Writing effective dialogue in fiction
As an editor, I’ve seen all kinds of dialogue in fiction: poor, excellent, and every possible grade in between. In this article I’m going to give you some basic tools to improve your dialogue.
I think that writers who develop great characters write better dialogue, and that’s a truth absolutely central to what I’d like to discuss with you today. Character creation comes first.
‘How can I get better at writing dialogue?’
This is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked. Good dialogue can be difficult to quantify but most readers instinctively know bad dialogue when they see it.
Let’s establish some guidelines.
Effective dialogue demonstrates character through conflict
As a writer, you should be familiar with the idea of conflict. It’s the lifeblood of every story, and if you have no conflict in a scene, you have no scene – full stop. Conflict can be big or small, obvious or subtle, internal or external, but it must always be there.
For example, take this extract from my novel The Atholl Expedition.
‘Strangers! Ach, damn them – they’ll ruin everything. Sir, we must take our shot now.’
Albert hesitated. He ran a hand down the stock of his rifle, brushing past the lock as if exploring the idea of pulling it back and making it ready for a shot; but he left it where it was, and didn’t raise the piece to his shoulder.
‘They’ll be here in moments, sir!’ McAdie’s face was steadily turning red with frustration and anger. ‘In the name o’ Christ… Damn ye, will ye nae take the shot? We’ve come all this way, and it’s as easy as shooting a scarecrow at this range! The beast couldnae run if he wanted to.’
‘That is precisely the problem. Now that it comes to it – well, look at him. Look at what we have done to him.’
In this scene, Prince Albert is out hunting a prize stag in the Scottish Highlands. Here are the conflicts influencing the characters in this scene:
- They have been seeking their objective – a successful stalk of the hart – for days, without success.
- Prince Albert is late for an engagement back at the castle, and his wife, Queen Victoria, is almost certainly angry with him. He feels torn in two directions.
- Strangers will soon appear on the scene and possibly frighten the hart away. It’s their last chance.
- The ghillie, McAdie, has a lot riding on the outcome of the hunt. His lord has threatened him with eviction if he fails to secure a good outcome for the visiting prince.
- The stag is lame – and it seems likely that the relentless pursuit over moor and mountain has caused his injuries.
Even though they are not all explicitly mentioned, these sources of conflict all affect the behaviour and dialogue of the characters in some way. Prince Albert is torn between his ambition to bag the hart – an ambition inflamed by the long and exciting chase – and his strong sense of honour. McAdie’s practical, no-nonsense nature comes through as he encourages his client to take the shot. He’s thinking about what will happen to his family if the Duke evicts them, and such is his desperation that he forgets himself and raises his voice. Fortunately Albert is too preoccupied to take note1.
How characters react to conflict tells the reader a huge amount about them. It’s the old ‘show, don’t tell’ adage, and it really is true – if you can animate the source of conflict by infusing every word your characters say with it, your dialogue will sing.
Good dialogue moves your story forwards
When something important happens in your story, why not use dialogue to show the reader how the characters act and react? Authenticity and suspension of disbelief are important, and not just for science fiction or fantasy authors. Authenticity is enhanced when a scene is acted out by characters instead of the reader simply being told what happens. It’s ‘show, don’t tell’ again.
Let’s put it another way. If a section of dialogue is not driving your story, or conveying character interaction through conflict, then I’d argue it has no place in a scene and should be cut.
Avoid exposition in dialogue where possible
Novice writers often try to avoid lengthy passages of exposition by cramming information into dialogue instead. While it’s necessary to convey some information in dialogue, best practice is to do this in such a way that it also provides conflict-rich character interaction at the same time. Sticking to the first principle of effective dialogue can compensate for any number of sins.
Just about the worst thing you can do is to draw attention to the exposition by having characters tell each other things they already know, purely for the benefit of the reader.
Sir Edmund crouched behind his shield, breathing heavily. ‘Too many of them! How can we breach the walls of the fortress?’
His squire pointed with his sword. ‘Well, Sir Edmund, as you know, our spy discovered a secret entrance up through the latrines.’
Sir Edmund nodded. ‘We attack at dawn!’
In this contrived example, Sir Edmund already knows about the secret entrance to the castle but the writer can think of no more effective way to convey that fact to the reader. Hence the squire becomes a device at this point and is effectively speaking with the writer’s voice, not his own. The phrase ‘as you know’ is the big giveaway. Writers sometimes try to disguise this by having one of the characters conveniently forget the pertinent fact, but it still comes across as inauthentic. Good writing – or good editing – can avoid this.
Give your characters a voice
‘Voice’ is a somewhat intangible quality, but it’s one of the most important attributes of good dialogue, and good fiction in general.
A sign of bad dialogue is that all the characters sound alike. In the same way that no two people speak exactly alike in real life, the characters in your story must have distinct voices too. These character voices are related to, but distinct from, your voice as a writer2.
Many factors contribute to a character’s voice, including:
- Word choice;
- Sentence and phrase length;
- Accent, language, and dialect;
- Mannerisms and turns of phrase;
- Overall tone;
- The character’s age, history, social class, and general demeanour.
Time for some examples! Take this line of dialogue:
Sam smiled. ‘Would you mind opening the door for me, please?’
This version conveys exactly the same information but with a completely different voice:
‘Open the goddamn door,’ Sam snarled.
Good characters usually develop their own voices naturally as you write – it can feel almost like magic – but it’s worth doing a little planning in advance. It’s very important for every main character to have a distinct and recognisable voice.
