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Writing Tips: How to Write Effective and Convincing Dialogue

Writing dialogue natural and engaging dialogue is tricky. Dialogue between characters should be realistic, but it also needs to advance the plot or reveal important information. Writing effective dialogue requires consideration of diction, pacing, plot movement, character development, emotion, and more.

The most important question you need to answer when writing dialogue: Is dialogue the best medium to convey the information you wish to reveal? Is this something that your character would normally bring up in speech, and is he/she speaking with another character with whom it is fitting to discuss? If not, you may consider using description or interiority (the character’s internal thoughts and feelings) in place of dialogue. If dialogue is most well-suited, determine the kind of dialogue you will use.

  • Direct dialogue is direct quotes from the characters.

  • Indirect dialogue is the substance of what was said without it being a direct quote.

  • Summary is a conversation condensed into a few sentences describing what was said over a period of time.

Generally, direct dialogue is used most frequently. However, indirect dialogue is great to breeze through boring parts of conversations that your audience likely will not want to read through.

Indirect: “We said hello”

Direct: “‘Hi,” I said. ‘Hey,’ she answered.”

Summary is also great for when you need to mention that a conversation occurred, but writing out the conversation contributes little to the story or slows down the pacing too much For example, instead of writing out the football coach’s inspirational monologue in the locker room, you could simply write, “The coach gave us a motivational speech to pump us up before the big game.”)

But how do I actually write dialogue?

A In a workshop led by author and editor Hugh Cook at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing entitled “He Said, She Said,” a few simple dos and don’ts of dialogue were offered. [The un-bolded words are my own].

  1. Do make dialogue tags as invisible as possible. This one is important. Only use dialogue tags when it's absolutely necessary. If you are writing an exchange between two characters, you will need them very rarely. When you do use dialogue tags, stick to simple verbs like “said” as much as possible. You can also avoid using dialogue tags by indicating who is speaking with an action instead. Loading down your dialogue tags with descriptive language and odd verbs will distract your reader from what is said in the dialogue itself and will slow the pacing.

  2. Do vary the location of your dialogue tags. Put some of your dialogue tags before the quote, some after, and some in the middle.

  3. Do place dialogue tags as close to the beginning as possible for long quotes. If you do not identify the speaker early on in a large chunk of dialogue, the reader may be confused and have to reread once they realize who is speaking.

  4. Do insert body language to reveal emotion or reinforce characterization. This can help the reader picture and feel the conversation as it happens rather than just absorbing information.

  5. Do use proper capitalization and punctuation. Dialogue should follow normal grammatical conventions, unless it is necessary to the story to do otherwise.

  6. Do start a new paragraph with each new speaker. This makes it easier for the reader to follow along without having to focus on the dialogue markers. Example: Anna called the phone number and asked, “How is my little angel doing?” “She doesn’t want to eat the spinach,” the babysitter replied. Anna frowned. “Did you try pretending the spoon was an airplane?” Granted, this dialogue is a little dull, but it shows you proper punctuation and capitalization for sentences of dialogue both with and without dialogue tags.

  7. Do use different styles of speech for different characters. Consider the age and personality of each character to determine what sort of words and sentence structures that character would use.

  8. Don’t include the bad traits of everyday speech in your dialogue. Even though dialogue should sound realistic, you do not want to include the “um’s” and “uh’s” that are frequently found in real speech. Character's shouldn't trip over their words unless there is a specific reason why they must do so.

  9. Don’t include meaningless or superficial information in your dialogue. The reader does not need to read conversations about how your protagonist is doing or how his classes are going unless they are fundamental to the plot development. If these things do need to be included for some reason, try condensing it down into summary or indirect dialogue at the very least.

  10. Don’t overuse the character’s names in dialogue. Think about how often we really say one another’s names while speaking. One character shouldn't address another by name more frequently than we would in real life.

It may be overwhelming at first to keep all of this in mind while writing dialogue. If you have a good flow going, allow yourself to write without searching for all of these dos and don’ts as you go. Then, read back over it with the list in mind and revise.

Remember: There are exceptions to every rule. If you have good reason to write your dialogue in a way that contradicts some of these guidelines, try it. You can always make adjustments later!

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