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5 Tips to Better your Dialogue

5 Tips to Better your Dialogue

dialogue writing writing skills Apr 11, 2024

Dialogue is one of the most important parts of a story. As human beings, we spend most of our time talking and hearing other people talk. So when dialogue fails, we immediately cringe and realize something is out of place. It's very easy to tell when it's unnatural. We know when it's good, too.

Good dialogue can make an audience cry, crush their souls, and make them remember the lines, even years after they watch the show or read the book.

But how do we manage such a difficult thing? It's easy to tell when it's wrong, but it's hard to make it right. So today, we'll learn how to better our dialogues with five simple tips. 

Should we start?


How to Write a Good Dialogue

1. Listen to how people talk

To begin with, we're gonna play a little game. We're gonna pretend we are secret government spies, and for that, we'll eavesdrop on other people's conversations. Sounds like fun?

See, I have many friends who absolutely love gossip. While I tend to space out from the conversation at a social gathering, they're the ones who're always paying attention to what others say. I find this extremely helpful when it comes to writing dialogue.

ALSO: The 3-step System to Create Well-Written Dialogue

Some writers have a tendency to escape other people, to hide inside their houses and to be overly introspective. I'm not judging, I'm way too in my head too. 

This type of personality can be great for worldbuilding and outlining, as it's easily connected with imagination, but it's not so good when it comes to noticing the world around us. It's fundamental to be around others in order to understand them and create better characters and dialogue.

Dialogue is nothing if not the way people communicate. Characters, as people, use dialogue to express emotion, share information, and, most importantly, communicate and connect with each other. This is the same way we humans use our communication skills. Dialogue is not only used to provide data like where I am and what time I arrive; it's more important than that. It's used to connect with the world around us. 

For this first tip, we're going to a public place—a party, a restaurant, a class—and paying special attention to how people talk. Listen to what they're saying—the message—but also notice how they're saying it—the modus.

What tones do they use? How do they move? What is their body language? Are they screaming or whispering? Take note of all of these things because they are also an important part of dialogue. Try writing a conversation you hear—one without seeing the people, the other while spying on them. What are the differences between one conversation and the other?


2. Remember there are no two people who talk the same

Once you understand why dialogue is so important and what we communicate with it, remember that people, in real life, are diverse. In a city, we can have people born in all different places. So it's only common to find different registers of the same language, and different accents too. Try adding to your characters' different ways of speaking.

Not only will their lineage have to do, but also their age and context will filter into their discourse. An elderly soldier will definitely not talk like a Gen-Z TikTok addict. These varieties can even create conflict on how these characters understand each other. For example, I sometimes have to explain to my grandmother what I meant when using a recurrent joke that I got from Twitter. Between friends, some jokes sometimes get lost because of the one friend who isn't on social media.

What about translations? If you have two characters who speak different languages, then it must be interesting to play with those limitations. They should explain themselves and find ways of connecting in some space in the middle.

Jokes, recurrent phrases, accents, and a mix of the common language and the native one will make your character's voice distinct. They will be easy to remember, and they will add more naturality to your dialogue.

As in real life, people are repetitive and obsessive – we all know someone who is stocked with the same kind of jokes, if not the same – but also diverse and dynamic, as the way we speak is a complex construction of everyone we know and all the places we've lived in.


3. Mix narrative into dialogue

A current mistake is to add useless information to dialogue. Do they need to say, “We are entering a room now,” as the narrative voice describes their footsteps echoing into the wooden floor? Well, no. 

People don't announce themselves when they walk into a place. They also don't describe other people's clothes or faces out loud. They don't express feelings easily, people don't tend to be very blunt or honest either.

There are two common mistakes here. One, regarding description: You're probably confusing the narrative voice with the voice of the character speaking. Important details that set the scene—like where we are, what we are doing, who we are with, and what we are wearing—belong to the narrative, not the dialogue. 

 ALSO: How to Choose your Narrator

Having a narrative voice between dialogues is important, but it shouldn't always be there. Dialogue must stand for itself, but if you want to make proper affirmations and descriptions, please use your narrative voice.

For instance: “What a shirt, huh? Must be expensive.” is a dialogue made to emphasize something, to give it a subjective look, and to talk about a topic provided by the scene but is not a description. The character does not say out loud: “My friend entered the mall wearing a blue laze shirt that cost her 50$”. See the difference? 

The other common mistake is the “drunken character's dialogue”. This is when you make the character say everything that crosses their mind without a filter. We already know that children and drunks are very honest, right? Well, people outside those categories are not.

