Writing Compelling Dialogue: One Author’s Process

Dialogue can make or break a story. Writing compelling dialogue is a crucial aspect of crafting engaging and believable characters in fiction. I’ve read books with too little dialogue and, consequently, found them to be snooze-fests. On the flip side, I’ve read books with too much bad dialogue, and they were virtually unreadable. My preferences certainly aren’t representative of every reader, but I’ve listened to readers enough over the past few years to detect some patterns of what they like and don’t like in dialogue.

Here are some things I’ve learned to do, mostly through trial and error, to create compelling and engaging dialogue in my books:

Develop distinctive voices for the characters.

I believe each character should have a unique voice reflective of their personality, background, and worldview. What makes each character unique? Their age, education, accent, and social class, among other things. I consider each of these factors when I craft dialogue.

To this end, I accept that conversations may sometimes get messy. Real conversations aren’t always perfectly polite or grammatically correct, so I try to let my characters speak in a way that feels natural to them, even if it means using slang, cursing, or making mistakes.

Use subtext.

Dialogue shouldn’t always be on the surface level. Effective dialogue often has layers of meaning and subtext, revealing a character’s true feelings or motivations. Subtext can be conveyed through word choice, tone, and body language.

Show a character’s personality.

Dialogue allows me to show the reader a character’s personality. For example, instead of telling the reader that a character is arrogant, I show the reader by having the character speak in a condescending tone or use dismissive language. Or, if a character has a dominant personality and a penchant being blunt, I show that in dialogue by perhaps letting them curse a lot or use an aggressive tone. Understanding my character’s distinctive voice allows me to better understand their personality, and vice versa.

Keep it realistic.

I enjoy books with realistic dialogue. It’s that simple. (Indeed, I learn what I like and don’t like in dialogue by reading other authors’ dialogue.) Dialogue should sound natural and authentic, so I try to avoid overly scripted or formal language. What does that mean? I use contractions, interruptions, and pauses to mimic real-life conversations.

In this respect, it’s helpful to listen to people talk. I pay attention to the way people speak in real life. I notice their word choice, sentence structure, and tone of voice. This helps me write dialogue that sounds natural and believable.

Use dialogue to advance the plot.

I don’t treat dialogue like filler but, instead, use it to move the story forward. Dialogue can reveal information, create conflict, or change the course of the narrative. But it’s a fine line sometimes, and I always try to avoid telling too much of the story through dialogue.

Consider the pacing.

The pacing of dialogue can be used to create tension and suspense. Short, snappy sentences can convey a sense of urgency, while longer, more reflective sentences can slow down the pace. Reading the dialogue aloud keeps me aware of pacing.

I’ll let you in on a dorky secret: reading dialogue aloud is one of the most entertaining parts of my writing experience – I really get into it sometimes and unleash my inner thespian. Viola Davis has nothing on me when I get deep into acting out my dialogue. I’m sure my partner has heard me once or twice shouting out lines of dialogue as though I’m auditioning for a breakout role.

No matter what approach you take, I strongly suggest reading dialogue aloud. By reading it aloud, I catch any awkward phrasing or unnatural dialogue. It also gives me a sense of the rhythm and pacing of the dialogue.

Use action beats.

Speaking of pacing, I use action beats to break up dialogue. Action beats are short descriptions of what your characters are doing or how they are reacting. They keep my dialogue from becoming too monotonous.

Avoid overusing dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are words or phrases that tell the reader who is speaking (e.g. “he said,” “she shouted,” etc.). They can be helpful, but they can also be overused. Too many dialogue tags makes writing sound choppy and unnatural. I learned this lesson the hard way with my first novel, Landrien Moriset, where I definitely overused dialogue tags. I made sure to avoid this mistake in all my other books.

Edit and revise…then do it again.

Dialogue, like any other aspect of writing, requires careful editing and revision. I reread my dialogue over and over, and make sure each line serves a purpose in the story. My approach is to reread my dialogue aloud so many times that I basically hear my characters voices saying the words, and I tweak relentlessly before handing off the story to a beta reader or editor. (If you can afford it, hiring a good editor or a beta reader is preferable. But if you can’t hire an editor or find a beta reader, read it as many times as you can until you’re sick of it.)

So there you have it: one author’s process for writing compelling dialogue. These are not “rules” that I think all authors should follow, but they are rules I’ve developed for myself and follow to craft interesting dialogue that bring my characters to life on the page. The only real rule for improving your writing is to keep writing (and keep reading)!

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