At the When Words Collide writing conference in Calgary in August, I gave a fast-paced one-hour presentation on dialogue.
Originally, it was supposed to cover 10 tips for effective dialogue, but that wasn’t good enough.
In the end, I provided 47 tips.
I’m happy to share these tips in a series of blog posts. Part 1 covers 29 tips.
A number of sources informed this presentation, but the primary ones are shown here. All are worth reading.
TIP #1: Learn these tips, then break them at will.
There are no sacred cows. Just be aware that if you break with best practice, you are doing so intentionally for effect.
Tip #2: According to James Scott Bell (How to Write Effective Dialogue), every piece of dialogue must do one of these:
Set the tone
Set the scene
Reveal story information
SET THE TONE
Tip #3: Dialogue should enhance the tone of the story.
Consider the following piece of exposition with two dialogue options. Which would work better for a horror story?
The grinning ghost lurched down the stairs in a series of horrific freeze frames.
Option A: “Murder,” John murmured. “Bloody, rank death is coming for us.”
Option B: “Pretty neat,” John exclaimed, “but we’d better make tracks before that ghost pulls a number on us.”
Option A would obviously work better. It’s a bit pulpy, but it enhances the atmosphere.
Tip #4: Dialogue should sound natural without being real.
Real talk is boring.
“But that’s the way people talk! But that’s what somebody I know actually said! But this really happened!”
Yeah, and it’s boring.
John Hough, Jr., author of The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Dialogue, says, “Your characters have to respond immediately, but you have all the time in the world to craft that response.”
Use that time to ensure every bit of dialogue movies the story forward.
Tip #5: Dialogue should be well-crafted but sound natural.
If it’s too real, it’s boring.
If it’s too perfect, it doesn’t sound real.
Tip #6: Read your dialogue aloud to see how it sounds to the ear.
In fact, it’s recommended to read your entire book aloud.
Tip #7: Shorter is better.
Favor short sentences. Shorter than narration. Sentence fragments are okay. Shorter feels real, while enhancing readability.
Same with paragraphs. Shorter is better. Hough recommends 1-3 sentences max, preferably 1-2).
Use contractions. That’s how people talk. For halting speech, use an ellipse.
Characters can interrupt each other when needed.
Tip #8: Avoid name-calling, repetition and the tics of real speech.
Avoid overusing characters saying each other’s name. People don’t say, how are you, John. That’s great to hear, John. What are you doing today, John. Use names only to get attention and focus emphasis.
Avoid repetition unless to drive a point home.
Avoid tics of real speech such as hello, goodbye, um, ah, huh, how are you, etc., unless it is shaded with meaning.
SET THE SCENE
Tip #9: Avoid “talking heads in white space.”
Talking heads: Long stretches of dialogue.
White space: No clear scene.
Dialogue needs context.
Tip #10: To address “talking heads,” have the characters do something while they talk.
Tip #11: To address “white space,” set the scene.
This can be broad-stroked if the scene was set earlier.
You can provide an upfront description or sprinkle details throughout the dialogue.
Tip #12: You can start a story with dialogue without setting the scene if there’s action too.
Use beats, not tags, here. A beat is a bit of action (e.g., “He looked up from his computer.”) A tag is a dialogue tag (e.g., “she said”).
Avoid info dumps. Keep it moving.
Establish the point of view early.
Limit the conversation to two characters.
Here’s an example:
“It’s so dark. Where are you?”
John clung to the ledge. “Help!”
“I see you,” Jane said. “Hang on!”
She reached for him, missed. “Damn it!”
“I don’t think I can–”
“Hang on, John!”
He felt his grip slipping. “Jane? Oh, God. Jane!”
As he began to fall, her hand clamped over his wrist and pulled.
Tip #13:Use dialogue to set the scene directly.
“God, that water,” Jane said. “Reminds me of the turquoise ring I lost in Cuba.”
John said, “I can see right to the bottom. The pirate ship—it’s down there!”
“The desert just goes on and on,” John moaned. “But that shimmer…”
“Mirage,” Jane said. “It’s not what you want it to be.”
Tip #14: Dialogue should reflect an appropriate quality of voice.
In Writer’s Little Helper, James V. Smith, Jr. identifies five qualities of voice:
Vocabulary: general level, distinctive phrases/words (signatures for character)
Verbosity: length of speech
Velocity: pace and rhythm
Viewpoint: point of view (story), point of view (character’s worldview)
Venom: emotional intensity
Tip #15: Reveal character and move the story through conflicting goals or agendas.
A very important tip, this one. People talk in books to push their agenda. For everything they say, there must be a reason.
The conflict can be expressed outright or as a subterfuge.
Consider the below example. In this snatch of dialogue, Jane wants John, who is severely ill, to get out of the house and live his life to the fullest. Depressed, John wants to mope.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Jane said.
He shrugged. “It’s a day.”
Here’s another example: John wants to sleep. Jane wants tell him about a self-help book she’s reading about how to stick up for yourself. At end, the combination of the book and his refusal to engage might spark a decision to leave him on the spot.
Tip #16: Consider psychology when writing dialogue.
