Critique: 10 Ways to Write Excellent Dialogue
For many people, dialogue is the heartbeat of fiction. As arguably the only true form of “showing” in written fiction, it offers an inexhaustible source of energy for dramatizing characters, catalyzing conflict, and enhancing every available opportunity for entertainment. That’s why it’s so important to take full of advantage of dialogue, and that’s why we’re going to be taking a look at ten ways to write excellent dialogue.
The essence of dialogue is familiar to any of us old enough to have exchanged words with another human being. It is communication. It is expression. Sometimes it’s comfort. Sometimes it’s anarchy. Often, it comes easily. Usually, it’s interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s boring.
You know how it goes—both in real life and on the page. Boring conversations are those in which one or more participants isn’t hearing anything that interests them. That’s simple enough on its surface, but the most important takeaway for novelists is that the reasonsdialogue might fail to be interesting are sometimes counter-intuitive.
Sometimes the problem is the content (i.e., the characters really aren’t saying anything interesting). Other times, it’s the delivery (i.e., the characters are saying important things, but the words feel stiff or forced). Still other times, the problem is that the dialogue is too on-the-nose (i.e., it spells out too much for readers instead of creating subtext) or perhaps it’s that the scene itself lacks forward drive within the overall story.
When all these problems are recognized and corrected, what you end up with is dialogue that captures readers’ full attention and drags them through the story, one fast page flip after another.
Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis
Today’s post is the fifth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.
Today’s post is inspired by Lenna V.’s excerpt from her historical novel. She wanted to know if she succeeded in her first attempt at writing dialogue:
This is the only full scene I’ve completed so far, and honestly, I can’t recall ever writing dialogue before… I would love any feedback you’d be so kind as to give!
Before we get into the excerpt, let me just say that for a first attempt, this is excellent! Lenna has also got a good handle on staying in POV and creating an engaging narrator voice for her child character(something even more evident in the earlier portions of the excerpt, which I won’t be sharing since they’re not pertinent to today’s topic of writing entertaining dialogue).
So let’s take a look! (The bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.)
Bouncing onto a vacant armchair that was a lot firmer than he’d expected, Jory sat back to scan the room. There were people scattered around doing a variety of quiet activities, and it made for good people-watching. He loved people-watching….
A little lady with snowy white hair tied in a knot behind her head caught his eye. She sat at the piano, facing away from him, but unlike a lot of the people here, her back and shoulders weren’t hunched. She sat up straight as she played a pretty melody he sort of recognized with no sheet music in front of her….
He recognized her. She lived in the apartment next to his great-grandma. She was one of the ones that smiled and waved if she caught him looking in the open door. Not so bad. He could try talking to her. Slowly, he pulled himself up and shuffled over to her. She looked even older up close, but she had kind eyes.
After an uncomfortable minute of her just smiling at him,2 he caved.3
“It was a pretty song you were playing. It sounded familiar.”
“Really? It’s called ‘Blue Skies.’ Do you know the words?”4
“I don’t think so.”
She turned back to the keys and began a simpler version of the song, singing quietly along this time. As she sang through the chorus, he started to recall two guys with funny hats and canes. It finally clicked.
“Oh, it’s in that Christmas movie my mom makes me watch every year.”
“White Christmas? Yes, it is! I am so impressed that you remembered it.5 You were tapping out some fun rhythms.”
“Didn’t really notice I was doing it ’til you stopped.”6
“That’s the best kind of music, when it comes straight out of your soul.”7
He gave her an odd look8 and glanced around for his mom. She was still talking to the girl at the desk.
“My name is Mrs. Murphy.”
“Nice to meet you. My name’s Jory Wolanski.”9
“You live next door to my prababcia.”
“Sorry, my great-grandma.”
“Ah, you’re Mrs. Wolanski’s great-grandson?”
“Yep. I’ve seen you sometimes when we walk by to visit her.”
“I’ve seen you too, now that I think about it. Your… What was it? Pra…?”
“Thank you. Your prababcia seems like a very nice woman. We haven’t had much opportunity to talk yet.”
