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8 Strategies for Improving Dialogue in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

The best storytelling manages to convey big ideas and prompt emotional responses while at the same time feeling relatable. One of the best ways to help a reader or audience member connect with your writing is by crafting excellent dialogue.

But understanding the how-to of writing dialogue is just the beginning. In order to execute human storytelling at the highest level, an author must master the art of writing realistic dialogue. From small talk to statements of intent, great dialogue can make or break a book. Here is an overview of what you need to improve the dialogue writing in your own work.



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Why Use Dialogue?

Good dialogue performs all sorts of functions in fiction writing. It defines your characters’ voices, establishes their speech patterns, exposes the inner emotions, and showcases their character development. Beyond mere characterization, effective dialogue can also establish the setting and time period of your story and reveal information in a way that doesn’t feel overly expository.

Authors use lines of dialogue to reveal a character’s personality and express their point of view. For instance, an archetypal football coach might speak in short, terse sentences peppered with exclamation points and quotations from famous war generals. By contrast, a nebbish lover with a broken heart might drone on endlessly to his therapist or best friend, speaking in run-on sentences that circle around his true motivations. When an author can reveal character traits through dialogue, it cuts down on exposition and makes a story flow briskly.

8 Writing Tips for Improving Dialogue

The first time you write dialogue, you may find it quite difficult to replicate the patterns of normal speech. This 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:

  1. 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. 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.
  2. Mix dialogue 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.
  3. 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 speaks to 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 to embed layers of tension into the character’s spoken phrases.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Look to great examples of dialogue for inspiration. 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.
  7. Ensure that you’re punctuating your dialogue properly. Remember that question marks and exclamation points go inside quotation marks. Enclose dialogue in double quotation marks and use single quotation marks when a character quotes another character within their dialogue. Knowing how to punctuate dialogue properly can ensure that your reader stays immersed in the story.
  8. Use dialogue tags that are evocative. 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.
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