Pay attention to sound and rhythm, but don’t try to copy real speech
Next time you’re at the bus stop or on the train, listen in on the conversations around you. Real dialogue is repetitive, unfocused, and filled with trivia that is of limited use in fiction. For example, a conversation between two friends might sound something like this:
‘Alright. What’s up?’
‘Not much. Grim weather, ain’t it?’
‘You seen the match?’
‘What, you mean when Roonie—’
‘Yeah, he deserved that, I reckon.’
‘Rubbish, like. Should of gone off sooner.’
‘That’s what I said to the missus.’
‘Got a fag on you?’
And so on. The point is that real-life conversation plays a different role to dialogue in fiction. When you’re chatting to your friend on the bus, you’re reinforcing social bonds, demonstrating your membership of and position within one or more ‘tribes’ (a football club in this example), and perhaps even asserting subtle dominance or submission. There may be conflict behind the dialogue, but there may very well not be. And there is no narrative imperative driving it whatsoever. Real life doesn’t follow a plot.
Dialogue in fiction is best thought of as an abstract but focused interpretation of real dialogue, not a precise replication of it. A good writer will produce dialogue that convinces the reader it’s real speech, while in reality cutting out the random chit-chat not driven by conflict or narrative purpose, the repetitive and boring bits, the extraordinarily clumsy and nonsensical turns of phrase that even the most eloquent speakers use all the time3.
But it must sound authentic. Real people generally speak in fairly short bursts most of the time, although character voice can override this (some people are more verbose than others). Resist the urge to speechify – but sprinkle some longer sentences and phrases throughout for good rhythm and variety.
Writing authentic dialogue may involve dialect or accents. With some exceptions, these are generally best handled with restraint. Avoid writing dialogue that’s difficult to read or understand, and aim to include just enough of the accent or dialect to convey that character’s voice.
Watch your dialogue tags
Tags are the bits and pieces of prose that act as the scaffolding for the dialogue itself. There’s a lot of variety in style here; some writers produce very sparse dialogue, where the characters alone do all the talking, while others include far more description, internalisation, and action around the dialogue. For most writers I think the sweet spot is somewhere in between. Completely ‘bare’ dialogue (just line after line of speech) can be very disorienting for the reader unless written with great skill.
The most common dialogue tags are ‘he said’, ‘she said’, or ‘(character name) said’. Some people will tell you not to use these, but they’re almost invisible to the reader and I think they can be used liberally, as a form of structural navigation. This is especially relevant in complex scenes to help identify who is speaking.
This basic dialogue tag is sometimes modified by the use of a verb, for example ‘he whispered’ or ‘he shouted’. These can be effective but are best used rarely to avoid purple prose. Then there are action tags. To illustrate, I’ll use a quote from Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell. Dialogue tags are shown in bold.
‘She won’t be off Portugal,’ the first lieutenant suggested, ‘for she won’t be sailing direct to France. She’ll put into Cadiz, sir, and my guess is that we’ll catch her during the second week in October, somewhere off Africa.’
‘Ten guineas rides on the result,’ Chase said, ‘and I know I have forsworn gambling, but I shall happily pay you so long as we do catch her. Then we’ll have a rare fight, milady, but let me assure you that you will be safe below the water line.’
Lady Grace smiled. ‘I am to miss all the entertainment aboard, Captain?’
This is a pretty basic example. One tag is used per line of dialogue. The first uses the verb to suggest; the second is a straightforward ‘said’; the third is an action tag for variety, and as a supporting element of that character’s voice.
Where novice writers go wrong is in using overblown or conspicuous dialogue tags, sometimes known as ‘said bookisms’. Using strong verbs in dialogue tags can create this effect. And while it can be effective very occasionally, using an adverb and a verb in a tag is usually over the top no matter which words are chosen. An example:
‘You, sir, are a buffoon!’ Major Elkington bellowed.
‘A slanderous accusation,’ General Brown roared thunderously. ‘I demand satisfaction.’
‘At dawn it is,’ the major snarled.
See what I mean? It’s purple prose. ‘Bellowed’ and ‘snarled’ both have their place as dialogue tags, when used with discretion, but here the effect is amplified by the downright gratuitous ‘roared thunderously’.
My advice is to use dialogue tags with caution. The ‘said’ variants can be used often, and action tags are very useful for adding description to dialogue, but avoid too many rich verbs and – especially – adjectives in dialogue tags. The stronger your characters’ voices the fewer dialogue tags you are likely to need.
Read it out loud
The best way to gauge the authenticity of your dialogue is simply to read it out loud. Often, this will be enough to highlight problems with pacing or repetition; what sounded good in your head might not sound as good when spoken. Asking a friend to help you assess spoken dialogue can be very useful. This is a valuable stage in the self-editing process and I recommend you give it a try.
Entire books have been written on this subject, but you now have the basic tools you need to start writing better dialogue.
- Use dialogue to demonstrate character through conflict;
- Use dialogue to move the story forwards;
- Avoid exposition where possible;
- Give your characters a voice;
- Don’t try to precisely replicate real speech;
- Watch your tags;
- Read it out loud.
- The two characters have also established a bond of mutual respect by this point in the story, and there are other dynamics at play too, of course. But broadly these are the main sources of conflict acting on the characters at this point. ↩︎
- This is another issue altogether and beyond the scope of this article, but you’re probably familiar with the phrase ‘finding your voice as a writer’. Think of it this way – Charles Dickens’s voice is completely different to, say, that of Michael Crichton. ↩︎
- Don’t believe me? Try reading a transcript of a recorded conversation or interview. I think you’ll be surprised. ↩︎