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Like other components of writing a great story, learning how to write great dialogue is a journey. You won’t have a story without characters, and you won’t have much of a story without having compelling dialogue.
Let’s begin with a formal definition of dialogue:
According to Indeed, “Dialogue refers to written conversations between characters in novels, short stories, and scripts. For dialogue to occur, two or more characters must talk with one another to further a story.”
For more information on dialogue, check it out here:
When characters speak to each other in a story, the purpose is to move the story forward, to tell the reader something she didn’t know, thereby revealing key information. Dialogue in writing is meant to mimic natural speech, but it should not because if you listen to conversations between people, their dialogue consists of filler words, such as: uh, er, well. Natural dialogue is also filled with long pauses and even incorrect word choices.
When learning how to write great dialogue, it is necessary to cut out these useless words and verbal utterances. When writing stories, aim for what is known as tight writing, meaning not weakening your story with trivia.
Make your dialogue interesting. Avoid having your characters engage in small talk, including talking about the weather unless there is a hurricane approaching or it's an integral part of the story. Do not include one unnecessary word.
“Caroline, I understand that a flood is coming our way,” Austin said with a frown. “Do you think we should head for higher ground?”
Here’s a better, shorter version:
“Flood’s coming,” Austin said. “Let’s head out.”
Writing must be tight. Eliminate the fluff.
One character should not tell another information they both know. Provide the reader with another way of disseminating information.
“Martha, it’s your birthday tomorrow,” Frank said. “I’ll take you to dinner.”
In a short story, your dialogue should not go over one page before you move on to prose writing. In a very short story, dialogue should be even more restricted.
Break up your dialogue sometimes by showing other happenings in the scene.
“Rudy, the school principal called again, Mr. Rogers said. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t know, Dad,” Rudy sighed.
“Don’t play games with me, son.”
“I said, I don’t know.”
Mr. Rogers palmed the remote, switched off the television, and cleared his throat. He turned to face Rudy squarely.
Also, characters should not always answer the other person’s question with an exact answer. An exact answer is known as on-the-nose writing. When the character doesn’t answer directly, it allows the reader to uncover new information.
“Have you been going to school? Mr. Rogers asked.
“I hate school,” Rudy said.
Here we gain more information than if Rudy had just said yes or no to his father’s question. First, Rudy is being evasive by not answering the question. Next, we find out he hates school, and this may be his way of confessing that he had not been going to school. You will, of course, have on-the-nose writing, but not all the time. It’s good to switch things up a bit.
You may give your character a speech quirk. In real life, we all have them in speech and/or behavior. Some people twirl their hair unconsciously, pick their noses, or stutter.
“Grandpa, we’ll pick you up from church just before noon.”
“No-no, pick me up after noon. Before noon just won’t do, no-no.”
With Grandpa’s speech quirk, no-no, your readers would know he was speaking. No one else in your story would have the same speech pattern. This way, you would cut down on the need to give him a dialogue tag (speech tag), such as Grandpa said. We should know who’s speaking without always being directed by their speech tag. Your characters must not all sound alike. Still, use speech tags at times to make sure your reader isn’t confused about who’s speaking. Likewise, make sure Grandpa doesn’t say no-no every time he speaks. Balance it out.
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Wouldn’t it be great if the dialogue between your characters could write itself? And your role, then, would be dictation. This does not happen, but you can come close. You must get into the heads of your two or three main characters. You do this by writing about them in detail. This will not be in your story but for your benefit of knowing your characters well.
Write a couple of pages about each of them. (See Spencer’s detailed backstory, starting on page 17, in my free ebook: The Art and The Alchemy of Writing.) When you do this, you will know your characters intimately. When you write the dialogue between them, this is when the magic happens. The dialogue seems to write itself, because you know your characters so well, you would never write something about them that would be out of character. Therefore, the dialogue just seems to flow almost effortlessly.
Spencer is a shy scientist nerd, an introvert with strong morals. In his dialogue with a female, it would be out of character for him to say, “You’re a cute babe. Let’s take on the town tonight. I’ll even let you pay. Ha, ha, ha.”
Your mind wouldn’t even think of writing the dialogue that way.
After you have reviewed the above tips on how to write great dialogue, start practicing. Make it a point to read literature that contains great dialogue. You will only fail if you stop the journey.
Learn how to thoroughly craft your characters' backstories by reading The Writer's Guide to Character Traits.