How to Write Dialogue that Shines

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By Rachel Beck

Dialogue is one of the main building blocks of writing. It’s part of the foundation, one of the “tools” that’s essential for building your “house,” or book. Without it, you don’t have much of a story, and it would collapse, as would a house without all the vital parts of its foundation. Dialogue is how your characters interact with each other, how you move the scenes and chapters forward and reveal information to the reader. If done well, it also brings the characters to life off the page, giving them color and attitude with certain phrases or word choices or dialect or accents–the ways you can humanize your characters through dialogue are endless, so it’s really an amazing tool at writers’ disposal, and one that’s key for showing rather than telling as well.

But…we’ve probably all read bad dialogue, which can be pretty painful to get through. Dialogue that feels stale or unnatural, or like the author is just using the conversation to get some information across to the reader that they couldn’t weave in another way. As an agent, poorly written dialogue is one of the biggest turn-offs for me, a reason I will stop reading a manuscript altogether. It takes up so much of a story and is such a key ingredient, that it’s often a major indication of an author’s overall ability to write and communicate well. Here are a few of the most common red flags I see in dialogue that make me want to stop reading, and tips for how to make your dialogue stronger to be sure you avoid these pitfalls:

Dialogue That Reads Unnaturally or Awkward 

This might be the most common reason I stop reading a manuscript because of the dialogue. It’s really, really hard to write authentic dialogue that doesn’t sound forced or stilted. Here’s a tip: Try reading all of your dialogue out loud. And ask yourself whether real people talk like that, or whether that’s how you would respond, in those words, to the situation on your pages. Because writing can sometimes feel like a formal exercise, it’s easy to create dialogue that’s accidentally too formal. But remember that you’re writing about real, ordinary people whom you want your readers to be able to relate to. So they want people who sound and talk like they do! Along those lines, it’s common for writers to forego using contractions in dialogue. For example: “We will be heading to the park later.” Maybe it’s engrained in you from school days to be as “proper” in your writing as possible, so I get that it’s hard to shake. But when you say this sentence out loud, you realize something sounds off. Try: “We’ll be heading to the park later.” Much more natural, right? Remember that in our daily speech, we use shortcuts and contractions, so be sure your characters are using them too! 

Dialogue That’s Clearly Just a Tool for the Author to Get Information Across

Another dialogue trap I see writers fall into quite often–and when the story starts to go off the rails for me–is when the dialogue goes from being a natural extension of the characters and their story, to a plot tool for the writer to convey information to the reader that they can’t figure out how to do otherwise. It’s a cop-out and shows me that creativity is lacking. Go back to the drawing board if you have to, and re-craft your scene or chapter so that you can convey the essential information to the reader in a more clever way than one character telling it to another. Because when that happens, it takes us out of the scene and the action and the natural character relationships, and puts the focus instead on the unnatural delivery of the information coming across in a dry, predictable way.

Dialogue That’s Constantly Interrupted by Awkward Tags

First, what are dialogue tags? Those phrases often tacked onto the end of the dialogue like “he said,” “she stated,” “he demanded.” If two characters are having an intense or heated conversation that’s critical to the plot, it can be very annoying to have these dialogue tags after every sentence, as it interrupts the important stuff: the dialogue itself. If the interaction is only between two characters, you can often just ditch them completely, because the reader will naturally be able to follow who is speaking. If you must use dialogue tags for distinction and clarification, keep them as simple as possible: “said,” “replied,” etc. Don’t say “questioned” or “queried” when the simple “asked” does the job just fine. Otherwise it becomes too flowery, and readers’ attention is drawn to that word and taken away from the exchange. Also, for the most part, try to avoid tacking on adverbs, like “stated vehemently” or “replied eagerly.” Again, this draws too much attention away from what’s actually being said. If it’s important to convey that the character is talking a certain way, consider showing it through actions rather than adverbs. For example: “I didn’t do it!” he yelled vehemently. Vs. “I didn’t do it!” He smacked his hand on the desk in anger. The second example shows the heat and anger while the first merely tells. And it’s always better to show rather than tell, wherever possible.    

These are the biggest errors I see with dialogue that make the manuscripts overall feel amateur and not yet ready. Hopefully these tips can help you avoid the most common pitfalls of dialogue and instead create crisp, realistic dialogue that moves your story forward and stays focused on the action, while also revealing important nuances of character relationships.

Rachel Beck is an agent with Holloway Literary. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_C_Beck.