2.25.2013

6 tips for writing better dialogue

Today I'm happy to welcome a guest post from Laura of WaldenMommy: Life Behind the Red Front Door. Laura is offering us advice on improving the dialogue in our fiction writing.

dramatic and intense conversation between two young ladies

Guest post by Laura of WaldenMommy: Life Behind the Red Front Door

A few weeks ago I eagerly downloaded a book onto my e-reader. I was excited to read a new piece of fiction, but my excitement quickly turned to disappointment the deeper I got into the story. Clicking my tongue in disgust, I flipped through the story, hoping it got better. It didn't.

"If it's that bad, stop reading," suggested my husband, who was trying to read but couldn't because I kept making "I am completely disgusted" noises at the book.

"It's like a train wreck!" I complained. "The dialogue! It's horrible! Look at this!" I shoved the e-reader in his face and he blinked, trying to see the screen. "See that? Is that how people talk? Does anyone talk like that? NO!"

Quickly, he read the offending passage. "Uh, what is this book about? Is that a board room scene? They sound like they're in a business meeting." My groan was nearly loud enough to wake the baby.

"You just proved my point! The characters are supposed to be on a date!"

Dialogue is something that can make a book laugh-out-loud funny or so horrible you send the e-reader sailing out the window. I've muscled through books that were otherwise very good (great story line, interesting characters, realistic scenes) but were painful to read because of the dialogue. Character relationships were shown but lacked a well-rounded development because the dialogue between them was unnatural. Poor dialogue can put a damper on an otherwise fantastic novel.

Writing spoken words can be hard for some authors. However, here are some tips to polish your dialogue skills:

1. Read, read, read!

Read good books with plenty of natural dialogue. If you are writing for a specific genre (such as young adult literature or romance) focus on those books. If you are simply looking to hone your dialogue skills, any well-written book will do.

2. Research

Know your characters and their background. If you aren't completely familiar with the dialect they would speak, educate yourself. Read books with characters that have the same background as yours and speak to people with those dialects. Blogs can also be a great source of regional dialects, especially if the author quotes funny things their children or friends say. Look for bloggers who try to record what people say in the way they said it, with local slang, dropped letters and all.

If your novel is historical in nature, research how people of that time period and class system spoke. Not only is it good to read novels from that time period, it's important to look into scholarly works as well that examine the dialects of the time.

Likewise, know the developmental level of your characters. I've read more than a few books that have six-month-old children talking in complete sentences. While, yes, some children do speak very well early on, that is uncommon. Unless a person's abnormal language ability is important to the character and plot, I would keep language as developmentally appropriate as possible.

3. Listen

"Eavesdrop" on conversations around you. Write them down — pauses, fillers, bad grammar and everything. If you want to make your writing as natural as possible, you must listen to how people naturally talk.

4. Read it out loud

Find a quiet spot, and read your dialogue out loud. You don't have to be a fantastic actor, but the words should flow easily from your tongue.

Bonus: Reading out loud forces you to slow down and really pay attention to your writing. This is a good way to catch little errors that might otherwise be overlooked!

5. Have an editor

And, no, I don't mean your spouse or the good friend who always got As on her English compositions. While those people are a great place to start (and can likely find common mistakes or point out events that seem clear to you, the writer, but are confusing to the reader), you need someone with a good eye for dialogue. Listen to their comments and criticisms, and take them to heart.

And, of course:

6. Practice, practice, practice

It may not make you perfect, but it will make you better!


If dialogue is your weak point, don't give up! You can improve on your weakness and make a novel "laugh-out-loud" worthy. Like anything, it takes time and practice, but the results will be worth it!


Laura WaldenMommy profile bio picLaura is a mother to a Herd of four small children and wife to her Engineer Husband. She blogs at WaldenMommy: Life Behind the Red Front Door and has been writing the Great American Novel for the past 20 years.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon
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