Monday, February 27, 2012

Refining Dialogue

Recently I received notes back from one my crit partners on my polished (YAY, finally!) manuscripts and one thing that caught my eye was her comments about the dialogue. More specifically, her compliments about the dialogue, saying the wordplay between characters was one of her favorite parts in the book.

In my writing, I spend a lot of time refining the quips between characters. There are some basic rules I follow to make my dialogue more compelling and natural-sounding, but there’s also a few tricks I use.

Dialogue needs to have emotion, tension, and conflict. Leave out the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “Nice day,” stuff, and cut to the chase. Skip past introductions and all that empty blah-blah small talk. Also, if it doesn’t advance the plot, heighten the conflict, or deepen the characterization, take it out. In other words, don’t use dialogue as filler.

Avoid any kind of long monologue or dialogue that just reports information, with no pull or feeling. Instead, include a ton of emotional or sexual tension and subtext. Silence, interrupting, or abruptly changing the subject can be effective, too.

Dialogue should be loose. New writers often fall into the trap of sounding too stiff and formal. The process I use to ensure the dialogue sounds natural is:

~ Break up those long, grammatically correct complete sentences. THIS IS HUGE! I don’t know anyone who talks in complete sentences in informal conversations with friends and family—even enemies, especially in stressful situations. Try using short sentence fragments and one-word answers.

~ Use contractions (I’m, we’ll, don’t, etc.).

~ Read the dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Can some words be cut out, or can more common, everyday conversational words be used, rather than more “correct” words? In conversation, people don’t say purchased, they say bought. They say use not utilize.

The words should come out of your characters’ mouths, NOT YOURS. Unnatural dialogue is often caused by authors having their characters say things they would never say simply to convey information to the readers. Not only is this ineffective, as a reader it’s completely transparent. For example, if your character says to his sister: “As you know, our parents died in a car crash five years ago.” Um…wouldn’t she already know that? Instead, work the information in subtly, without having one character say something that the other would obviously already know.

Give each character his/her own voice. Ensure your characters don’t all sound the same. (Or like you, the author). Pay CLOSE attention to differences in gender, age, education, social status, geographical location, historical era, etc. Some characters, especially professionals, will use more correct English and longer sentences, while others will use coarser language, with a lot of one or two word questions/answers, peppered with expletives.

Then, think about the individual personality differences within that social group and situation. Is your character cautious or outward? Chatty or shy? Strict or spontaneous? Modern or old-fashioned? Self-assured or uneasy? Considerate or blunt? Serious or carefree? Comfortable or tense? Each character should have his/her own quirks and slang expressions.

Keep in mind gender differences. Males and females express themselves differently. In general, men are more direct. They prefer talking about things rather than people or feelings and often use brief or one-word answers.
Women, on the other hand, like to talk about people and relationships. They hint at or talk around a subject, tend to express themselves in more complete sentences, and often want to discuss their feelings. These differences are especially important to keep in mind if you’re writing dialogue for a character of the opposite sex.

(A few months ago, I posted about male and female mannerisms.)

Other things to remember:

~ Avoid “talking heads” (pages of unbroken dialogue, with little action or description).  Move the characters around the scene, and indicate their reactions, gestures and body language.

~ Use non-intrusive dialogue tags, (he said and she said) rather than words like remarked, conjectured, queried, interjected, insinuated, pronounced, and uttered, which draw attention to themselves. Not to mention, they’re extremely annoying. Go HERE for my previous post on dialogue tags.

~Use action tags (beats) instead of dialogue tags. Not sure what an action tag is? Go HERE to read my tips on how to use them effectively.

It’s no secret that dialogue is one of the first things agents and editors look at when they receive a manuscript for consideration. Spend the time to make each word said meaningful and full of life.


  1. Great tips, Nicole! Love the idea of reading aloud, I don't always do that...

  2. Very nice overview! I'm off to check out your links about male and female characters (their mannerisms), esp since I have a male MC in my novel. I'm afraid of making him too "female." :)

  3. Adding this post to the writing toolbox.