Good, strong dialogue is essential to a good story. It can be used to deepen character development, advance the plot, and provide humor. Readers gravitate towards dialogue. It’s a lot easier to read than huge paragraphs of description. Please tell me I’m not the only one who occasionally skims description in order to get back to the dialogue! If it is so important to writing, how do you improve dialogue?
I am no master at writing dialogue. It’s actually something that I struggle with. It takes me a lot of revision to get it just right. But hey, that’s what revision is for, right? 😉
However, I do have a few tips about how to improve dialogue.
6 Clever Ways to Improve Dialogue
1. Use Body Language
Have you ever been told something or asked a question, and you respond without opening your mouth? Maybe it’s a nod of your head, or shrugging your shoulders. We speak all the time without using words. Don’t be afraid to let your characters do the same. It will add variety to a conversation and will provide your character with even more ways to say exactly what they want to say (or not say).
2. Stick to Said
Said is not dead. When ending dialogue, make sure you use said as your tag (if you need a tag at all). If it’s a question, you can used asked or said. Trying to find the perfect dialogue tag is a waste of time. Editors don’t like other tags because they slow down the reader, but said is almost invisible to the reader.
3. Use Punctuation
Dialogue is a whole different beast from regular writing. We don’t speak like we write. Punctuation can be your best friend when writing compelling dialogue. It can help you capture emotion better than a fancy dialogue tag. Use punctuation to show instead of tell. For example, when someone is angry they likely aren’t pausing to think and taking time to form complete sentences. So dialogue of an angry person would likely have lots of commas, maybe a few run-on sentences.
4. Vary Sentence Length
Sentence length can say a lot about a character and can strengthen the way they speak. Are they shy or scared of saying the wrong thing? Have them talk with short sentences. Does your character love the sound of his or her own voice? Have them talk with long sentences.
Sentence length can also set the mood of a certain situation. When your character is nervous do they get real quite or have a hard time shutting up? Short sentences and long sentences can help depict that mood.
Sometimes your characters will narrate what was said.
Think I said I didn’t want to instead of “I don’t want to,” I said.
This can be a good way to transition into a conversation or to signal the end of a conversation.
It can also be a good way to avoid actually saying something you don’t want to say. For example, your character could curse under his breath or say something she would never say in front of her mother. This can be more fun for the reader too as they can imagine their own idea of what the character might have said.
6. Let Things Go Unsaid
How often do we speak with people and dance around what we really want to say? Whether this is how we should communicate or not is a whole other can of worms, but I don’t think anyone can deny that it happens.
So use it to your advantage in your writing. Use it to add conflict or tension.
A woman might say to her husband, “The trash is really full, dear,” when she probably means, “I’d like you to take out the trash, dear.” With the first example, the husband can be oblivious and not pick up on his wife’s hint. The trash might not get taken out, allowing for further tension and conflict. However, if the wife asks her husband to take out the trash, it’s more likely to get done and the conflict is avoided. This is ideal in real life, but not in writing.
So keep your writing ideal. Use dialogue to keep characters from getting what they want. Use dialogue to increase tension and conflict as your characters don’t say what they’re actually thinking.
Which tip did you find most useful? What do you do to improve dialogue? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!