For characters to express how they feel, they must be in confidence, in an intimate situation, and have already processed their emotions in the past. It's very strange to respond to any situation with a lot of feelings. Most times in life, we're improvising as we speak. So, don't make your character reveal how they feel just for the sake of it. Let the reader interpret some of it.

This leads us to point number 4.


4. No saying is also saying

Subtext is very important when writing dialogue. This requires special attention to the previous context given by the story, or even when the author does not provide the context, it should be easy to understand by following the conversation our characters have.

For example:

“I can't believe you did this to me.”

“It will be the last time, I promise”

“It's never the last time with you.”

“But what do you want me to do? I told you I wasn't ready”. 

We can all interpret what is happening here, right? We have seen enough dramas. But without a narrative, previous chapters, or scenes, it is very vague. So, for my purpose only, I will give you more information: These two characters are lovers. They are leaving a party and fighting on their way home because she catches him cheating on her. (Is this what you have imagined only reading those lines?)

Let's see what the subtext will be here: 

“I can't believe you did this to me.” I saw you with her, you broke my heart.

“It will be the last time, I promise.” I've done this before, many times. 

“It's never the last time with you.” I still forgive you because I'm hoping you will change.

“But what do you want me to do? I told you I wasn't ready.” I told you I wasn't ready to commit. I don't want an exclusive relationship, and I'm not sure if I love you but I don't want to leave you either.  

Besides the undeniable fact that they're both idiots, terrible communicators, and in denial of their own feelings, we have a conversation here that says very little, but at the same time, says a lot. 

ALSO: What the F is 'show not tell'?

The thing about subtext is that it only works when your reader already knows your characters – if they're well portrayed – and understands what they meant even when they're speaking in codes. This is something we do a lot in real life, too. We read between the lines.

Don't underestimate your audience by giving too much in your dialogue. They can understand what your characters are saying even when what they say is very little. When we read dialogue, we are not just fixating on the words said; we watch them move a leg too fast or bite their inner lip, and we understand they're nervous without actively saying they're nervous.

Adding layers to your dialogue means that every word counts, but it's not only about what's being actively expressed. It's also about the silences, the stares, the movements, the modus, the tone, and the information given before. 


5. Characters' personalities should match their dialogue

Go to your character sheet and stick to your character's characteristics and quirks. Good and bad, both of them. If you put things like “honest, blunt, talkative, extrovert, clever”, you must write dialogue representing these characteristics. It needs to show their cleverness or their silliness or how machiavellian they are.

Also, keep in mind the combination. Two people can be talkative, but while one can be very kind, silly, and nose-keeping, the other one could be blunt, teasing and use their honesty as an excuse to offend other people. 

If you have shy characters, they are not expected to talk that much. So limit the dialogues to monosyllables until they feel confident enough. 

Our personalities match the way we talk. How much or how little we express. The kinds of words we use to describe others and the conversations we build are a representation of who we are, but they are also mirrors of the relationships we have.

Do you talk the same way with your mother as with your friend, partner, or a stranger? I hope not.

Remember social limitations, etiquette, what we are allowed to say and what we are not. But most importantly, remember your character's heart. If you have a witty, rebellious, furious protagonist, you will make her talk confidently. She will speak her mind no matter who is in the room. She will be able to disrespect the president. 

All of the quirks and personality traits you choose for your character, might be shown in their actions, but also, in their dialogue.

ALSO: How to Become a Pro at Dialogue


How do I Know I Write Good Dialogue?

Skip all the extra decoration. You don't need fancy words to describe the way they talk; use what's only necessary –Stephen King says you only need the verb “say.” 

If you have well-written dialogue in your story, your reader will be able to know who is talking without you mentioning their name. They will hear their voice and automatically assume. For this, it is important to build strong characters and keep their voices unique. 

For strong dialogue, be aware of how your characters feel even when they don't know it yet. Let their unconscious mind hide their feelings in their messages; use subtext for that.

Read your dialogues out loud, always! If your spine curves with a cringe, you know it's time to rewrite. If it's fluent and natural and occasionally makes you smile, then you know it's a good piece of work. 

But please, always follow your gut.

Good luck! 

Juliana Palermo
Written for The Plottery

Juliana Palermo lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She's 22 but hasn't learned how to do her taxes yet. She works as a freelance editor and book cover designer, but you will find her drinking coffee and daydreaming during working hours. She is currently writing her first fantasy novel. You can find her as @julippalermo both on Instagram and Twitter. 

If you need her, you can say her name three times in front of a mirror and she will appear with a cynical smile. But let me warn you, her jokes are not as funny as she promised, and if you invited her in, there's a chance she will never leave.



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