I used to struggle with writing dialogue. It came off stiff and unrealistic. And I couldn’t tell one character apart from another. But over the years, I’ve found that these tips have helped me improve my dialogue.
Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
This has been the best piece of advice that I’ve ever received. Reading your dialogue out loud helps you catch awkward or stiff wording and cuts extraneous words.
Make Each Word Count
Speaking of unnecessary dialogue, make sure that every word counts. Small talk is frowned upon. But I work it in to play up tension or discomfort in a scene. Check out the example below for what not to do:
I sat down on the couch across from James and crossed my legs. “Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
He smiled. “I’m good. How are you?”
“I’m okay.” I looked down at my hands. The polish on one of my nails was starting to chip. “So…nice weather we’re having.”
This just screams uncomfortable. Unless you’re going for that, skip the niceties and jump right into the conversation. Check out this bit of dialogue from Lies that Bind:
“So,” Jake said as we sat down, “what’s with the sudden interest in me?”
“What do you mean?” I settled beside him on the couch and pulled my legs up beside me.
Jake grabbed the remote on the coffee table in front of us and planted his feet in place of it. “I mean, why do you suddenly want to hang out?”
I felt heat rise into my cheeks. “Um…I don’t know. I mean you were just so nice at school today, and you did ask me if I’d help you with The Catcher in the Rye, so I figured it was okay to ask to hang out. I mean, I know you’re on the baseball team and everyone likes you and there are all these rumors about me…but I thought maybe you could help me get my mind off things.”
“But you’re smart,” Jake said. “And cute when you ramble. And those rumors are just that. Rumors. They’re stupid.”
The main character, Hattie, is nervous and uncomfortable, but I made everything she and Jake were saying count. That’s the goal. Every word in your book, not just your dialogue, should move the story along.
Utilize Different Tags
We’ve all heard different things when it comes to dialogue tags. Some people say to always use said. Others believe said is dead. But dialogue tags should fade into the background. Readers shouldn’t get distracted by over-the-top tags.
But every line of dialogue shouldn’t be punctuated with “he said” and “she asked.” You can slip in action in place of a tag, or not use one at all. Check out the example below from my short story Death of a Mechanic:
“Riley, are you drunk?”
“Whatya talkin ‘bout?” Riley attempted to articulate each word. “I’m assssss s-sober as a priest.”
His lumberjack manager stepped closer. “Come back when you’ve sobered up.” After a beat he added, “On the other hand, don’t come back at all.”
As Riley turned, his manager put a hand on his shoulder.
“Your dad wouldn’t want to see you like this. Neither would Sarah. Think about her.”
“Don’t bring my girlfriend into this.” Riley shoved a finger into his boss’s chest.
I didn’t use “said” in the example above. The main character Riley is drunk, and I draw attention to that. The boss’s dialogue is punctuated with action, rather than tags. Check out your dialogue and see if you can delete tags or replace them with action.
Give Characters Unique Voices
This is something that I struggled with for a long time. All of my characters sounded the same. You could give your characters a lisp, a catch phrase, or something else that makes them unique.
Screenwriters do well with this, and I recommend reading this article on creating unique voices for more information.
This section of dialogue comes from my short story 2 O’Clock. The waitress, Marian, has a unique voice that differentiates her from the main character Amber:
“What’s eating you, sweetie?” the waitress asked. I looked up at her name tag. Marian.
I sighed and shoved the plate away. “I pushed someone out of my life a few months ago and…I miss him.”
“Why did you push him away?”
“I don’t know. I think I was unhappy with how my life was going, so I took it out on him.”
Marian sat down across from me, folding her hands on the table. “Was it his fault your life wasn’t going as expected?
What do you think? If you covered the character’s names, could you tell who was Marian and who was Amber?
Use Body Language
Body language can be more important than the dialogue itself. How many times have you noticed your child’s eyes squint when they lie? Or your partner’s fingers knot together when they’re nervous?
In Lies that Bind Hattie is almost constantly anxious. She picks at her nail polish, and her cousin Lydia even points it out:
I glared at her as I stuck a hand out toward her. “What makes you think I’m going to pick at my nails?”
Lydia unscrewed the cap on the nail polish and took my hand. “Because you pick your nails when you’re nervous. We’re having dinner with your mom, Jake, and his mom. I can already tell you’re nervous.”
I let out a shaky breath. “I mean, my boyfriend is meeting my mother. Who wouldn’t be nervous?”
What makes your character tic? Work it into your character outline and use it in the story!
What do you need to do to improve your dialogue? Is there anything I missed? Let me know in the comments!