Monday, October 7, 2013

The Secrets of Writing Awesome Dialogue

Happy Monday Secret Lifers! Hope you all had a good weekend. I've been wrestling with edits for most of it myself, and I've still got a ways to go on my manuscript, so let's cut to the chase, shall we?

So...dialogue. Most writers I know either love it or hate it. I happen to be in the former camp. Dialogue has always been one of my favorite things to write--maybe because it comes much easier to me then, say, description (although Farrah's post here helped me a lot with that!). In this post, I'm going to try and break down my thought process when it comes to giving voice to your characters. Hopefully you find it helpful!

The Purpose of Dialogue
Seems like a good place to start, yeah? Everything in your manuscript needs to earn its right to be there, and dialogue is certainly no exception to that rule. So, here are some of the things dialogue can do, along with a few caveats:

  • Convey information. By "information", though, I generally try to stick to facts, and details that can't otherwise be shown, and that your main character has no way of (easily) receiving otherwise. Be careful not to overdo this, too. No one likes to read a story where the main character is simply told everything the reader needs to know; let said character explore, infer, deduce, etc...important info as well.
  • Characterization (more on this in the last section)
  • Moving plot forward. This sort of goes with "conveying information", and it comes with the same cautions: don't overdo it. Occasional bomb drops (i.e: plot twists) via dialogue are okay. An entire manucscript of "he-said, she-said" drama? Not so much.
  • To break up exposition, both for the sake of overall pacing, and also aesthetic reasons. Page after page of long paragraphs quickly become daunting. White space is important, and dialogue--particularly the short, snappy kind-- is one way to create that white space.

Basic Construction
So, now that we've established the when, let's talk the how. 
  • Good dialogue only mimics real speech; it doesn't copy it exactly. It's our conversations, basically, except with all of the boring, redundant, hesitant parts taken out. All of those "ums" and "ers" and "hmmms". An occasional one of those isn't awful (though I'd argue that hesitation, embarrassment, etc...can often be better conveyed via body language), but for the most part, written speech is much tighter than "actual" speech
  • A few ways to mimic conversation: have characters interrupt each other, dance around questions, trail off, speak in incomplete sentences, etc... (Word gets super pissed at me whenever I write dialogue. It's not a a fan of incomplete and verbless sentences and stuff. Silly Word-- that's how people talk.)
  • Tags: Ninety-eight percent of the time, "s/he said" is the way to go. Why? Because it's invisible. It does the job you need (attributing speech to the proper person) without calling attention to itself, thus making the conversation flow smoothly. The only exceptions I sometimes use are "asked", for direct questions, and, very very occasionally, things like "shouted" or "yelled". It depends on the character and scene. 
  • More about tags: you can't actually laugh or chuckle words, nor can you snort them, giggle them, chortle them, etc... No, really. Try it. You can laugh in between words, or say something with a laugh, but if your laughter forms actual words, you are much more talented than I (she said, laughing softly to herself at the thought).
  • Even more about tags: so, I've convinced you to only use "said", right? Cool! Now, don't be tempted to pile on the adjectives to make up for its "plainness". Do writers do this? (she asked, conversationally) Sure! In published books. All the time. And sometimes, it works. But, just some food for thought: the adjectives in this case are often used as a "crutch" for weak dialogue. If we can't tell how your character's feeling based on their words (and as shown in their body language), there's a pretty decent chance that the dialogue itself isn't as strong as it could/should be.

