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The best fiction writers and screenwriters possess a bevy of artistic talents, but few are more important than the ability to convey characters' voices through effective dialogue. Writing dialogue and multi-person conversation is a skill that requires constant maintenance and evaluation throughout a writer’s career. Writers are always seeking new ways to mimic human speech patterns and use dialogue in the most effective, convincing way. If you’re looking to inject great dialogue into your novel, short story, or screenplay, try these writing tips for writing conversations.
9 Tips for Writing Good Conversations
The first time you write dialogue, you may find it difficult to replicate the patterns of normal speech. This difficulty can be compounded by the concurrent challenges of finding your own voice and telling a great story overall. Even bestselling authors can get stuck on how a particular character says a particular line of dialogue. With practice and hard work, however, lackluster dialogue can be elevated to great dialogue. Here are some strategies for improving the dialogue in your own work:
- Mimic the voices of people in your own life. Perhaps you’ve created a physician character with the same vocal inflections as your mother. Perhaps your hero soldier talks just like your old volleyball coach. You can also hang out in a local coffee shop to pick up conversation cadences. If you want to ensure that your dialogue sounds the way real people speak, there’s no better resource than the real life people in your everyday world.
- Break up character conversations with narration. Long runs of dialogue can dislodge a reader from the action of a scene. As your characters talk, interpolate some descriptions of their physical postures or other activity taking place in the room. This mimics the real-world experience of listening to someone speaking while simultaneously taking in visual and olfactory stimuli.
- Know your grammar and punctuation. This is more mechanical than artistic, but a line of dialogue must be written with proper grammar and punctuation. When writing a dialogue tag, make sure you actually know how to use quotation marks and various dialogue punctuation marks such as the question mark, exclamation point, em dash, period, and ellipsis. Learn when to use double quotation marks versus single quotation marks. And remember that if a character’s dialogue continues on to a new paragraph, you don’t put a quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph, but you do start the next paragraph with a new quotation mark. And of course make sure that the final paragraph has a closing quotation mark to let your reader know that the character is done speaking.
- Give your main character a secret. Sometimes a line of dialogue is most notable for what it withholds. Even if your audience doesn’t realize it, you can build dynamic three-dimensionality by having your character withhold a key bit of information from their speech. For instance, you may draft a scene in which a museum curator converses with an artist about how she wants her work displayed—but what the curator isn’t saying out loud is that she’s in love with the artist. You can use that secret subtext to embed layers of tension into the character’s spoken phrases.
- Use a layperson character to clarify technical language. When you need dialogue to convey technical information in approachable terms, split the conversation between two people. Have 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.
- Use authentic shorthand. Does your character call a gun a “piece” or a “Glock”? Whatever it is, be authentic and consistent in how your characters speak. If they all sound the same, your dialogue needs another pass.
- Look to great examples of conversation in literature. If you're looking for a dialogue example in the realm of novels or short stories, consider reading the great books written by Mark Twain, Judy Blume, or Toni Morrison. Within the world of screenwriting, Aaron Sorkin is renowned for his use of dialogue.
- Use evocative dialogue tags. Repeating the word “said” over and over can make for dull writing and miss out on opportunities for added expressiveness. Consider replacing the word “said” with a more descriptive verb. Learn more about dialogue tags in our article here.
- Remember where your characters are from. Be mindful of any regional idiosyncrasies your characters may have. For instance, American English is not quite identical to British English, so be precise in your word choice. This will yield better dialogue, a stronger sense of character development, and the conveyance of real conversation.
R.L. Stine’s 4 Tips for Writing Great Conversations
Dialogue is the primary storytelling device children’s horror author R.L. Stine uses, and he estimates that it comprises about two-thirds of his books. Here are his writing tips for how to add good dialogue and compelling conversations to your own writing:
- Let a conversation tell the story. It’s better to show your characters’ personalities through what they say to one another, rather than describe how they are feeling.
- Make each conversation scene work toward your overall goals. Each conversation in your book should reveal something about the characters or something about the plot. The last thing you want is for your readers to feel like something isn’t necessary and to skip over it. If your reader can trust that your dialogue writing is always pushing the story forward, they won’t skip a thing.
- Write dialogue that stands the test of time. It’s important to make your writing as timeless as possible so that it doesn’t become dated. You need to make your characters talk like real people in real life, but you also want to avoid modern slang.
- Draw inspiration from your own favorite authors. There are two ways to discover your own writing style. One is to just start writing and see what kind of language you naturally use. The other is to identify an author you admire and model your writing after them at first. Emulating others can help you develop a style of your own.
3 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Conversations
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Good, realistic dialogue can propel a novel, screenplay, novella, or short story to an even higher level, but bad dialogue can disrupt an otherwise strong narrative. Good fiction writing is nearly impossible when the conversations aren’t compelling. Here are three common mistakes to avoid when writing dialogue:
- Don’t make every character sound the same. While it’s important to have a signature voice as an author, this doesn’t mean that all of your characters should talk the way you do. Perhaps your main character really does represent your persona and point of view—this is a common technique among writers—but that does not mean that a different character in your novel should speak the same way as your protagonist. Your characters exhibit different body language, postures, and personal philosophies. It stands to reason that they should also talk in their own unique ways.
- Don’t let conversations ramble on and on. Novelists and screenwriters always aim for a realistic dialogue flow, and this might mean inserting a bit of small talk in the spirit of how two people often interact in real life. As a general rule, however, err on the side of efficiency. Great books and scripts are rarely weighed down by extraneous content. Try reading your lines of dialogue out loud. You might be surprised to find that certain passages of dialogue sound oddly verbose when you actually speak them. Pare those sections down, and aim for efficiency in your first draft. You can always go back and add more if you need to.
- Don’t write dialogue that is on the nose. A lot of first-time writers make the mistake of being overly explicit when they try to convey a message through conversation. When you state a theme or an explanation in a transparently direct way, it’s known as being “on the nose.” In actual practice, subtext and innuendo can be a lot more powerful than saying something directly. Trust your audience to understand the subtle meanings you inject into your conversations. Many a great book and screenplay was built on this principle.
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