Writing good dialogue can be tricky. It must sound like real-world conversation—natural and unforced—while being focused enough to effectively advance plot and reveal character.
Many writers fail to navigate this division between the sound and the effect of dialogue. The two often feel like opposites and can be hard to balance. But remember, no reader wants their time wasted with chit-chat, however natural-sounding. Nor does a reader want to be hit over the head with plot points, or to be dragged through pages of heavy exposition. Your reader expects a subtle balance.
Before examining techniques to make your dialogue feel natural and unforced, let us first discuss the basic goals you want to achieve through your dialogue: Advancing Plot and Revealing Character.
At the essential level, a good novel is a series of conflicts and resolutions. The same must be true of your dialogue. It must have winners and losers, dominators and dominated, controllers and controlled. As a writer, you must ensure that no word exists in your novel without a valid reason.
This means that empty banter and hollow chit-chat must exist for some purpose beyond filling pages. Your characters can chatter, but they must do so with a purpose. For instance, perhaps one character is trying to stall another (from taking some action), or to bore them into leaving (and taking some action). Just like any other plot point, dialogue must be a series of actions and reactions, causes and effects, conflicts and resolutions.
A good trick to avoid meaningless dialogue is to assign a goal or objective to each statement. This goal can be either the stated goal or some secret goal. For instance, if your character says, “I want you to leave,” they might really want the other person to react by leaving (stated goal). However, they might want them to react by refusing to leave and professing their love (secret goal). What matters is that your speaker has a goal that makes sense for that character, and for the plot, and that is powerful enough to motivate them to speak. If you can do that, there is a good chance the dialogue will successfully advance the plot.
Aside from advancing plot, dialogue can serve to reveal who we’re dealing with. What kind of person is speaking? How do they think? And why do they think the way they do?
However, be careful about revealing character simply to reveal character. Character revelation is the lesser of the two goals, and must itself serve the goal of advancing plot. For instance, if your character talks about the close bond she had with her brother and their love of swimming at the local watering hole where he had once almost let her drown, the reader would expect the plot to further address her brother, or the watering hole, or her ability to trust those close to her. If the plot does not concern any of these subjects, the revelation of character was fluff that should not have made it past the final edit. As they say in theatre, the loaded gun hanging above the mantelpiece in Act One must be fired by Act Two.
Character is revealed not merely by what your characters say, but also by how they say it. Are they the kind of people who say the first thing on their mind or state the obvious? Do they hold back things they know? Do they bluster through conversations or do they always pause to think before answering? Are they reserved or excitable? Do they talk around their objectives or do they say only what they mean?
In reality, most folks are not exquisitely articulate. With time, we may be able to write a good speech, or come up with a clever retort, but in the moment, it is often unrealistic to expect our words to strike a perfect balance of expression, creativity, and wit. In practice, we ramble and lose our train of thought as often as we misunderstand and misspeak. Your characters’ dialogue should reflect (to a much lesser degree) similar imperfections. The quality, quantity, and category of imperfection will help to define each character.
Maintaining a Natural and Unforced Air
As discussed above, real-world conversations are rarely crisp and focused. In fact, much of our everyday conversation is boring. However, the opposite must be true in your novel, without losing that natural and unforced air of the everyday.
Thus, your characters’ dialogue must evoke the idea of real-world conversation without actually being as scattered and weak. While you want to leave your reader with a sense that the characters are having a normal, everyday conversation, your true aim is always to advance plot and reveal character.
There are several ways to keep your writing feeling natural and unforced while still achieving your goals. Most methods center on your ability to write with subtlety, including: subtle use of exposition, subtle use of dialogue tags, and subtle use of dialect and jargon.
Expository material is the background information that helps the reader to make sense of the story. The exposition is the context in which the action and characters of the story exist. Exposition can include such basics as time and place, and more intricate details such as personal history and worldviews.
Every story needs some level of exposition. Readers generally need to know whether it is day or night, whether the characters are on a futuristic space station or on an antebellum plantation, and whether there is one person listening to our character or an army of interested ears. Beyond the basics of setting, you will likely want to share bits of your back-story and character history so that your readers can better understand the actions and motivations of your characters.
However, if you try to load your dialogue with too much exposition, it will sound unnatural. For example, here is an exchange with the exposition greatly exaggerated:
“Charlie Simpson, let’s go to the old red barn that’s rumored to be haunted and which has likely not been inspected for structural integrity in many years. It’s far from town. Thus, if we get into trouble, no one will hear our calls for help.”
