5 Ways to Improve Your Dialogue

I love good dialogue. I love how it can accomplish so many different things in a story and can grip readers just as much as an action sequence. Sometimes when I’m starting another short story I’ll write just dialogue for a couple pages and fill in all of the description and action later. After all, I consider character the most important part of a story, and dialogue is the most interesting way to reveal character. It shows what they want, what they’re willing to reveal or hide, and even quite a bit about their beliefs and backstory. Because of its importance, though, it can be difficult to perfect. So, here are five things to keep in mind when deciding character’s lines–nothing groundbreaking, but hopefully helpful.

1. Speak it out

If you’re wondering whether a particular piece of dialogue sounds “correct” or “real enough,” read it out loud. I do the same thing for any poetry I write, and honestly you could read your entire draft aloud as well. Dialogue is a bit different than poetry, because it values realism more than lyricism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an engaging rhythm that carries readers along (particularly if one of your characters is more given to speaking lyrically). Speaking, rather than reading, ensures that there are no gaps in said rhythm.

2. Get into character journals

Each character should have a distinct voice, regardless if you’re writing in first or third person. I still occasionally have problems with this, but I’ve realized that when my characters all sound the same I need to characterize them further–that I need to have them speak, not the plot. Character journals are usually how I do that. Have the characters speak, ramble, monologue, whatever works, without any others characters or circumstances in the way. Have them talk (to you or your readers) about the problems they’re facing, about other characters, or about their past. This exercise helps you characterize them from within, establishing how they see themselves, rather than you going down a list of questions about their age, eye color, and other nonsense. It also should hopefully give you a sense of their voice and how past events have shaped that voice.

3. Ditch the pleasantries

Trying to make your story as realistic as possible is laudable, but that desire needs to be tempered by the unfortunate fact that readers need to be constantly occupied. Small talk is usually not worth the effort of you moving your fingers to type the few lines. You can break that rule sometimes, but only because of the allure of variety–if you have a character who is supposed to be boring, or an intentionally awkward situation, feel free to include it in moderation. But otherwise make the characters doggedly pursue their motivations from their first meeting to eliminate any unneeded words. Greetings, goodbyes and other gestures can be contained in simple description, as can reiterations and repetitions: if one character is explaining something that already happened, a simple “she told her” will suffice.

4. Minimize your tags

Also in the interest of keeping useless words in the pit where they belong, make sure your dialogue tags adhere to the rule of showing and not telling. Emotion is communicated more through body language and action than word choice, so there’s really no need to vary from the “said” standard. Any dialogue tag is, in effect, an interruption by the author, so using the word “said” as opposed to a more colorful word will make readers notice it less. Just make sure to use tags at least every three or four lines so it’s clear who’s talking. If you’re going to expand your tags, make sure they contain information that absolutely cannot be given in the dialogue, like when a character is whispering, or speaking to another particular character and you don’t want to name-drop. You can even get rid of “said” entirely and rely on action tags if you want:

“That’s where we found him, honest.” Cal wiped his hand on his forehead.

5. Keep an engaging pace

As well as cultivating rhythm within your dialogue, make sure the conversation has its proper place within the entire narrative. Small talk and other needless dialogue not only loses readers but loses the flow of the plot. Just like every bit of your description needs to bleed theme, tone, and mood, your dialogue has to push things just that much further along. It has to spark with discovery or confrontation. To preserve good pacing, don’t make dialogue scenes go on too long (I would say more than 1000 words is too long), and be wary of including too many speeches or longer dialogue chunks as they have a habit of developing into infodumps or exposition.

Alongside all of these tips, be sure to examine dialogue anywhere you can find it–in books, TV shows, even in real life conversations. It’s often said you can write only as well as you read. I think it can also be said you can only write as well as you hear.


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