Two Hacks for Writing Good Dialogue
Dialogue is always tricky for new and developing fiction writers. We can see the conversation and where it needs to go, but the in between can get a little foggy. The YA and Teen novels that inspired us to write our own worlds, trained us in the art of “he said,” “she said.” But after a while, that kind of tag gets old. It’s repetitive, even when we switch it up with words like reply, hiss, groan, bellow, or quip. It’s been done too many times over and before. Here are some tips for writing engaging and realistic dialogue that has energy to carry a scene.
1. Try Playwriting, or writing your dialogue like a scene.
The biggest test of any section of dialogue is whether or not it can tell a story on it’s own. When you write dialogue you are showing the relationships between two characters and creating tension within a scene. Dialogue should never be used as epilogue. This becomes clunky and forced so easy it hurts.
If you are struggling with epilogue material or with showing relationships between characters without saying “She hated him” or “He loved her.” Try writing the scene in only dialogue like a play. In play's, dialogue is all that is written for the characters. Good playwrights leave most of the stage direction sparse to allow creative freedoms to blossom in the actor and director. Writing you dialogue in this format can help new writers to see the relationship between the text one character is saying and the response of the other character. For example, say you have two characters who can’t stand each other locked in a room together, but you want to suggest that one character might have feelings for the other.
This is how not to do it:
Michael rattled the doorknob, then beat his fists into the metal.
“Fuck!” he shouted.
“I told you not to shut the door,” said Jane.
“Shut up,” Michael hissed. Jane bit her lower lip. Michael’s shoulders were heaving against his shirt. She could see the outline of his muscles. He was so attractive she wanted to vomit.
“I hate you,” she mumbled. But all she really wanted to say was that she loved him.
Instead try this:
Jane: I told you not to close the door. It’s an automatic lock.
Michael: No you didn’t.
Jane: Mike, yes I did.
Michael: Oh, sorry. I guess I couldn’t hear you over how much I didn’t want to do this.
Jane: That’s rude.
Michael: Yeah, I am.
Jane: Mike, did you bring your phone?
Michael: Damnit. Do you have yours.
Jane: Don’t you always have it attached to your ego?
Michael: Don’t you have yours attached to your ass?
Jane: No pockets.
Michael: So we’re stuck here, great… HELP!
Jane: No one’s going to hear you down here. But don’t worry, someone will come looking when we don’t come back in like fifteen minutes.
Michael: I hate this school.
Jane: Are you going to the dance friday? I heard the football team is bringing beer, or something.
Michael: What’s it to you.
Jane: I don’t really care. I’m just trying to make conversation.
Michael: No, I’m not fucking going to the dance.
When you put your dialogue into play format, you discover all the little holes that have to be filled with description. When you can’t describe the movements of the characters it becomes a puzzle to convey the same meaning in spoken words. If you overwrite, that’s fine. Overwriting means you have more material to work with. Cutting is often so much easier than adding. When you go back to transform this exercise into prose, you can cut the lines that aren’t necessary, or that can be filled in with description. If you are really struggling with authenticity and flow you should give this a try!
2. Lose the tags
The “he said,” “she said” dialogue tags slow the energy of your writing immensely. And, honestly, most people skip right over them. So, while you’re struggling to find the best word to describe how your character said it, you're actually wasting valuable space and energy. The best thing to do to make your dialogue tight and energized is to follow the speaking parts with actions. Make sure, however, that the person completing the action is the person speaking, or else your readers will get confused. When you do this you are showing the audience body language, which is more often how we interpret the tone and mood of the speaker anyway. Now, sometimes you need that growl or whisper to describe volume and emotion, but usually it can be done by having a character throw their hands in the air or crossing their arms.
Lets return to Jane and Michael:
“Fuck!” Michael slammed his fists into the metal door.
“I told you not to shut the door,” Jane leaned her hips against the work table. She crossed her arms. “It’s an automatic lock, stupid.”
“No you didn’t” Michael jerked his eyes over his shoulder.
“Mike, yes I did,” Jane pursed her lips. Her brows wrinkled together.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mike spun on his heels. “I guess I couldn’t hear you over how much I don’t want to be here.” He kicked a bucket into the corner so hard one side cracked.
“Did you bring your phone?” Jane lifted herself up onto the table. She pulled her shirt down to hide the rectangular bulge in her waistband.
“No, dammit,” Mike sat on the cement floor. “You?”
“I thought you always had your attached to your ego.”
“Don’t you always have yours attached to your ass?” Mike’s face had more wrinkles than a bulldog. He brought his knees into his chest and clasped his arms around them loosely.
“No pockets, genius,” Jane tugged on the side of her legs and let the material snapback….
And then you go from there. One final thing you should always do with you dialogue is read it outloud. Sometimes, things don’t sound the same way when read aloud as they did in your head. Grab a partner to help you, especially if their are more than two speaking characters in the scene. Hearing your words in someone else’s voice can provide that important degree of separation you need to think critically about a scene.