Dialogue is a vital component of any movie or TV show but it’s often overlooked in reading, where it’s replaced by description.
Dialogue is truly the voice and soul of your book, so it’s important to keep it fresh and interesting the whole way through. If your dialogue is a tad boring or clunky, even the best characters will fail to come alive for your readers.
So if you’re looking for ways to make your characters talk more believably, here are seven tips you can use to bring out their personalities and increase the reading experience.
1. Connect dialogue to character AND plot.
Many people think of dialogue in terms of its rhythm and cadence—and that’s an integral part of it—but we’ll start with the basics.
Dialogue has two main functions: to advance the plot and to reveal character. Those two functions are often at odds with each other, so how you handle them will shape every bit of dialogue you write.
The words in your writing should never get in the way of your story; they should just be tools helping you tell it. For example, when you’re putting together an argument between characters, remember that their words are not just there as filler; they’re there to reveal something about their personalities and your story’s themes.
Now, think of revealed info as either “new” or “confirmatory.”
Confirmatory info is already known by the reader (or can be inferred from previous scenes), whereas new info is what you’re trying to reveal for the first time. The former might not feel like dialogue at all—in fact, it’s pretty rare for characters to say, “I know that Bob went to the store,” or “We’re in a car right now.” In other words, confirmed info isn’t really effective dialogue (unless you’re reiterating it as part of another plot device.)
To make your dialogue meaningful, you need to ensure that when a character talks, they’re doing something other than simply informing us of something we already know. You want them to convey new info or a change in the relationship between two characters.
To do this, you need to connect the dialogue to one of three things: character (the way they say something), plot (what’s happening around them), and theme (what the words symbolize).
2. Nail your dialogue tags.
When you read a book, the characters are talking to each other in your mind. You get a sense of their personalities, the way they move around their world, and even their body language.
I’m sure at some point, we’ve all been reading along, then had to stop and reread something because it didn’t make sense—turns out it was because of that awkward “he said” or “she said.”
Dialogue tags are a necessary evil in writing.
First, they provide a visual cue needed to keep track of the story’s flow.
Second, they reinforce the tone of the dialogue and the relationship between the speaker and the listener.
Finally, they signal to the reader when it is okay to pause and take a breath.
However, overusing or underutilizing these tags can ruin what could have been a beautiful piece of writing.
In a rush to get their points across, writers sometimes forget that there are more than just the basic dialogue tags: “said” and “asked.”
Here are some tips for making sure your dialogue tags don’t fall flat:
- Use “said” sparingly
- Pick one or two specific words for each character
- Don’t use “he said,” “she said,” etc. unless you’re trying for some effect
- Avoid repetition
- Vary your dialogue tags
This might seem overly specific, but you may be surprised how much richer your story will sound if you pay attention to these seemingly small details.
3. Use subtext
Subtext is the single most important thing you need to know about dialogue. In fact, it’s not just a single thing—it’s a whole toolbox full of them. You’ve heard all the old adages, but did you know that there are actually techniques for writing subtext?
Dialogue is one of them!
Subtext refers to the information that isn’t explicitly stated by your characters but can be inferred from their conversation.
Subtext has been around since the dawn of language; it’s in every conversation you’ve ever heard or had. People are always leaving things unsaid with one another, sometimes intentionally and often unintentionally, because certain things are simply more difficult to work into conversation than others.
Dialogue is how characters reveal themselves to the reader; it’s the first time we see their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses. But this kind of revelation can involve more than words.
It requires using non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures to help readers get a sense of what’s going on between characters without having to be told everything (which can come across as heavy-handed or distracting).
It also requires a little finesse with the way you write—not just scripting what they say, but also taking care in how you describe it.
This can mean a lot of things, but here are some examples of what I’m talking about.
A character’s reaction to another character could say a lot about the way that dialogue is coming across. Is the other person smiling? Frowning? Aloof? If your character notices these things, then it should affect how they respond; if they’re not subtle enough to read their facial expressions, then maybe you should consider adding more description to make things more clear.
Another way that subtext and subtlety comes into play is when characters are not saying what they mean. Perhaps there’s an underlying meaning behind their words that hints at something else.
4. Mix up speech patterns
The most common mistake people make with dialogue is having everyone speak in exactly the same way.
You don’t want everyone sounding exactly the same, but it’s also important not to go too far in the opposite direction.
