Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal as writers. We can all start being aware of its power to help us tell a story.
Here are five tips I have picked up over the years that help me get the most of dialogue – and we hope you find them as awesome as I do.
① Think of dialogue as a tennis match
Killer dialogue is about a constant back-and-forth – it has the tension, energy and pace of two opponents or protagonists trying to outwit or out play each other. It’s Nadal vs Federer.
Who has the upper hand? Who is losing the argument? You want your characters to spark off each other. Challenge each other. Cajole. Seduce. Excite each other.
Unless you’re writing a monologue, one-sided dialogue sucks the power out of your dialogue. It’s flat, boring, dull – it doesn’t give us the whole story if only one character has a voice.
How will you make sure all your characters have a chance to say something that will change the story?
② Never bloody the nose
Killer dialogue has subtlety, subtext, irony, hidden emotion or unspoken truths lurking beneath the surface – it is never too literal, obvious, or ‘on the nose’.
As a delegate in Writers Write once commented, ‘No one tells the truth unless they’re under the age of five or drunk.’ This is true – we are all aware of how our words affect others, so we moderate our speech to the environment or audience.
Is your dialogue realistic? Is this how real people really speak?
③ Pack it as tight as a tick
Killer dialogue gives us a lot of information and emotion is the shortest space of time. Think of a tick, swollen to near bursting with blood – it’s the same with dialogue. You want that energy and narrative juice packed into a few tight lines.
Often you don’t need the ‘boring bits’ – the ‘Hellos’ and ‘How are yous?’ Jump right in that will spark the reader’s interest – something that makes them gasp, giggle; something enigmatic even that makes them want to know more.
What can you cut from your dialogue without losing its essence?
④ Don’t overstep the (punctuation) mark!
Sometimes we get lazy as writers and we expect basic punctuation to do the heavy lifting in our dialogue. But, adding in three exclamation points (“Stop!!!’ she screamed) doesn’t make for great dialogue. It’s a bit lazy and – worst of all – it comes off as amateurish.
And it’s the same for swearing. We should never censor ourselves from writing a spicy expletive, because it certainly wouldn’t be realistic or authentic if our characters didn’t utter a swear word. But just stringing along vulgar words to show anger or emotion – well, you can bet it will just make the reader cringe.
Is your dialogue better off without the bad exclamation points? Are you relying on bad words rather than solid craft?
⑤ Repeat after me, repeat after me
A one-liner or phrase repeated a few times in a story can really drive home a character trait or illuminate the theme of your story.
Of course, you don’t want to overdo it either – because then it just becomes annoying or looks like an obvious gimmick.
Killer dialogue has a rhythm, it sounds natural. When what your characters say starts to become believable, your characters immediately pop – and become more real to the reader.
Does your character has a signature phrase that’s original or funny? Is there one line that really stands out for you when you read your own story?
I hope these tips help you.
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