How To Write Engaging Dialogue

Sunset Proposal

Sunset Proposal

At one of my early critique sessions, the leader told me I had a “tin ear for dialogue.”

Ouch.

I’m not complaining. I asked for honest feedback. I appreciated the blunt delivery. I knew not to waste time honing dialogue skills built on weak fundamentals, I needed to start from scratch.

I started studying. Here’s what I learned.

Start by Eavesdropping

Several members of my critique team recommended this technique. I spend a lot of time traveling. At airports, in restaurants and on planes, I started eavesdropping on public conversations. Instead of listening to what they said, I listened to how people talked. I took notes.

I sought techniques that would make my dialogue sound natural. When I eavesdropped, I listened for distinctive styles. When I heard a style I liked (or one I despised), I’d capture its flavor.

Later, I’d organize my notes and group the different styles. I’d think about my characters and assign a style to each.

Some conversation styles were situational, like the daughter who evaded her mother’s probing questions. Those I filed away for later use.

The biggest lesson I learned by eavesdropping is that conversation is disorderly. People interrupt one another. Sentences are often left unfinished. Questions are sometimes answered with questions. Some people are evasive, answering a different question than asked, or they change the subject.

DLessem provides a detailed tutorial on this technique on eHow.com.

Dialogue Is Different than Real Speech

While it’s important for dialogue to sound natural, there’s an important distinction between dialogue and normal conversation. Dialogue is like conversation with the boring parts removed.

In his book, Conflict Action and Suspense, William Noble says, “Dialogue is a special kind of conversation; it’s conversation with drama!”  Mr. Noble instructs that there are only two reasons to include dialogue.

  1. It must contribute to telling the story. In other words, it needs to move the story forward.
  2. Use it to develop characters.

In other words, if your dialogue doesn’t advance the story or develop your characters, remove it from your story. Good dialogue achieves both.
How to Tell If Your Dialogue Is Natural
In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says, “When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong we also know –  it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.”

So that’s the test. Read your dialogue out loud and listen. You’ll know if it sounds genuine – or not.
Now Make It Engaging
Once you have developed the ability to write natural-sounding dialogue, then it is time to make your dialogue more engaging.

Get Rid of the Tags

Dialogue tags slow the reader. So remove as many as possible. For example:

George asked. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Mary inquired.

“It sounded like a baby crying,” he exclaimed.

She replied, “I don’t hear anything.”

By stripping tags, it moves faster.

George asked,  “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Mary whispered.

“It sounded like a baby crying,”

“I don’t hear anything.”


The first two paragraphs need tags to identify the speakers. I generally stick to simple tags like said or asked. In this case, I used whispered. It adds value because it helps describe the tone of her voice and helps set the mood of the scene.

Keep the tags simple and to a minimum, and your dialogue will flow.

Use Gestures to Add Action

Gestures reflect the characters’ personality and mood. They also can add action, create conflict and inject suspense.

Let’s add some gestures to the dialogue above.

George stopped. He tilted his head and listened. He leaned close to Mary and whispered. “Did you hear that?”

Her eyes darted to every alcove and alleyway along the darkened street. Her tiny voice trembled. “Hear what?”

“It sounded like a baby crying,”

Shudders coursed down her spine and weakened her knees. She clutched George. With her lips touching his ear, she breathed, “I don’t hear anything.”

With the help of the gestures, we add a lot.

  • We set the scene
  • We create suspense
  • We learn a little about George’s character and a lot about Mary’s

When I’m writing a scene like this, I find this technique useful: Write the dialogue first. Once the scene is complete, go back and add the gestures.

Add Dialect When Required

If you have characters that speak using a distinctive dialect, you’ll want to include that in your dialogue.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling uses dialect to paint Fleur Delacour’s personality.

Zis is nothing,’ she said dismissively, looking around at the sparkling walls of the Great Hall. “At ze Palace of Beauxbatons, we ‘ave ice scultpures all around ze dining chamber at Chreestmas.