“She is. She moved here ’cause she fell and broke her arm, so now my dziadek—sorry, my grandpa—thinks she needs to have extra people around to make sure she’s okay. She said she agreed ’cause she likes being around people she doesn’t have to cook for all the time.”
Her eyes lit up, and her mouth twitched into a small smirk as she stifled a chuckle. “Well, that’s a good reason.”
“No, it’s not. She’s the best cook!10 I miss her Sunday dinners.”
10 Ways to Write Dialogue Readers Love
Beyond the basics of properly punctuating dialogue and creating a sensible back-and-forth flow between speakers (which Lenna aces), the next level of great dialogue becomes something of a magic act. Just as in real-life conversations, good dialogue is as much about what isn’t said—or what is said with eyes and body language alone—as it is the words we use.
Great dialogue is more than just a functional exchange of information. It’s a dance of unexpected motives, fears, desires, uncertainties, and revelations. This is true for “big” scenes, but just as true for small exchanges. In fact, the nuances of great dialogue are often more important in “small” scenes because there’s less going on and readers need a little somethin’ extra to keep them fully entertained.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at ten fast ways to boost your dialogue from good to great.
1. Clarify Your Speakers
Within the back-and-forth of a conversation (especially if it’s between just two characters), you can often get by with very few identifying speaker tags or action beats. Readers understand that if one character said the first thing, then the other character is the one saying the second thing, and so on—to a point.
For this to work, readers must have no doubt about which character speaks first. In this instance, the introductory line “Hi” could feasibly belong to either character. Adding a simple “Jory said” to this first line would be more than enough to clear up any initial confusion.
Usually, it’s best to punctuate dialogue with an action beat or speaker tag at least every three lines or so, both to orient readers and to avoid “talking-head syndrome,” in which the author fails to keep characters grounded in the setting.
2. Place Each Speaker/Actor Within a New Paragraph
One of the most important rules of formatting dialogue is putting each new speaker in a new paragraph of their own (something Lenna demonstrates throughout the majority of her excerpt). An important variation of this rule also gives each new actor a line of their own, even if they have nothing to say. This addition isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, since pacing and other considerations will play in. But usually you’ll get the cleanest flow of intent by simply giving silent actors their own lines, prior to the next bit of dialogue.
Sometimes, as in the case of our excerpt (“After an uncomfortable minute of her just smiling at him, he caved”), you may need to rework the former part of the sentence a bit to put more emphasis on the actor (e.g., “She smiled at him for a minute. / He caved.”).
3. Place Action Beats on the Same Line as Their Dialogue (Unless the Preceding Action Is Lengthy or Indirectly Related)
In a rule related to the previous one, make sure action beats appear on the same line as the related dialogue, as in “He caved. ‘It was a pretty song you were playing. It sounded familiar.’”
The exception to this is when the action goes on for more than one sentence or isn’t directly related to the dialogue. If Jory’s action beat had been a two-sentence description of him looking around the room, trying to avoid the old lady’s eyes, then it probably would be better placed on a line of it’s own with the following dialogue separated.
4. Build Subtext by Creating Dialogue and Action That Don’t Fully Support Each Other
And now we get to the good stuff. On-the-nose dialogue is dialogue that says nothing more or less than what it seems to be saying. If the old lady is saying nice things, well, then, she’s nice, which is… nice. But it doesn’t give the author much room to initiate curiosity or understanding within readers. It’s a wall instead of a cracked door.
When Mrs. Murphy explains the song to Jory by saying, ““Really? It’s called ‘Blue Skies.’ Do you know the words?”, I think there’s a subtle missed opportunity to really get to know this character. As it stands, her thoughts seem to go no deeper than her dialogue. But is this truly all an old woman in her situation would be thinking?
What interesting subtext could be suggested here with a more surprising line of dialogue or a contrasting action beat (e.g., she looks sad or isn’t initially quite so interested in talking to Jory)? Unexplained emotions, especially when at odds with dialogue, offer a wealth of interesting opportunities, not just for developing your characters more but for unfolding them in an artful way that tugs at reader curiosity.
