when only two speakers are present, and every other line of dialogue switches speakers…still don’t eschew dialogue tags. When I follow the “every other line” rule strictly, and it should be very simple for readers to follow ten lines of dialogue (we’re talking short “yeah” and minor stuff here), you would be amazed at the people who got confused about which character was talking.

Even if you don’t like the “he said”/ “she said” stuff, you’ll want to insert it sometimes. I’d recommend pairing it with an action so it’s not utterly lame. Have them shift in their seat, tap fingers, or scratch. Give a little insight into what the character is like so that it’s not just “so-and-so said”. You’re building a visual in the reader’s mind so they can “see” what’s happening in the scene.

7. Avoid clichéd “speaking” unless it is clear that the character is mocking something like a movie. It needs to be clear to the reader, by showing what the character is like, that the character is mocking. Otherwise it will seem like amateur dialogue that causes a slight cringing effect in the reader.
Those are the tips I can think of that I’ve learned by looking over a variety of dialogues from published books to unpublished writers, to my own writing. Ksenia Anske also has stupendous advice on the subject because she’s pretty much just brilliant. You really, really should follow her on Twitter: @kseniaanske. Check out her awesome take on writing dialogue.

I’m working on a feedback form for those of you who want to use it for your beta readers, or just generic feedback from friends and family. Hopefully I’ll have that for you on Monday! Have an inter-galactically stellar weekend!

P.S. Sorry if the paragraph spacing is weird…wordpress hijacked my formatting.  Oh and feel free to leave helpful suggestions for writing dialogue so everyone can benefit! Bye!

2 comments

  1. Can I disagree slightly with #7? Only slightly, promise! It’s just that, I find myself using cliches a lot in my daily speech — not on purpose, mind you, but some cliches just lend themselves SO well to certain situations. So I think that characters should be able to speak in cliches, if that’s the sort of character they are. They don’t have to necessarily be using the cliche ironically or whatever — people do speak in cliches, that’s why they’re cliches, because everyone says them, and if you’re trying to write a very realistic, modern-day slice of life story, then I would personally be surprised if the character didn’t pop out at least a couple of cliches.

  2. Hi! thank you very much for the feedback! I personally don’t care about reading cliches, however I have heard from quite a few agents and publishers that using them throughout a book (sometimes at all, depending on the person) can result in a rejection. If that’s the kind of character, as long as it is clear from the rest of the writing that this is the type of character it is, it will work. I mean cliche in terms of culture, so I didn’t explain it. I’m having a difficult time finding a good example without listing the one I ran into. Say for example that you have an FBI investigator talking, he’s very serious throughout the dialogue and at some point he says (without mocking) “take me to your leader”. Depending on the book, this is just going to make a reader gag. If you’re trying to create a credible, serious, tense moment…this is going to hijack it. Hopefully that makes more sense. Sometimes cliches are so apt that they do seem to fit the bill. My mom uses them all the time but gets them wrong, so that would be an interesting character to write. 🙂 Thanks again!!

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