For example, transaction analysis can help develop characters and dialogue. This is a theory (Games People Play by Dr. Eric Bene) that people interact based on a self-perceived role in a conversation. Jack Bickham, author of Writing Fiction that Sells (1989), first described it as a potential dialogue tool. Dr. Bene identifies three self-perceived roles in conversation.
Parent: authority, decisive, power
Adult: even-handed, analytical, calm
Child: emotional, selfish, irrational
You can write miles of dialogue off different combinations of these roles.
Tip #17: Consider conflict has shades.
James V. Smith identifies six types of conflict:
Overt aggressive: threats of violence
Passive aggressive: apparently submissive character spars with stronger one
Provocation: taunt or dare
Undercurrent: conflict is suggested but not open
Ambiguity: like undercurrent but more subtle, only writer knows for sure if conflict is there
Subliminal: conversation about one thing but heading to conflict
Tip #18: Raise the conflict level by keeping it short and simple.
This reinforces Tip #7.
To raise the level of conflict in dialogue, favor short, clipped Anglo-Saxon words (e.g., “box” instead of “container”), short sentences, short paragraphs. Repetition can add emphasis. Be declarative (“I do,” not “I think I do”).
Tip #19: Besides conflicting agendas, how characters communicate can enhance interest and conflict.
Below is a number of ways to accomplish this.
Turn statements into questions:
A: “You haven’t left the house in days.”
B: “When’s the last time you left the house?”
Withhold the answer:
Q: “When’s the last time you left the house?”
A: “I have everything I need right here.”
Evade, ignore, misdirect, Q with Q:
Q: “When’s the last time you left the house?”
A: “Do we have to talk about this right now?”
John: “How are you?”
John: “How are you?”
Jane: “I can’t hear you over the music.”
John: “How are you?”
Jane: “Look at them over there. So happy.”
John: “How are you?”
Jane: “Mind your own business.”
John: “Will you marry me, Jane?”
Jane: “John! I don’t know what to say—”
Man: “Down on the floor! This is a robbery!”
John: “Did you kill him?”
Jane: “He just wouldn’t shut his mouth.”
Replying to perceived real question:
John: “So you can’t account for your whereabouts that night.”
Jane: “I didn’t kill him. I loved him.
Tip #20: Reveal character through sharp, colorful dialogue.
Give each character a unique voice. Zingers (snappy comebacks), for example, make a character seem superior and likeable. Reflect on a primary trait or goal (angry, bitter, outgoing, cynical, etc.)
This can be particularly useful for making otherwise flat secondary characters more colorful.
Tip #21: Gender-specific speech is possible, but tread carefully.
Good luck getting this right in your book.
Tip #22: Be very economical with insults and foul language.
Use when needed for specific effect. Don’t force it for color. A little goes a long way.
In my submarine series Crash Dive, the submariners swear hugely. But I still keep it sparing.
You can invent bad words. “Frak” is a famous example from Battlestar Galactica. In my Renaissance fantasy novel The Alchemists, the characters are Europeans, so when they swear, they do so in their native language. One character, a scientist, swears using the names of philosophers (e.g., “Occam’s Razor!”).
Tip #23: What a character doesn’t say can be meaningful.
Tip #24: Reveal character with internal dialogue.
This naturally applies only to a point-of-view character. Deep point of view can blend external and internal dialogue in the same tense. The dialogue must be honest and revealing.
Internal dialogue can slow the story’s pace if that’s acceptable or needed.
You don’t need quotes or tags when doing internal monologue. Example:
Mom called me. “What now?” I wondered.
Mom called me. What now?
REVEAL STORY INFORMATION
Tip #25: Save info dumps for big reveals laced with emotion.
Better to spread out, here and there if just basic info or to flavor the story.
For example, in a fantasy story featuring dragons, instead of giving a history of dragons, reference them in narration and dialogue:
His daughter held up a dragon’s tooth. “Look what I found at the market today!”
John, who was old enough to remember the dragons, shivered and forced a smile. “That’s a great find, sweetie.”
Tip #26: Avoid exposition in dialogue.
Particularly what characters already know or info that shows too great an awareness of the story. That’s when the author reveals himself or herself through the character, a big no-no.
That being said, you can do more telling in dialogue than you should in narrative.
“Mom’s not here?”
“She went to work at 7AM.”
(Mom has a job, so presumably works every day. We don’t seem to need the 7AM. But…)
“Why so early?
(Ah, now the 7AM works. Context is vital.)
Which brings us to:
Tip #27: “Make sure your characters are speaking to each other, not to the reader.” -John Hough, Jr.
Tip #28: Dialogue is the only place in the book the author can talk about theme.
Postulate a theme, come up with an opposing view, and have two characters duke it out. After this scene, any arguing can simply be because they don’t like each other.
Tip #29: How to have an argument:
Use strong verb tags and beats and short tight sentences. Overall, it should be succinct. If one character tries to get long-winded, it’s okay for the other to interrupt.
Questions/sentences can repeat but with different replies
THANKS FOR LISTENING
That’s it for today! In my next blog post, I’ll provide a series of tips related to technique.
Click here to download a PDF of the presentation I gave at When Words Collide.