top of page
  • automaticorder

5 Techniques For Improving Dialogue

Read a lot

Reading plays is a great way to improve your dialogue. See how an author keeps it interesting from page to page. It’s in the tension created by the things that the characters say to each other. That’s why plays are interesting. Read talkative passages in novels. See how the author breaks up dialogue with description and cuts in and out of conversation. Note when it leaves you wanting to read more of it, and especially you when you want to read less. You will begin to see passages of your own writing that should be cut out.

While there are a lot of rules set by academia covering how writing reaches readability and the power to captivate, when it comes down to it, you can do whatever you want and get away with it if you get whatever it is you’re aiming to do to work.

Follow the rules to write well, break them to be brilliant.

Writing is all about rewriting. It takes practice to write even the way that you want to write.

You could look at a book by Stephen King and think but I can write like him, I can write better than him—because he is not a great wordsmith. But can you really write like Stephen King? To get thousands of pages of material out every year in the form of captivating stories? Don’t be fooled by a conversational style, or prose that’s not chiseled like James Joyce or Shakespeare’s. There’s a reason why most people who write don’t write best-sellers or work that calls readers’ attention decades after an author’s passing.

Although most can get good at writing only some will be great.

Great artists make what they do look easy. The Italians call it sprezzatura—make everything you do seem effortless. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Stephen King—great artists have it—and nothing about what either men does is easy, it’s just that one man wrote lyrical expression and the other writes prose.

Show up late leave early

With dialogue you want to get in and get out while it’s hot. Let the reader see what the characters are saying only when there’s conflict. Leave us wanting more. A reader creates images in their mind of what the characters look like, dialogue contributes to the image that forms. We only need glimpses of it.

Good writing captures what’s real but leaves out the mundane. So the real drama, heartache, mystery, antagonism, problems, bickering, fighting of real life may be drawing on experiences you’ve had or people you know is the realness that you want to show in your dialogue.

Pleasantries, kindness, arriving, leaving, attention to chores, and meaningless details are not used to worthwhile effect, unless of course you’ve already done it, then take credit for making it work.

Let’s say you have two characters talking about the murder of a third in a donut shop.

A good way to start is by discussing a suspicious person they both know. A bad way to start is with them meeting in the parking lot, walking to the donut shop together to place their orders before they sit down to talk about who the killer is.

Wait until you get to a point where dialogue is vital. It should show characters in a fast-paced conversation of information sharing that reveals mystery while retaining it at the same time.

You want to give your readers answers, but let those answers drip into the story not flood it. Avoid back-and-forth question and answer. Give the reader less information than you have. Save the rest of it for later and do that continuously until you have a climax where the most important thing of the story is revealed.

Let’s take a look at dialogue that appears when we enter the conversation too early:

“The strawberry donuts look good but I think I’m gonna do a cruller,” said Robert Willis.

“You’re doing the cruller?” said Tramone. “I’m gonna do a croissant with cream cheese,

and a black tea.”

“A croissant with cream cheese? That’s gross, why don’t you get the ham and cheese


“Because I don’t eat ham anymore, and I like cream cheese on croissant’s mind your own

business, Robert.”

“OK, then, Tramone, you didn’t have to be so defensive. Hello, I would like one crawler

and coffee with cream and sugar, please.”

Start writing dialogue once the conversation has already got exciting:

“I know you killed Principal Flair.”

“I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me!”

“Stop lying, Robert. I heard you confess to Danica yesterday.”

“I haven’t talked to Danica in weeks!”

This is in the action but it’s a bit rigid without description. Let’s see it with description:

Tramone was so tense his legs felt like boards.

“I know you killed Principal Flair.”

He watched as Robert’s eye widened in the accusation.

“I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me!”

“Stop lying, Robert! I heard you confess to Danica yesterday.”

“I haven’t talked to Danica in weeks!”

Robert knew he looked guilty. And he would until they found his double and he could prove his innocence.

“I know it’s going to be difficult to believe, I did have his blood on my hands, and I did run from the police. But I didn't talk to Danica, and I didn’t kill Ric Flair. You got to believe me,” he implored.

Tramone watched Robert’s face carefully as his friend pleaded with him.

Here the dialogue is more effective because the description ties in the characters’ relationship with one another, and contextualizes the tension of the scene.

Keep it brief

Less is more. Dialogue is important to most stories and it should be written throughout the book in short clips.

Dialogue that goes on for pages can be tiresome to read. Long stretches of it lessen narrative tension. If you’re interested in working in dialogue as a medium try it in a play.

If you want to experiment with dialogue in the novel read novels that are dialogue heavy; Ernest Hemingway, Brett Easton Ellis, Dorothy Parker, lots of detective and twentieth century science fiction novels. There’s a Spanish novel written entirely in dialogue published over 100 years before Don Quixote called La Celestina.

There are plenty of successful dialogue-heavy novels out there.

People like to talk about rules but when it comes down to it, it’s really a matter of what's right for your story.

Dialogue should serve your story. If you have dialogue that is redundant, goes nowhere, gives nothing to advance the story: get rid of it.

Use dialogue to break up narrative

Engaging, flowing fiction is made up of patterns. That’s what novels are: patterns of words and ideas expressed in an attractive, lucid way. The pattern should be sporadic and reoccurring. Typically you don't want to put all of your dialogue in one part of your novel and all of the narrative in another. Do you want them to play off of each of other strengths give us some and then the other give us a surprise and then give us more of what we’ve seen again.

