At one of my early critique sessions, the leader told me I had a “tin ear for dialogue.”
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 and patterns. When I heard something interesting, I’d capture its flavor.
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. At times, people are evasive, answering a different question than asked, or they change the subject.
DLessem provides a detailed tutorial on eavesdropping and incorporating what you’ve learned on eHow.com.
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 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 including gestures and tags.
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 & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing), 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.
- It must contribute to telling the story. In other words, it needs to move the story forward.
- 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 work on making your dialogue more engaging. Here are some tips with examples.
1. Get Rid of the Tags
Dialogue tags slow the reader. So remove as many as possible. For example:
“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.
“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.
2. 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.
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.
3. 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.
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.
4. 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.
It might sound better if we made a few adjustments.
Breaking the paragraph into shorter sentences and using a few more powerful words (buckled, clung, pressed against), creates a more urgent cadence.
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.
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.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the books mentioned in this article, please click on the links below. (Full disclosure: If you do so, I earn a commission. Thank you.)
“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.
Harry Potter is midway through his training as a wizard and his coming of age. Harry wants to get away from the pernicious Dursleys and go to the International Quidditch Cup. He wants to find out about the mysterious event that’s supposed to take place at Hogwarts this year, an event involving two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn’t happened for a hundred years. He wants to be a normal, fourteen-year-old wizard. But unfortunately for Harry Potter, he’s not normal – even by wizarding standards. And in his case, different can be deadly.