“Sounds great, Tom Peters, my friend of several years. Now that we’ve entered high school and we’ve both made the track team, I feel capable enough to visit that place without fear.”
“Ok. Let’s go using our bikes. But let’s be sure to return in time to work on our science project due next week. It’s on the subject of the solar system and I know we’ll need extra time to research the various planets. The library hours are 9 a.m.to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, of which this is one. It is currently 5 p.m.”
Clearly, both Charlie and Tom know most of this information without the need to explain it to each other. They know each other’s last names and grade level. They know the subject of their science project, what day it is, and the location of the old red barn. They know they will be using bikes, that the barn is thought to be haunted, and that they have both made the track team. None of that is natural for them to talk about. It is obvious to the reader that the author is merely (and clumsily) packing exposition into the dialogue.
Subtlety is the key. It is often difficult to have two characters naturally narrate what they are doing and why, when both characters already know the answers. Exposition works best in dialogue where one character has information that the other does not—creating a reason for an exchange of information.
Many authors choose to introduce a new character to a scene for the sole purpose of sharing expository material with them (and, thus, with the audience). However, when doing so, remember to actually use the new character as more than an “exposition straw man.” If the character’s limited use is transparent, you might as well have written the Charlie/Tom scene above.
A dialogue tag is a phrase before or after a character’s words, used to identify the speaking character. For instance, “he said,” “Sally said,” “Bob replied,” or “Mary asked,” are all appropriate tags.
The best tags will go unnoticed by your reader. All that is needed is a simple, “she said,” perhaps enhanced by gestures or action, so that the reader can easily identify the speaker.
If you have a back-and-forth with only a couple of speakers, you can often skip the tag. The more clearly defined and unique your characters are in terms of tone, rhythm, and vocabulary, the less you will need to use even the simple “he said,” “she said.”
Avoid overdone, ostentatious, and memorable tags such as “Jeff cackled,” “Peter pleaded,” “Carol whimpered,” “she averred,” or “he retorted.” Every so often these are fine to make a special point, but, in general, let the strength of the actual dialogue and accompanying actions and gestures do the talking. The tag itself should mostly fade into the background along with the punctuation.
Direct address to the other character in the scene often serves as a substitute for dialogue tags. However, if used more that once or twice in any given segment, this technique can easily turn the dialogue into a stilted and unnatural mess. For example:
“Tom, did you wash the dishes for Susan?”
“Yes, Marg, I did.”
“That’s good work, Tom.”
“Susan said the same, Marg.”
Interesting dialect and unique jargon can bring flavor, dimension, and life to your work. However, it can easily become tedious to read and can serve to distance the reader from a full immersion into your novel’s world.
As discussed above, dialogue is different than real-world speech in that it has a focused purpose. Many authors go too far in trying to hide that focus by injecting an abundance of meaningless filler words such as “um,” “uh,” and “well.” Remember, dialogue is not meant to mirror speech exactly. You are crafting a story, not simply recording actual conversations on paper.
Additionally, be cautious of phonetically spelling out words in order to show a character’s dialect. You do not need to spell it “Fraunce shell nuut evaar geev een!” if we already know that the character has a French accent. It does not need to be “There’s a moose ootside of the hoos, eh?” to remind us of the Canadian character’s dialect. This is not to say an occasional “eh?” or “oui?” would not be appropriate. Subtlety and discretion is the key, and clever use of dialect-specific vocabulary or rhythm will do far better than phonetic spellings.
Additionally, do not fall into the trap of spelling words like your character might. Your character is not the one writing your novel. For instance, if your character is a teen who spells “yeah” as “yeh” while texting her friends, unless you are showing a transcription of her text message, your spelling should be “Yeah.”
Remember that your readers want to know what the characters are doing physically while they converse. Readers want to know about the expressions on the faces of the attentive soldiers, as well as the spittle flying from the lips of their commander. What is happening with their hands? How is their breathing? How are people around them reacting?
Furthermore, keep in mind that dialogue is not always the best way to convey information. Sometimes silence, gesture, or non-verbal sound would work better.
As you begin editing your dialogue, speak the words out loud, looking for a good flow, for any unexpected rhymes or odd words, and for the conversation between your characters to feel interesting, important, and natural.