I find it difficult to capture dialect properly. When it’s not perfect, using the Stephen King test, we know immediately and it bothers us.

One other warning: dialect is easy to overdo. It’s extra work for readers, and they get weary. So keep the dialect away from your main characters.

Good Dialogue Has Rhythm

Somewhere, one of my sources (I hate that I can’t properly attribute it) claimed that good dialogue had a rhythm, a cadence.

When you are reading your dialogue out loud, and it doesn’t sound quite right, try adjusting the order or swapping out words to improve the flow.

Consider the last paragraph of our earlier dialog.

Shudders coursed down her spine and weakened her knees. She clutched George. With her lips touching his ear, she breathed, “I don’t hear anything.”

It might sound better if we made a few adjustments.

Her knees buckled. Shudders coursed down her spine. She clung to George’s arm. With her lips pressed against his ear, she breathed, “I don’t hear anything.”

Breaking the paragraph into shorter sentences and using a few more powerful words (buckled, clung, pressed against), creates a more urgent cadence.

Study Good Dialogue

Pull out your favorite books. There is a good chance that the dialogue was a key ingredient in engaging your interest. Find your favorite sections and study the dialogue.

Movies are another great place to find good dialogue to study. Watch some of your favorites with an eye on the dialogue. Pause the movie and picture the dialogue in words. Take a favorite scene and write the dialogue with gestures and tags.

Summary

If, like me, you’ve got a tin ear for dialogue, these concepts and techniques should help you tune your ear. I know I’ve improved; although I’m still an apprentice. Mastering dialogue will take more study and a lot of practice.

If you’ve got other guidance for new writers like me, please help us by sharing your ideas below.

Updates:

Emlyn posted a related article on Novel Publicity titled Help, How Can I Write Authentic Dialog.

Steve P. recently published an article with some good dialogue pointers on Novel Doctor blog.

9 Comments

  1. I’ve been studying the dialogue in Dean Koontz’s books. He’s a master.

    Reply
    • It’s been a while since I’ve read any of Dean Koontz’s novels. Perhaps it’s time.

      I’ve found that since I started writing, I read differently. I find myself studying the style and structure — at least, until I get sucked into the story. How about you?

      Reply
      • I do that too, and it’s kinda irritating. When I read I want to do so for the enjoyment of it, but all too often I find myself analyzing the paragraphs, sentence structure, etc.

        Reply
        • Occupational hazard, I fear.

          I’ve got a friend whose a master painter/wallpaper hanger. He works exclusively on million dollar homes. He can’t walk into anyone’s home and appreciate the interior decorating, he instantly sees the quality of the workmanship (usually inferior).

          Reply
  2. ***Write the dialogue first without any tags. Once the scene is complete, go back and add the gestures.***

    This is a great idea. It had never crossed my mind before, but I think I’ll give it a shot and see if it improves my dialog/mood a bit. =] Thanks for the great tips.

    Reply
    • Kit,

      Thank you for taking time to comment.

      I find this tip works so well for me that now I start every dialogue naked, without tags or gestures.

      This wasn’t an original idea of mine. This came from someone in my critique team — I can’t remember who, but most likely James or Steve.

      Reply
  3. A few things:

    Best way to test any line of dialogue is to read it out loud, preferably in front of a mirror. If it doesn’t sound right to you, then re-write it.

    As for removing tags, it is a good thing, except when you have more than two people in a conversation. A third person adds to much complexity and without good tags the reader can get lost. However, in a two person conversation, if each one has a strong character voice, it will shine through and you don’t need the tags.

    Reply
    • Rafael,

      I agree, every piece of dialogue needs to be read out loud. I’ve never tried it in front of a mirror. But I will now. Thanks.

      And you’re correct, as soon as you have more than two people, you need to make it clear who is speaking, and dialogue tags are often the best choice.

      I appreciate you stopping by and taking time to comment. Thanks.

      Reply
  4. Great stuff, I’m big on removing tags, the reader shouldn’t have to be spoon fed. Excellent comments on gestures.

    Reply

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