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Dialogue is vital to any novel, but there are a million ways to make it less effective than it should be. Rather than focus on what people are doing wrong, though, I’d like to spend a moment talking about how to make it better. Even experienced writers can improve their dialogue (because let’s face it, we’re never so experienced that we can’t improve our craft), even if they aren’t doing it “wrong,” and I’d rather focus on the positive.
Even a book with great plot and pacing can bog down under the weight of poor dialogue, while fantastic character interactions through dialogue can cover up myriad sins. If you keep these six little tricks in mind, your dialogue will improve by leaps and bounds.
Often, we can forget the purpose of our dialogue. Keeping the tone and flow appropriate to your purpose is important in writing dialogue that “pops” out and grabs your reader.
- Exposition – The dialogue serves to give the reader information without a long-winded and monotonous info dump. Keep in mind, a two-page monolog is still an info dump!
- Character development – Dialogue can really highlight a character’s worldview, attitude, personality and more.
- Unreliable narrator – Even in omniscient view, through dialogue the writer can keep a reader guessing or show that a character will be operating off of inaccurate information without simply saying, “Jon incorrectly assumed this meant that Terry liked him.”
- Breaking up lengthy sequences – The two kinds of lengthy sequences that quickly get tedious to wade through are direct action and inner monolog. Ten pages of characters doing something without any break to gain insight into the POV character’s experience of that action… boring (and fails to show motivation for subsequent action). Likewise, ten pages of a character’s inner monolog pondering life, the universe, and everything is info dump in another form.
- Move the plot forward – Every dialogue should have a specific goal; one character is trying to get something (information, help, etc.) while the others provide or describe why the character can’t easily get it. In other words, every dialogue is a challenge to be overcome. Keep that in mind, and your character chatter will be relevant and entertaining to read.
Well-placed dialogues break the monotony of info dumps (expository and inner monolog alike) by inserting a back-and-forth between characters. Done well, that dialogue aids in developing the characters themselves and solidifying them in the reader’s mind. It’s also a useful tool for giving the reader doubt (and therefore acts as a question in its own right) to hook their interest.
And if you think of it as just another challenge the character must overcome, you’ll find that you naturally structure the encounter correctly, i.e., using “motivation-reaction units,” a term first coined in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. A character says something; another character reacts. You’ll find the sequence flow is easier if you keep the challenge in mind:
- reaction/reflex response >>
- thought/evaluation >>
… leading to the other party’s own sequence flow, repeating the cycle. You’d be surprised at how often I notice otherwise well-written novels that skip one of these steps in a way that makes the text somewhat jarring. As a writer, the last thing you want to do is jar the reader out of the reading groove because their subconscious realizes that something isn’t quite right about a paragraph.
They may not even be able to figure out what is wrong (or realize that anything specific is wrong at all) but the cause is often that one of the sequence’s steps is missing. The human mind is hardwired to operate in this sequence, because ultimately it boils down to the old adage, “for every effect, there must be a cause.”
Other times, I see that the author has swapped two of these steps. This isn’t as jarring as the missing step would have been, but it still can make the reader feel that some unknown thing is not quite right. It comes across as weak writing, in other words.
[Note: there are going to be times when you deliberately break this flow to create a particular effect, such as accelerated pacing in a tense scene, or character confusion when much is going on at once, but your habit should be to follow the steps unless you make a conscious choice otherwise.]
Cutting Words / Switching Subjects
Unless the character is a literati-type, most people don’t speak in full, crisp sentences or maintain razor-sharp subject focus. Doing so leads to stilted, boring dialogue. Remove the occasional subject of a sentence, or reverse it, despite what the writing manuals tell you. You can do the same with other little bits of the sentence, too. Consider these examples–
- “John went to the store an hour ago” becomes “Went to the store. Maybe an hour?” (removing the subject, John, and the word “ago”).
- “So, the car struck the guy first?” becomes “So, the guy got hit first?” (switching subject from the car to the victim)
- “The victim was a female named Susan” becomes “The vic’s name was Susan. Female.”
This technique of swapping and omitting has to be used sparingly, and care must be taken to ensure the resulting dialogue is in-character for the speaker. A little bit of this goes a long way, but it makes the conversation feel real to the reader, even if people don’t often speak like that in reality.
Don’t always let your characters finish their sentences! People interrupt each other all the time. In written dialogue, it also serves to break up monologs to give it a punchy, vibrant quality. There are generally two ways to indicate an interruption–
- If the first speaker trails off and another character finishes their sentence, use ellipses. “So yeah, I was going to the store when…” interrupted with, “… You got ambushed?”
- If the first speaker is cut off mid-sentence, use an em dash. “I’m telling you, John–” interrupted with, “John what? Shot the robber? I don’t think so.”
Generally, one person shouldn’t be allowed to speak for longer than three or four lines of text. They should be interrupted with a question, or have a portion of their questions be answered. Doing this breaks up the monotony, keeping the reader interested as their mind is engaged by having to switch gears. Just like you may zone out listening to a lecture, your reader may do the same.
Vary Your Tags
Tags indicate who is speaking. These are bits of your sentence such as Mike said, Terry replied, or Jim hissed. Try never to use the same tag twice in a row:
Boring! To break up the routine, throw in replied, answers, stuttered, etc. Also, dialogue tags are not the only tags you can use. There are also action tags, which identify the speaker by what they’re doing. Not only does this further break up the monotony, it can let you add tidbits of character traits and development.
Action tags can also be used change the meaning of a sentence entirely, much like body language. Something like 9/10ths of communication is non-verbal, according to various studies, and action tags are the non-verbal body language of writing. If we rewrote the above example using action tags rather than dialogue tags, we get something that reads and flows in an entirely new way:
I used one instance of a dialogue tag in that exchange, but the rest are action tags and far more interesting. As you can see, you can easily combine both types of tags, which is a useful tool to avoid having your character run her hands through her hair for the tenth time in one scene.
Text to Speech
Whether by reading it aloud or by using the text-to-speech option of some newer word processing programs, you can get a sense of the ebb and flow of a conversation and hear pacing issues or wording that might jar the reader. We want to avoid that whenever possible, of course. When it is read aloud, you will experience your dialogue differently than when you simply read it and may notice issues that didn’t pop out at you before. The benefit of text-to-speech over reading it aloud is that it lets you concentrate on what is being said, rather than on the saying it.
Now go do it!
As you can see, there are a number of easy little tactics you can use to spruce up your dialogue and make the conversation serve more than one purpose. Keep the intent of the dialogue in mind while writing it, and use the specific techniques I’ve given here to make it both meaningful and memorable.
Amazon carries a number of great books on dialogue, which are well worth the time spent reading them if you intend to pursue writing as a long-term hobby or career.