The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

This post is the thirteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Most likely at some point in your novel, your characters are going to speak to each other. This is called dialogue and it can be one of the trickiest things to write well.

Dialogue can provide several benefits to your storytelling. It can provide:

1.) Immediacy – Dialogue allows the reader to be involved in a scene. They experience what happened rather than have the author or a character tell them about it later. Wouldn’t you rather witness an argument between two people than hear about it later?

2.) Characterization – Dialogue is an excellent method of revealing character. When you hear a person speak, you get an understanding of what kind of person he or she is. It can reveal if they are educated, funny, happy, bored and so much more with not only what they say but how they say it.

3.) Information – Dialogue is a way to deliver information to the reader. It can reveal people’s passions, motivations and more. This can be a way to get back story or other important information into the story without dumping a lot of information in a long story-stopping description.

Writing realistic dialogue can be challenging, and how much dialogue you include in your novel can depend on your own preferences, circumstances in the novel or even the type of genre. But don’t avoid dialogue because you feel challenged by writing it. As with all aspects of novel writing, it takes practice to write dialogue well.

Now, dialogue needs to serve a specific purpose in the story. Rarely are you going to add dialogue to just pass the time. It needs to be used to advance the plot, reveal something about a character, establish the mood of a scene – or perhaps all three. When editing your novel, always consider if the dialogue advances the story.

Here are a few tips to help you with dialogue.

1.) Remember that people don’t speak in proper English. They use slang and contractions. They speak in fragments. They also rarely call each other by name. Spend some time listening to people speaking – at the mall, at restaurants, or even in your own home. This will help you develop natural sounding dialogue.

2.) One of the best ways to ensure your dialogue sounds natural and realistic is to read it aloud.

3.) Keep your dialogue tags (said, asked) simple. The more complex the tag line, the more it detracts from the actual dialogue. (More on this in two weeks.)

4.) Avoid using adverbs with the dialogue tags. (Example – he said angrily) Often the adverb is repetitious; the dialogue should tell us he is angry. There is no need to repeat it.

5.) Consider whether you even need a tagline. If two people are conversing you don’t need a lot of “he said, she said” to have people follow the flow of the conversation. Avoid using “said” too often. However, be wary of using words like “shouted,” “muttered” or “whispered. While they are perfectly fine, they should be used sparingly. It is better to have the dialogue convey that it was intended to be shouted or whispered.

Since dialogue can be important to your story, I have broken this topic into three parts. Next week, I will talk about internal dialogue and the following week I will go more in-depth about the use of dialogue tags.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

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