Friday, Jul 27, 2012

Friday Fix (Craft): Writing Great Dialogue

Many fiction writers complain that they have trouble writing great dialogue. But writing outstanding dialogue is not so difficult as it seems. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when writing dialogue for your story: 

• Do not use dialogue to force backstory. While one purpose of dialogue is to give information about your characters, including too much information will make your dialogue seem artificial. Here is an example of using dialogue to force backstory: 

“I can’t believe it’s been six years since we met at the gym while you were going through your divorce and had all those financial problems suddenly fall upon you.” 

“Yeah. It happened at the same time that you lost your job and were out of work for three months, wondering how you were going to pay the mortgage.” 

The dialogue above sounds forced and contrived. People don’t naturally talk this way. Instead of forcing back story into your dialogue, include it a little at a time. For example: 

“I can’t believe it’s been six years since we met.” 

“Yeah, a lot has happened since then, but I think we’ve both grown because of it.” 

Then add a little more later, or include the backstory information in an internal monologue. 

 While good dialogue sounds realistic, it does not include everything people normally say in a conversation. For example, good dialogue eliminates the small talk unless it is absolutely necessary. This means that if you have a character answering the phone, you don’t have to include “Hello, how are you?” “I’m fine, thank you.” Just get right into the conversation. 

• Good dialogue is enhanced by the use of beats. A beat is a gesture or action that helps the reader “see” the character who is speaking. Examples of dialogue with and without a beat follow below: 

Without a beat:

“How dare you say that!” Jennifer retorted. She was angry. 

With a beat:

“How dare you say that!” Jennifer’s stomach roiled as she raised a fist toward him. (With a beat) 

In the first example, I simply used a tag (retorted) and told the reader what Jennifer was feeling. In the second example, I used a beat in which I showed the reader what Jennifer was feeling. 

These are only a few techniques you can use to bring your dialogue to life. What are some techniques you have used successfully?


Photo Source: Microsoft Clipart 


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8 thoughts on “Friday Fix (Craft): Writing Great Dialogue

  1. You are right on target with your example and comments: We need to show and not tell, and often, this is not as easy as it sounds. It also depends on person: First-person can often be the easiest method, but not always; third person, limited omniscient takes a bit more concentration, and third-person omniscient, with an objective point of view becomes more difficult to me. Thanks for a great topic and article!

    July 28, 2012 8:01 AM

    • Thanks for your great comments, Skye. I appreciate your references to first and third persons–and the variations of the latter–in the storytelling process. Each POV has its own set of challenges, and choosing the right POV is critical to the writing of one’s story and to the creation of dialogue. Thanks again for your helpful insights. 🙂

      July 28, 2012 8:28 AM

  2. Good stuff, MaryAnn! I appreciate your insight and examples. I know I dislike reading dialogue that sounds forced, so I want to make sure what I write is not.

    Have a great weekend,

    July 28, 2012 1:42 PM

    • Thanks, Karen Yes, forced dialogue does not flow nor is it realistic. Thanks for your comments.

      You too have a great weekend!

      Harbourlight Books-The Pelican Book Group
      To be released December 2012

      July 28, 2012 4:25 PM

  3. I use beats quite often; in fact, I could be guilty of using them a wee bit too much at times.

    Another technique I use is what I refer to as “action” dialog. Here’s an example where a group of commandos are looking at a map, and discussing their strategy:

    “This map details the area in Hebei Province,” Kwan began.
    “Where Teng Cai’s mother lives,” McCarter said.
    Kwan nodded. “You can see here the house—” he pointed toward a large structure “—along with this line here, which is actually a perimeter fence.”
    “Electronic security?” Manning asked.
    “The very best,” Kwan replied. “Additionally, my people confirm there are two twenty-four hour roving patrols with dogs and a well-armed security force spread inside the house. There’s also a gated, manned security entrance. Cameras everywhere and we have it on good authority the fence has heat sensors buried throughout.”

    July 28, 2012 2:26 PM

    • Thanks for your comments, Jon, and for sharing a segment of your story. Action dialogue is an excellent technique, especially in suspense stories and thrillers. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


      Harbourlight Books-The Pelican Book Group
      To be released December 2012

      July 28, 2012 4:27 PM

  4. Jon showed an excellent example. One thing I’ve learned with beats is that they almost always come before the dialog. That way you know who is talking without using a tag. And it flows better.

    When in doubt – read your scene out loud.

    July 28, 2012 9:48 PM

    • Good points, Pam! I think you once mentioned the acronym FAD: Feelings, Actions, Dialogue. This is the best order when writing dialogue.



      July 29, 2012 9:20 PM