June Writing Series: How to Write Compelling Dialogue

how to write dialogueEvery Friday in June, we’ll be posting a blog in our series on how to improve your writing. From how to improve your writing skills and grammar to how to improve writing style, our June Writing Series is dedicated to livening up your story so that it’s ready for self-publication. Stay tuned for more blog posts on how to write your novel. 


If you’re a writer, but especially a fiction writer, creating dialogue in your stories can prove to be incredibly difficult. A story can be bestseller caliber, but if the dialogue isn’t up to speed, then it will be a flop. The flow of a story depends on what the characters are saying; large parts of character backgrounds and plot progression can be made through dialogue. You need to make sure you know how to write good dialogue. It can improve your writing immensely.

First things first: how to write dialogue (good or bad).

Punctuation is everything in writing. That being said, a good place to start when considering dialogue is how to actually format it. From periods to question marks to exclamation points to… the dreaded comma. We know that comma rules can be confusing, but the more you practice it, the better you’ll get and the better your writing will get. Writers absolutely must know how to write accurately and cleanly.

Here are the basics:

The easy part first. Ending with a question mark, period, or exclamation point? Put it inside the quotation marks.

Example:

Jim asked, “What time should I be there tomorrow?”

“I totally forgot to pick the kids up!” he said.

Kelly said, “We should get coffee sometime soon.”

If you’re ending a statement with the tagline, use a comma, not a period.

For example, if the tagline is before the dialogue, end with a period, like usual:

Kelly said, “We should get coffee sometime soon.”

If the tagline comes at the end, however, end with a comma inside the quotation marks:

“We should get coffee sometime soon,” Kelly said.

If the tagline interrupts the piece of dialogue, it should be set off by commas:

“Could you please,” I said, “stop asking me about this?”

“Honestly, Jessica,” he said, “I don’t care what movie we watch tonight.”

For more of an in depth look at punctuation dialogue, go here.

What makes “good” dialogue? How does this improve your writing?

 

It should sound how people actually talk.

There are many components to “good” dialogue. One of the first being that it should reflect natural human speech. Rarely do people speak in full sentences. Our speech is broken, segmented. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use full sentences in your dialogue. But you should strive to achieve a mixture.

For example, which sounds better?

Example 1:

“Where did you get your top, Sarah?”

“I got my top at Forever 21.”

Example 2:

“Where’d you get your top, Sarah?”

“Forever 21.”

If you said example 2, we’d agree with you. Parse your sentences, let reality sink into your dialogue. If you’re struggling with how to mimic real life, then start listening. Keep notes of how the people around you talk. How do they ask questions? How do they answer them? Do they always talk in complete sentences?

Characters should sound different.

Your characters will differentiate themselves in many ways (or at least they should). From the way they look to the way they act to the, yes, way they talk. Your characters should sound different. Much like how the way your little brother speaks differently than your physics teacher, so too should your characters speak differently.

Example 1:

“Hey, man, how’s it going?” asked Chris.

“How are you?” my mother asked.

The characters of “Chris” and “Mother” shouldn’t speak the same. Allow personality to seep into dialogue.

Example 2:

“Are you hungry at all, sweetie?” Grandma asked.

“You hungry?” Dad asked.

Again, a grandmother and a father are going to speak differently (in most cases), so the way they ask the same question should be different.

The story should be progressed through dialogue.

Have you ever heard of “show not tell”? If not, it’s a method in storytelling in which the author reveals key details through action instead of narration. For instance, instead of the narrator saying, Bethany was having a hard day, the author may show that Bethany is having a hard day by having her break down and cry.

An easy way to show instead of tell is through dialogue.

Example 1:

“You okay, Bethany?” Dad asked me. “You look like you’re going to cry.”

Example 2:

“Hey, hey don’t cry!” Jack said.

See how simple that is?

If the conversation is going nowhere, it’s not necessary.

There can be simple exchanges, such as two characters stopping to say hello and ask each other how the other has been, but if a conversation drags on for a page and a half without having a purpose, you need to cut it. Each conversation should add something to the plot. If it doesn’t, cut it out. For example, if you’re writing a story about a child getting lost in the park, and in the middle of the story the mother has a length conversation with her neighbor about her new yoga class without asking that neighbor if they’ve seen her son, that conversation probably has to go. Don’t ever force unnecessary dialogue. It’ll just bore your reader.

If you’re ever feeling unsure about the dialogue you have written, read it out loud. Sometimes it helps to actually hear it.

Got any additional tips about how to write dialogue? Comment below!

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5 Comments on June Writing Series: How to Write Compelling Dialogue

  1. George Solomon
    July 1, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Great stuff!

    Reply
    • Hannah Gordon
      July 7, 2017 at 2:34 pm

      Thank you, George!

      Reply

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