If you have two characters who are from completely different backgrounds or age groups, don’t make them sound like two completely different people—instead, think about how their lives have shaped their speech patterns and try to incorporate those elements into your dialogue in an authentic way.
You could try making one character speak with a lot of slang and another with very formal language—just be sure not to overdo it just for the sake of it.
The goal here is not just to have characters who are different but to have characters who sound different while still maintaining some commonalities.
When everyone in a conversation speaks with the same inflection and sentence structure, it can come off as unnatural, as if you’re just trying to make them all sound alike for some reason.
5. Use different sounds for different characters.
That’s right. I said sounds.
Dialogue is a crucial element of fiction. It’s not just the words that characters say but how they say them that can make or break your story. When you’re writing dialogue, it’s important to remember that each character has their own voice.
This is the one time in your novel when you get to do something like make a character have a Boston accent or give them an odd speech pattern or dialect. A way to make your dialogue stand out even more than it already does is by using different sounds for different characters.
One of the easiest ways is to use different volume levels for each speaker. Just as you would if you were in a conversation with another person, you should be careful when talking over other speakers or abruptly interrupting them.
You may have noticed that in real life, people vary their volume and pitch slightly depending on who they’re talking to and how they feel about what they’re saying. They might speak louder or softer, faster or slower, depending on their emotional state and the tone of voice they want their listener to hear.
Integrating these nuances into your writing can help bring your characters to life and make them seem far more believable than flat conversations with no variation in tone, rhythm, or speed.
6. Watch great dialogue scenes in movies and on TV.
It’s possible you’ve never noticed how movies and TV can inspire your writing, but if you watch closely, you’ll see that the dialogue on screen is chock-full of examples of ways to voice your characters’ thoughts and emotions.
The next time you’re watching a movie or TV show, pay attention to the actual words being spoken, the context in which they’re said, and the tone of voice used to convey them. If a character says something snarky with an underlying hint of kindness, or delivers a line with loving sarcasm, this can be a great inspiration for how to voice your own characters!
Try watching several movies that you would consider to have great dialogue and ask yourself these questions:
- How do the character’s words reflect their personalities?
- How does their speech pattern reflect where they’re from or what kind of background they have?
- How do they react when someone else says something unexpected or surprising?
- Do they curse a lot? Do they make pop culture references? Do they use clichés? Are their insults well thought out or just spur of the moment?
- Can you tell when they’re being sarcastic?
7. Read your dialogue out loud.
In the real world, people tend to speak in shorter sentences than writers often give them. In written dialogue, we tend to give our characters longer and longer lines of dialogue to make it easier on the writer, but it makes it less natural and more stilted.
Not only that, but even when people are talking with just a couple of words at a time, they tend to continually elaborate on those words—they don’t just blurt out one thought and stop there.
If you want to write good dialogue, you have to read it out loud.
There’s a reason why professional writers do this—and that reason is that most of the time, the words sound terrible when they’re just sitting there on the page. It’s not just the spelling, or punctuation, or grammar. It’s their very essence. They’re stilted, stodgy, and dry.
You may have heard of Ernest Hemingway (often misquoted) words to “write drunk; edit sober.” So if we take his advice, we should be able to make reading dialogue out loud an integral part of our editing process too. This isn’t just an exercise in self-editing—it’s also a great way to give your dialogue what it needs: life!
When you read out loud, you’ll notice how certain lines lose some of their impact because they’re too long and complicated. Others are confusing because they don’t say exactly what you meant for them to say. And still, others don’t really sound like something people would really say at all.
All these things can be fixed with a simple rephrase here and there, but only if you listen to how it sounds out loud—and your writing will be all the better for it.
Dialogue Your Way into Your Reader’s Hearts
Dialogue is a great way to develop your characters, but if it’s not done right, readers will notice.
Many writers struggle with dialogue, especially when they’re new to the craft. Dialogue is a complicated beast: you have to capture realistic conversations, and you also have to do it in an engaging way that keeps your readers turning pages. This isn’t easy!
We’ve all read a book where we weren’t all that into the plot, but we still had to keep reading because we were interested in what the characters would say next, or we got so bored of the plot that we skipped over the dialogue anyway.
Once you’ve found the right rhythm for your words, let yourself have fun with it!
Practice makes perfect after all.