Taking it to the Next Level
So, we have the basics down--here are some more thoughts on how to make your dialogue shine, and also to help make the most of it.
  • Characterization via Dialogue. Think about it: you can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk. Word choice, patterns of speech, whether or not they contract words--all of these things are determined by a character's upbringing, their education, their hometown, their personality, etc... A girl who has been raised in a palace, for example, is generally not going to speak the same way as a commoner she meets in the marketplace. 
    • On a similar note: relationships. You can tell a lot about two characters based on the dialogue they exchange, and how they exchange it, and how they refer to each other in their conversations. An example for the latter: you can tell a lot about a character's relationship with, say, their parents, based on whether they call them "Mom and Dad", versus "Mother and Father", or "Mommy and Daddy" or some other nickname.
  • Beats. These are little breaks within a conversation--things that your characters do while speaking, or in between speaking-- and they're important for a couple different reasons: 
    • The first, perhaps most obvious, is that it centers the reader in your scene and setting. Without the occasional mention of your character, say, crossing to bedside table as she speaks, you end up with a manuscript full of talking heads floating in space. Generally, you want your readers to feel like they're actually there, listening in on the conversation, so you have to cue them in to what your characters are doing every now and then. It makes said characters feel more like real people, too--because not many people are completely static when they talk. Pay attention to what your friend's eyes, mouths, hands, etc... do when you're talking to them next time, and you'll see what I mean. Just don't, you know, be a total creeper about it. ;)
    • Beats also set the pacing of conversations, the rhythm, and help create drama where necessary. Is your character hesitant to reveal a big secret? Have them start talking, lose their nerve, stop and add a beat--a bit of fidgeting with some of the scenery perhaps--and, once you feel like the tension is just right, finish their sentence. Contrary-wise, if you want to convey a heated situation (an argument, perhaps), you most likely wouldn't want as many beats, and the ones you do have would likely be shorter. 

To be honest, this is a huge topic, and I know I've only scratched the surface here. I could probably keep going, but this post is already getting super long :) But! If you have questions, or if something needs clarifying, or you'd like examples or whatever--leave a comment! And feel free to share your dialogue tips and tricks, or pet peeves that make you cringe, etc...

S'all for now! *dives back into edit cave*

Oh! One more thing: we have already had a TREMENDOUSLY AWESOME response to our S.L.O.W. critique buddies project, and we have tons of writers in our inbox that we can't wait to help pair up :) But there's still time to get in on the awesome-- just check out this post here for all the details!

Okay, I'm done for real now. Like, for real for real.

Stefanie Gaither writes YA novels about killer clones and spaceships, with the occasional romp with dragons and magic-users thrown in for good measure. Said writing is generally fueled by an obscene amount of coffee and chocolate, as well as the occasional tennis and/or soccer break. She's represented by Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary, and her debut novel, FALLS THE SHADOW, is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster Books For Young Readers in 2014. You can add it on Goodreads here!

You can find her on Twitter @:
Or drop her an email at:
And also visit her website @: 

4 secret replies:

  1. Thanks for the tips! I find writing dialogue difficult, but I really enjoy it. Often my favourite parts in books are the witty repartees.

    I actually have a question, though, about something that I believe is called the “beat panel” in comics. It is basically where one character says or does something; then there’s the beat panel, in which the person who is expected to respond is kind of “frozen” with a blank expression, before, e.g., bursting into laughter in the next panel (or doing a face palm, or deadpanning, or whatever). I’m wondering what might be a good equivalent in writing? I have so far been unable to find a satisfying solution. Maybe you have a suggestion? :) (I’m afraid this is rather specific … I hope that’s not a problem.)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. No problem at all! I think this would fall under the category of "using beats to create drama". For the specific situation you mentioned, I would personally probably separate these two beats (the "frozen, blank-expression" and then the "burst of laughter" or the "deadpanned comment") via new paragraphs. You could almost think of each panel as the equivalent of a paragraph in a book, maybe?

      I jumped into the WIP real quick and tried to find an example that might be relevant to what I'm describing, because I like being shown examples myself. So, maybe something like--

      “Yes, yes of course. Cassius. How can I keep forgetting that? Such an unusual name.” My mother is still talking. Honestly. “Anyway, he is supposed to very talented, you know. And it may do you some good to watch him work, don’t you—”

      “I’m going to dress for the ceremony.”

      For a long moment, my mother only stares at me.

      “For tonight’s ceremony?” she finally manages in an astonished little voice.

      I nod.


      Does that clear things up at all?

  2. Fantastic and interesting writing demand much efforts and time to devote in order to be a real pro in it. In this case, one should have useful and comprehensible manuals and articles to read and study, you can get them here