One thing that will strengthen your dialogue are short descriptive bridges between lines.

Show us what the characters look like and what they are doing as they converse.

Let’s take another look at that dialogue that came too early in the conversation:

Tramone clutched the oily bills in his pocket. Between his fingers was his last remaining eight bucks.

“The strawberry donuts look good but I think I’m gonna do a cruller,” said Robert Willis.

“You’re doing the cruller?” said Tramone. He had begun to sweat. He had long been sweating in could smell himself as they stood there, self-conscious with the presumption that others could smell him too. “I’m gonna do a croissant with cream cheese. And a black tea.”

“A croissant with cream cheese? That’s gross, why don't you get the ham and cheese croissant?”

Robert scowled without letting Tramone see his face. He had enough of Tramone’s opinions.

“Because I don’t eat ham anymore, and I like cream cheese on croissant’s mind your own business, Robert.”

Tramone, annoyed by Robert’s rebuff, almost distracted him from the disturbing fact that Robert Willis had poisoned Ric Flair, the Lincoln High’s beloved principal.

“OK, then, Tramone, you didn't have to be so defensive,” Robert said indignantly, and turned to the person behind the register. “Hello, I would like one crawler and coffee with cream and sugar, please.”

Tramone turned in disgust from his old friend’s syrupy sweet address to the staffer on the other side of the counter.

There’s some improvement here because we can see the characters and the dialogue makes more sense when it’s broken up. Whether it’s showing how they feel, what they think, or what they’re doing, showing characters through description makes the dialogue palatable, even if it’s terrible.

Avoid redundancies.

Keep it real

Don’t data dump

Data dumping is dropping information about the novel in one condensed area. It’s tiresome and insulting to the reader. Herman Melville’s cetological mid-chapter in Moby Dick is a data dump. Moby Dick is a layered work to be sure, in the way it was written and what it is about. For several pages in the middle of his novel, Melville talks about whales in a sort of scientific classification of what they are, what they look like, where there found, what they’re hunted for. These pages yank the reader out of the narrative by delivering this factual—or believed to be factual—information about whales.

Move it forward

Good dialogue moves the story forward. No small talk, we shun it. After each conversation or exchange, the reader should be a step closer to either the climax or the conclusion of your story.

It should reveal relevant information about the character.

The right dialogue will give the reader insight into how the character feels, and what motivates him or her to act. It must help the reader understand the relationship between the characters.

If your dialogue doesn’t accomplish all of the above, it is a waste of time.

Let us hear them

Give your characters a unique voice. One character talks one way or another character talks another way. You might have southern characters from the same town who talk to same way. But a 60-year-old man is going to talk differently than a 15-year-old girl.

Keep the diction consistent throughout the whole story. If your narrator is a 45-year-old man telling a story about when he was 15, as a narrator he’s going to speak and think and act different then he will in the scenes — as in flashbacks — when he is subject he’s narrating about. Play the character for the age they are in the place they’re from with the education they have.

Tennessee Williams said that it’s not important how people talk, it’s important how you think they talk. That may or may not be a worthwhile thing to hear but here’s the thing: there’s realistic and there’s real, and both of those contribute to life as we know and live it.

You want to convey the real which is the sense of how people are. You don't always want to convey the realistic. Saying please and thank you is realistic. Addressing, ordering food is realistic, small talk is realistic. Leave out the realistic when it’s boring.

If you’re not sure whether or not what you’re writing is boring, have someone read it who doesn’t suck up to you. They’ll let you know.

If you’re going to be a good artist you will learn discernment.

Whatever’s purposeful and salient belongs in your book. So any of the rules discussed here, or in workshops, or anywhere else are meant to be broken. If you figure out a way to do it and it’s good—then break them. Break them up and know how you did it so you can keep doing it.

It’s more interesting when the rules are buried, but you gotta have a good reason to bury them.

Keep it consistent

Watch the wording of your characters. As you develop a rhythm for how they talk, the words they use, the way they move, and so forth, you will have created the fabric of who they are. You want to take this fabric and establish their pattern throughout the book, the way that they sound look and behave, so that your readers expect behavior from them.

The Nadsat language in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, comes to mind. This stylized language is wrought by the protagonist Alex DeLarge and his droogs to bring the reader into their world. Alex is telling the story to us—engaging the reader like he does his droogs. The work is engulfed in the Nadsat stylization.

Watch dialogue tags

There’s a lot of talk about dialogue tags. They should be used sparingly without leaving the reader to question who’s talking at any time.

There are varying opinions on how often the word “said” should be used. It’s commonly given advice to tell people to use other adjectives to describe how a person has spoken for instance “said” can be replaced from time to time with words such as opined, asked, implored, scoffed. You get the idea. Mix it up so the reader doesn’t get bored and to be accurate about what a character is saying. However those other words can be tedious. See what writers you admire are doing in their texts.

Read it out loud

Reading your dialogue out loud will help shape it into realistic, engaging, honest, sharp exchanges where nothing is wasted or awkward unless it’s your intention for it to be.

Read it out loud because you don’t know how it sounds until you hear the words spoken.

If you want your writing to be better: read it out loud. It’ll sharpen your ear.


bottom of page