Dialogue is one of the trickiest things to get right. But, when done well, it can carry an entire book on its back. Dialogue that flows, that sounds like the characters, that means something. A reader is willing to read almost anything so long as the dialogue is good.
Here are six ways to immediately improve your dialogue.
Dialogue tags (such as ‘he said’ or ‘she said’) can make or break dialogue. One of the most common pieces of misinformation is that you should avoid using ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ People often say that you should find the word to better match the tone of voice, such as shouted, yelled, called, whispered, etc. This is, in almost every scenario, wrong.
‘He said’ and ‘She said’ are invisible to the reader’s eyes. They make dialogue flow without a hitch. But if the reader’s eyes get caught on every wild dialogue tag, it makes the dialogue feel clunky. Not only that, but it feels like the author is imposing their own will on the reader’s imagination. A reader can infer a character’s tone of voice by the words that they use. When the author hammers them over the head with dialogue tags, it feels unprofessional. It feels like the dialogue lacks subtlety.
Something to especially avoid is a dialogue tag combined with an adverb. “Yelled crazily,” or “muttered inaudibly.” This exacerbates the lack of subtlety by an order of magnitude. More than anything else, readers enjoy figuring things out on their own. They enjoy piecing together clues. If you make everything on your page blatant, the reader will lose interest.
Now, this isn’t a universal rule. Sometimes words like yelled or shouted or whispered are useful. But they are only useful if used sparingly. Stick to ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ whenever you can.
2) Intersperse with Action
Instead of using dialogue tags, you can use action. For example:
“Hey, Frank.” Sarah stood up from her chair and shook Frank’s hand. “Come in.”
This serves a number of purposes at once. First, it sets the scene, and describes the characters. Second, it gets rid of clunky dialogue tags. Finally, it grounds the dialogue in the things that are actually happening in the world. It’s not just two talking heads.
3) Vibrant Voices
What makes dialogue most interesting to read is if the character has a distinctive voice. Think of your favorite characters. If you heard a line of their dialogue — even if there were no tags to distinguish it — you would recognize them immediately.
This ties in with character building itself. A good character has a personality that leaps off the page. They have mannerisms, ticks, habits. They have a way in which they perceive the world that is unique to them. They have thoughts and opinions. They have humor, or lack thereof. All of these things should come across through dialogue.
A good exercise to encourage this is to remove the dialogue tags from a scene of dialogue you have written. Can you still differentiate which character is speaking? If you can’t, it means you aren’t using their dialogue to properly express their personality.
4) Dialogue Serves Multiple Purposes
Good dialogue is always doing multiple things at once. If you ever have a character say something, and the only thing they mean is exactly what they have said, you should take that line of dialogue out.
There is a long list of things that dialogue can accomplish at the same time. I’ll mention a few of them here, but this list is by no means comprehensive. It is entirely up to you what your dialogue accomplishes, but it should always be accomplishing a lot of it.
Dialogue should reveal character. It should progress the plot. It should inform things about the world. It should inform things about character dynamics. It should be filled with conflict. It should convey meaning about the themes of the story. It should be doing all of these things and more, and it should be doing them at the same time.
5) Dialogue Should Be Subtle
If a character is sad, they will never say to another character, “I am sad.” No person ever says exactly what they are thinking. Dialogue is not a brain-to-mouth pipeline. Dialogue is filtered first by the character’s sense of self-consciousness and second by the author’s sense of subtlety.
For example, Earnest Hemmingway has a short story called “Hills Like White Elephants”. In this story, a man and a woman are discussing an abortion, all the emotional weight abortions carry with them. However, the word abortion is never said. In fact, the characters don’t appear to be talking about an abortion at all. Yet the reader can piece together what they mean by subtle clues that Hemmingway provides.
Characters dance around issues. They never mention the elephant in the room. They never explicitly state the things they are thinking about. But they allow these things to enter their dialogue, to color the words they use and the way they talk.
The reader will find no greater pleasure than solving the mystery of what is actually on your character’s mind, but they will be disappointed if the character comes out and says it.
6) Dialogue Should Have Conflict
The most boring thing to read in a story is small talk. If a character walks into a room and there is a half page of, hi’s and how-are-you’s and the-weather-is-nice’s, the reader will put down the book.
Now, characters can have small talk. But that small talk should always be edged with conflict. Something the characters want, something they are prevented from having. Conversations should read like a game of chess. Characters advance their movements, lay traps, pursue objectives, and defend from enemy assault.
Now, conflict does not have to be an argument. For example, two characters in secret love with each other are in constant conflict. Every word exchanged is part of a game to get the other character to reveal their love.
If you ever have a scene of dialogue without conflict, you should either do two things. Add conflict (hidden conflict, outright conflict, even just a subtle sense of tension in the air) or remove the scene.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that goes into dialogue. But if I had to pick a couple of takeaway points, it would be subtlety and purpose. Good dialogue always serves a direct and immediate purpose to the story. But it should also serve this purpose in subtle ways. Good dialogue does not announce its intentions, but should always make them clear. It is a tricky balance to strike — one that I have certainly not mastered myself — but it is an important one to be aware of, and to strive towards.