5. Use Each Speaker’s Motivation to Create an Undercurrent of Forward Motion and (Probably) Conflict
Some dialogue statements will have only one meaning—the obvious one. But optimally, these statements are evened out by many others that have double and even triple meanings. When Mrs. Murphy tells Jory she’s impressed he knows the song, that’s a statement with a single obvious meaning. But the fact that it also comes across as a bit patronizing piques the possibility of a bit more.
Maybe she means what she says and is only being unconsciously patronizing in the way all adults occasionally are with children. But maybe amidst her niceness, she really is a little patronizing—and Jory hears it and resents it. Suddenly, the tenor of the conversation shifts ever so slightly. Suddenly, there’s a little bit of conflict, a little bit of push and pull in the undercurrent of the characters’ personality and motivations.
This is why it’s important for authors to identify their intentions for a scene’s forward motion and thematic content. If a scene is just what it is (i.e., an introductory conversation between two people who will become friends), then you’re missing out on opportunities to deepen the scene’s complexity and, via that, your readers’ investment.
6. Substitute Evocative Action Beats for Dialogue Where Possible
Although I see dialogue as one of written fiction’s purest opportunities for “showing” (since dialogue translates directly and requires no added description), it’s also still true that actions speak louder than words. When it’s possible to replace a line of dialogue with an evocative action beat, it’s usually best to do so. Not only does this create variety in the dialogue, it can also add powerful visual subtext.
For example, Jory’s on-the-nose spoken response “Didn’t really notice I was doing it ’til you stopped” could be conveyed with a simple action beat such as “He shrugged.”
7. Look for the Latest Possible Entry Into Dialogue Sentences
One of the most common bits of advice you’ll hear about leveling up your dialogue has to do with mimicking real-life speech patterns (without being slavish to them). In real life, most people don’t speak in full sentences all the time. Depending on the character’s voice, it’s often a useful idea to begin a sentence at the latest possible moment. (As a general example, the question “Did you have a good day?” could be shortened to “Good day?”)
In our excerpt, both Jory and Mrs. Murphy have similar voices, largely because they both speak in full sentences. An example of tightening up the dialogue might include changing Mrs. Murphy’s “That’s the best kind of music, when it comes straight out of your soul” to “That’s the best kind of music—straight out of your soul.”
8. Watch for Out-of-POV Action Beats From the Narrating Character
Like any part of fiction, action beats need to properly reflect POV. In this scene, told from Jory’s close POV, the action beat “he gave her an odd look” feels jarringly out of POV. How can Jory know his look his odd? Would he really think of it this way? It would be better to rephrase the adjective to something more narrator-centric, such as “he gave her a questioning look.” Or, for my money, you could replace it altogether with the more evocative “he squirmed.”
9. Cut Any “Throat Clearing” or Filler Dialogue
Good dialogue is tight dialogue. This means cutting lines that advance neither plot nor character. Filler, such as that often referred to as “throat clearing,”usually qualifies as useless since it advances neither. Character introductions and other bits of small talk are common culprits (unless the banalities are contrasted with an ironic context to create subtext).
For example, our excerpt uses a straightforward exchange of names. Although functional, the exchange feels clunky. Were this my piece, I would consider deleting these two lines outright and introducing the names through another medium or working them into the dialogue more casually or obliquely. You’ll notice the conversation runs on smoothly with the introductions deleted—a sign the intros aren’t adding anything beyond their basic info.
10. Eliminate Sneaky Repetition
Another way to tighten up dialogue is to look for accidental repetition. A great example is found at the end of the excerpt when Jory says, “No, it’s not. She’s the best cook! I miss her Sunday dinners.” The last two sentences here are conveying the same emotional information. Either one could be deleted to tighten the dialogue, but of the two, I would choose “she’s the best cook”; it’s more on the nose and creates less subtext than does “I miss her Sunday dinners.”
Dialogue offers so many ways for writers to play creatively with their stories in a powerfully expressive way. Learning to use it to its utmost is what will set your stories a step ahead of the pack.