Tip 6: How to write dialogue that zings

The sixth post in my #52WritingTips project, because there’s 52 weeks in a year and I really need to get better at updating this blog. Across the year, I’ll be pulling together 52 writing tips to help you get your dream on paper, edit that manuscript or summon the courage to submit your work. I’ll then be chatting it through on my podcast, 52 Writing Tips.

Last time we looked at how to craft loveable characters, what builds character-reader empathy and some easy pitfalls to avoid. This week we’re talking dialogue and three simple hacks to make your characters’ conversations enthralling.

Dialogue can be tricky, especially if you’re just starting out. If you dialogue feels stilted, samey or simply too slow then chances are you’re committing some of the most common mistakes (which is a good thing – because those mistakes have super easy solutions!)

This week we’re going to look into crafting awesome dialogue, how to pack each line with a punch and how to ensure that your action and your text balance each other out.

So let’s dive straight in, shall we?

First off, let me say: I know, this post has been a long time coming – but other than the pandemic I’ve been working on a pretty hefty edit (/rework) of my second novel, which meant my 5am-7am writing slot was pretty full. I’m nearing the end of that now (I hope!) so will hopefully have more regular tips for you guys to help you push your writing forwards.

Now, with my monologue over, let’s turn to the subject of today: dialogue. Because whilst we may have learned to speak when we were in single digits, written dialogue is a whole beast of its own. That’s why this week I’m looking into 3 common mistakes and some simple solutions to combat them.

1. Start your dialogue late and finish it early

Maybe you’ve heard this one before, maybe you haven’t, but this is one of the most important, fundamental elements of writing great dialogue in fiction (and non-fiction).

Now, we humans tend to ramble. We tend to mutter. We tend to make small talk about the weather (doubly so if you’re British, like me) or about what we’ve eaten recently. Pre-pandemic I think we probably also talked about what interesting stuff we got up to on the weekends (remember?)

Now what tends to happen for us writers is we’ll have a teacher somewhere along the way that says: observe. Write everything down! Capture life on the page! Write what you know!

And they are correct. But (and this is an important but) there is an exception when it comes to dialogue.

Consider this scene, written in two different ways:

Paul was late. Mary knew she should walk away, that she shouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing how long she’d stood there, her arms folded, her gaze on her watch, but she didn’t. She stayed, one foot resting against the brick behind her, a trickle of sweat beading down her forehead in the heat as she watched his car pull up, as she watched him hop out with a wide smile that said I knew it.

‘Hi, Mary. How are you doing today?’

‘Not good. Yourself?’

‘Good. I wasn’t sure you’d wait for me.’

Mary unfolded her arms. ‘You promised you’d be on time.’

‘And? I’m nearly on time.’

‘I’d begun to wonder if you even know what time is. Do you have even have a watch?’

‘Come on, Mary. Do we need to do this again?’

Paul was late. Mary knew she should walk away, that she shouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing how long she’d stood there, her arms folded, her gaze on her watch, but she didn’t. She stayed, one foot resting against the brick behind her, a trickle of sweat beading down her forehead in the heat as she watched his car pull up, as she watched him hop out with a wide smile that said I knew it.

Mary unfolded her arms. ‘You promised me you’d be on time.’

‘And? I’m nearly on time.’

‘I’d begun to wonder if you even know what time is. Do you have even have a watch?’

‘Come on, Mary. Do we need to do this again?’

Now, which of these two examples of dialogue pops? Which of them draws you into the story, gets you into the nitty-gritty of who the characters are and what they’re feeling?

The second one.

Why? Because it starts late and it finishes early. It skips the whole ‘hey, how-dya-do’ and gets right to the good stuff, to the fight. And that’s what dialogue should do. It should skip right to the juicy part, dancing past all the pleasantries that we humans do every day.

Now, of course (with all things to do with writing) it doesn’t mean you can’t write words like ‘Hi’ or ‘how are you’ or have your characters discuss things like the weather. The trick is to make them interesting. To juxtapose them against something that creates and builds tension, which we’ll turn to next.

2. Make your dialogue work double time

In one of my earliest creative writing classes, likely directed by Cassie Gonzales because she always seemed to give the best lectures, we talked about the importance of the double meaning. Filling your dialogue with double meaning. Having your characters discuss something without discussing it. Having them avoid something by discussing something else.

Let’s take the example above, of small talk. Now, small talk between two characters that have just met isn’t interesting. That’s a great example of where you should ‘skip straight to the fight.’ But small talk between characters that have known each other for years? Small talk that feels awkward, stilted between characters that are divorced? Or having an affair? Or trying to put on an act in front of their colleagues? Now that’s interesting.

