Jump To Section
David Baldacci's Tips for Crafting and Using Dialogue
Here are David Baldacci’s best tips for crafting and using dialogue for books, novels, and short stories:
- Know your character’s current emotional situation. Before writing dialogue, it’s good to know your character’s current emotional situation. An angry character from one chapter might still be angry in the next one—or has something happened to soften them up? Imagine you are that character, and try to feel what they have just been through. What are they thinking? Planning? What will their response be to the next obstacle in the story? You don’t have to go easy on your characters—push them to their limits—but you should strive for continuity in describing their behavior.
- Keep in mind the scene’s plot goals. It’s important to know your specific plot goals for the scene. Are you trying to convey some information or have your character recover from a brush with danger? Whatever it is, write it down as a bullet point, and make sure you keep that the focus of your scene. Both the lines of dialogue as well as word choice are integral to conveying the scene’s plot goals.
- Compress your dialogue. You should keep dialogue economical unless your character is naturally verbose. Try tighten up his or her language, conveying only the information that will deepen the character or move the story forward. You may accomplish this by using sentence fragments (“Of course” works just as well as “Of course I’ll come with you to the meeting”) and avoiding filler words like “um” and “well.” You can also compress your dialogue by avoiding using names and cutting repetitive phrases as well as unnecessary small talk that doesn’t serve the broader story.
- Avoid pontificating. When characters start to get preachy—telling their sidekicks, for example, about the political motives for taking down that rogue CIA cell and how this corruption damages every facet of government and how this will ultimately save the whole country and... well, you get the picture. Pontificating tends to drag on and bore your readers. Instead, use dialogue to move your story along and to reveal layers within your characters.
- Show, don’t tell. Sometimes, the best dialogue is no dialogue at all. It’s often quicker and more effective to communicate your character’s state of mind through stage direction than it is through a line of dialogue. This is when you show the reader a character’s action or body language during dialogue: “ ‘No,’ she said, clenching her hands into fists.” This conveys your character’s anger without them having to say it. Dialogue tags are also effective at conveying emotion; the character could shout “no” instead of simply “said” no.
- Study people. Writing authentic, great dialogue means understanding who your characters are. If you know them well enough, you’ll know how they speak, their unique speech patterns, and what kind of reactions they’ll have to things. David recommends going into the world and consciously listening to the way people talk in various circumstances, then practice duplicating what you’ve heard by writing it on the page. At first, it will probably take a lot of revising to do this well, but as you get a feel for your characters, it should become natural. Read your dialogue on the page, and keep going back to it, editing as you need to. Practice reading it out loud. (This can make a big difference.) Most importantly, be sure that it sounds like your characters. So ask yourself: Is this really how they speak? Would they actually say these things in this moment in real life? And remember to stick to your goal for the conversation.
- Be careful when using shorthand. Every character in your novel will have their own way of speaking, but when that language gets technical—when your characters talk in shorthand about a specialized field (weaponry, legal or medical terminology, computer coding, investment banking, etc.)—you may wind up confusing your reader. A good rule of thumb is that if you had to research the way your character speaks, then chances are your reader will have to learn it, too. At the same time, you don’t want to have to explain everything—not only is it tedious, but it can slow your momentum. When using shorthand, David advises having one character be an expert and one character be uninformed. The expert character can speak at a technical level, and the uninformed one can stop them, asking questions for clarification. Your readers will appreciate it.
- Avoid info dumping. Revealing information or backstory to the reader is one of the most critical jobs that a thriller scene should do, so it’s important to learn the skills needed to reveal that information. Beginning writers tend to drop large chunks of information onto the page all at once. This is called info dumping, and not only does it bore readers, but it stops the momentum cold. You want to make your information feel natural and interesting. One way to accomplish this is by having your characters discover the necessary information—it will feel much more natural if your characters learn the information on their own through dialogue rather than telling the reader directly.
Want to Learn More About Writing?
Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on character development, plot, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including David Baldacci, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, David Mamet, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, and more.