How to Write Good Dialogue
I edit and do manuscript assessments for a living. I also coach a couple of young creative writers on the side, in a voluntary capacity. Creative writing is not my thing; I know that and they know that. I have only ever written short (and very short) stories. I am not particularly good at coming up with interesting plots. I can think of cool characters and I can write beautifully detailed descriptions. But an interesting plot? Not my forte.
I know just enough about the elements of fiction and creative nonfiction to be dangerous:
Plot (conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution)
Theme (the point of the story)
Some creative writers have the coolest ideas for plots. And awesome characters. But two of these elements often take a hit: description and dialogue. At the start of 2019, I wrote two blog articles about using descriptive language, Writing Sensory Description Part 1 and Part 2. I reminded writers to help their readers not just see but also hear, taste, smell, and touch their surroundings, as well.
Idol Chitchat, The Devil’s Playground
Lately, my novice writers have presented me with drafts of romance and murder mystery manuscripts. And, consistently, the weakest element has been their dialogue. Idol chitchat. Small talk. Pointless prattling. The dialogue serves no discernible purpose—and it must.
So, let’s have a dialogue about…dialogue.
Make It Matter
Fight the urge to write dialogue that is nothing more than a mundane exchange. As I said, I often read boring conversations in manuscripts I’m editing or critiquing. I’ve never asked a writer why they’ve written dialogue like this:
I saw him walking toward me. “Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he replied. “How are you?”
“Good,” I answered. “How about you?”
“I’m OK,” he said. “Whatcha doing?”
“Nothing much. Just hanging out,” I replied. “You?”
Ugh. I have my own theory as to why people write dialogue this pointless. I think it’s an attempt, consciously or subconsciously, to present authentic or realistic conversation. But, really, I’m guessing. I mean, I know people have pointless exchanges like this in real life. At least, I know I do. But just because people do speak this way, it does not mean you should create this kind of dialogue in your prose.
(In memoir, I think people include dialogue like this because this is what was said. It’s real. But every verbal exchange does not need to be recounted 100% accurately, especially if it results in dialogue like this.)
Every element of creative writing serves a specific purpose. Getting most of them right will not make a great book. The best books nail all the elements. A great storyline will be derailed by one-dimensional characters whose presence you don’t understand, flat dialogue that doesn’t make sense, or a lack of setting that would help you envision and feel a part of every scene.
The Four Functions of Dialogue
So, back to dialogue. Here is the simple truth. Properly written dialogue performs four functions:
Advances the plot
Reveals something about a character
Some lists I've seen include up to ten functions, but these are the Big Four. If you have written dialogue that you cannot, in all honesty, say performs at least one of these functions, toss it. My business motto is “Every word of every sentence matters.” This includes dialogue—it must be there for a good reason.
Dialogue never exists for its own purpose.
Dialogue as Narrative
Dialogue is a form of narrative conveyed as speech between two or more characters. Narrative is an account of what’s happening in a story. Narrative is used to set the scene, describe the surroundings, give insight into a character, throw in a plot twist, present foreshadowing, and so on. All of this can be accomplished through dialogue, too.
It Don’t Have to Be Right (Wink, Wink)
Dialogue does not have to be grammatically correct. It can and should read like actual speech. The “Whatcha doing?” from my example above is perfectly OK. That adds a touch of casualness, which, if the dialogue was vital and well constructed, would add realism. If you have created a character (or, in memoir, a person from your life) who has an accent or a peculiar speech pattern, breaking grammar rules to bring that character alive is acceptable. Beware though—handling vernacular well is trickier than it seems. You might end up with a one-dimensional stereotype.
Dialogue should be written to give readers details about a character in more clever and intriguing ways. Well-written dialogue can be used to describe appearance, race, gender, ethnicity, and even offer a glimpse into morality and ethics.
Just For Fun
Narrative, then dialogue as narrative.
He walked into the room. I was shocked to see his clothes were tattered, and he was thin and filthy.
He walked into the room and I stammered, “You sure have hit on hard times. How long has it been since the money I gave you ran out?”
He grimaced. “I’m keepin’ my shoes together with rubber bands and Elmer’s Glue. A rope’s holdin’ my pants up. I cain’t remember the last time I used soap. That’s how long.”
In addition to my business, Strike The Write Tone, I am an editor, book coach, and ghostwriter for The Cheerful Word, a memoir publisher in Hendersonville, North Carolina.