Take the example I wrote in my creative writing class way back in 2018:

He fingered the necklace in his hands, the silver had tarnished where it had been pressed against her skin. The Christmas music was loud - too loud - and the crowds too big. He shouldn't have come. He knew that, he knew it even as he pushed through the revolving doors, but he didn't turn around. He slipped through the crush of people, of thick coats and brightly coloured shopping bags, all the way to the middle of the store.
She was with a customer. He hung back, watching her smile as she wrapped the box carefully, her hands folding down the corners without breaking eye contact. She had always been better at it than he had. Of course I am. Her lilting half-laugh. It's my job, idiot.
He turned then, not wanting her to see him, not wanting her to spot him amongst the crowds, but then he heard her sing-song jingle.
'Can I help you with something?'
Her eyes were glassy, her tone sharper than it had been before. Peter moved forwards, the necklace scrunched into his sweating palm.
'I just wanted-' He swallowed, his tongue suddenly dry. What had he wanted? What had he expected? It seemed stupid, suddenly. Naive.
'Are you shopping for anyone in particular?' She gave him a sharp look.
'No, Louise, I just...' He poured the necklace onto the counter. 'I wanted to return this.'
Behind him, he heard a woman huff. 'You can't do returns here. That's upstairs.'
Louise looked from the chain to his face and back again. 'I don't want it back, Peter.'

Now obviously this example isn’t a masterpiece in written form however what it’s showing is that having a barrier between your characters in the guise of small talk can actually tell the reader a whole lot about them, their relationship and what might’ve happened to it.

Think about dialogue as being something you can fill with juicy tidbits for your readers: even when your characters are talking, it should be pulling double time in characterisation as well as moving the plot forwards. If your characters need to have a straightforward conversation, think about ways you can make it interesting. If Sally is approaching Kim about her wanting to have kids, how does it impact the tension if the conversation is about what to have for dinner instead? Symbolism is a powerful, powerful tool in our dialogue, and we should use it.

3. Give your characters a conversation goal

Earlier, I said that dialogue is often best when you ‘skip straight to the fight.’

Now, you might be thinking: but Sophie. My characters aren’t constantly fighting. And you would be right in that, because that would make for a boring book.

However, there should, nearly always, be some kind of conflict. Some reason these characters have entered into this dialogue: because they want something, and chances are the person they’re speaking to wants something else. This conflict is what should (or shouldn’t) get resolved in the course of the dialogue. It gives your dialogue an aim, and thus helps you, the writer, structure it.

Think about my example earlier, with Peter and Louise. Peter’s goal is to give Louise back the necklace. Perhaps his goal is to also win her back (perhaps that’s his overall story goal?) Louise’s goal is to get Peter to leave as quickly as possible. The woman behind Peter’s goal is to cut to the front of the line.

See how these are all in conflict with one another? See how their individual wants collide? That’s what you need from good dialogue. You need the characters to have a goal: something they want to get out of the conversation, and this goal is usually related to their overall goal and the overall conflict. Then you need the other person, or people, in the conversation to want to thwart that.

This is another example of where fiction and real-life split apart from one another. If I only ever called my Mum when I wanted something, she’d get pretty pissed at me. We humans tend to check in with one another, call to talk about nothing, or just ramble mindlessly while we each do chores (pretty sure me and my sister did that yesterday). But your characters can’t be afforded that luxury, because books have words, and words have word counts, limits that you need to stick to. Which means every piece of dialogue needs to count.

A great rule of thumb to follow is this. For every conversation, ask yourself if the dialogue achieves one of the following three things (because dialogue in fiction needs to do one of the following things).

Dialogue checklist:

Does your dialogue…

  1. Promote and deepen characterisation?
  2. Further the plot?
  3. Provide valuable exposition? (Use this one sparingly.)

If it’s not doing at least one of these three things, then you need to cut it.

If you want dialogue in fiction to really sizzle, give your characters conflicting dialogue aims.

In short: How to write great dialogue in fiction

Writing great dialogue in fiction can be achieved in three easy steps. Firstly, you need to make sure your characters enter the conversation as late as possible and leave it as early as possible. This means skipping (for the most part) the hellos and goodbyes. Have you ever noticed how in movies/TV characters just hang up the phone without saying ‘see ya’? This is that in action! Secondly, you need to make sure your dialogue is working double time. You can use symbolism, you can have your characters talk around something. Think of dialogue as a tool for you to get creative with! Because as long as your characters have a dialogue aim (a goal), as long as there is conflict (someone with an opposing goal) and as long as the dialogue furthers the plot, the characters or the exposition, you’re golden.

Liked this tip? Get more of them!

Join my mailing list and you’ll get notified of new posts.

Success! You're on the list.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.