For some writers, dialogue flows easily onto the page; for others, it’s an agonizing battle to find just the right words. Here are some tips for writing convincing dialogue.
- Know your characters. If you haven’t already filled out one of those character background charts, at least consider the educational level and basic history of each character. Know what sort of language they’d use. Are they well-educated, using longer words and sentences with correct grammar? Are they less-educated, with shorter words and sentences, and possibly with poor grammar? Do they use idioms and slang particular to a certain area? Are they talkative, or do they say only what’s necessary? Knowing your characters is the first step toward giving them convincing dialogue.
- Use individual voices. Each main character should have a unique speaking style based on their history and education. This should be plain enough that the reader could identify a speaker without any dialogue tags (“Tom said” or “Sally asked”). Once you’ve learned all about your characters, this will be much easier, and they’ll develop their own style of speaking.
- Avoid the thesaurus. Beginning writers often try to come up with variations on “he said” or “she asked.” Don’t. Words like “queried,” “hissed,” “exclaimed,” or even (OMG) “ejaculated” jerk the reader right out of the story (and perhaps off in search of a dictionary) and defeat your primary purpose as a writer. If you must use a tag, go with “said” or “asked.” The reader will skim over those words and keep reading, which is what you want.
- Keep the dialogue tags to a minimum. If you have only two speakers, you can skip the tags altogether and have a back-and-forth dialogue with only the occasional “Joe said” to remind the reader who’s speaking. If you’ve followed Step 2, even that will be unnecessary, as each character’s unique voice will make it obvious which one is speaking.
- Skip the tags entirely. One great way to indicate speaker without using tags is to use action. Show the characters moving and reacting instead of telling that they’re speaking. You don’t need “he said” if you start the paragraph with Jeff pounding a fist on the table in frustration, or split the dialogue to show Mary dabbing tears of laughter from her eyes.
What about you? Do you find dialogue easy or difficult? What are some tips you’ve learned?