How do they do that?
When I first got started as a writer, I found myself asking that question an awful lot. Maybe more than I should have, yet I would always sit in awe each time I encountered a writer who managed to turn a blank page into a work of art. Be it careful control of a scene, meticulous attention to detail, or the writer’s ability to simply tell a good story, I would often find myself wondering just how they did it.
While the writer’s voice is an important part of writing, there are conventions to almost every aspect of the craft.
One aspect of writing that will forever haunt me, perhaps more than any other, is dialogue. When writing fiction of any kind, dialogue is an extremely important element to all areas of story and character development, but for me, this was the most difficult concept to grasp.
In this article, I want to show you some strategies for developing better dialogue in your fiction.
Learning Dialects: How do real people speak?
In his genre-defining memoir On Writing, Stephen King states “Good dialogue is a delight to read; bad dialogue is deadly.” As is often the case, Stephen King is not wrong. The question then becomes, how does one define the difference between good and bad dialogue?
That is not as easy to answer, but thankfully, there are a couple of ways to do that.
Read It Aloud
First, read your dialogue out loud, or if you are willing and have a volunteer (think of friends, family or significant others), have a reading with them. If you’re a loner like me, that’s okay, just read all of the lines to yourself.
How do the words sound when spoken aloud?
You can usually spot the clunky spots fairly quickly, but if you can’t, try comparing it with real life conversations. Think about the last conversation you had with a friend. Consider the words they said, and how you responded.
Record Real Life Conversations
Examining the ebb and flow of real-life conversations can be a great writing exercise. Take a piece of the conversation and write it as if it were going into your next novel. If you can, it may even be a good idea to record yourself in conversation (with permission of course!) with someone, and transcribe it all later. What was successful about this conversation that wasn’t apparent on the page?
Everyone has a unique way of speaking and this should become readily apparent as you write the words spoken from the conversation, and make sure to make note of fine points, details, and unique phrases that come up.
While your novels don't have to feature conversations that are painfully realistic, this exercise will help you gather the tools for your writer’s toolbox necessary to navigate dialogue that not only has a realistic feel, but also will be dialogue that your readers find relatable.
Learn from the best: What do your favorites do?
There is really only one person who can decide what is right for you and that is you! Just as only you can decide what genres or stories to tackle, only you can decide how to actually translate those stories from your mind to the page.
With this in mind, sometimes it is best to take a step back and look at those who have influenced you to begin writing. While you should never seek to copy their style or their words, it is okay to really examine and break down what they are doing that you aren’t doing. What is that magical quality about their words? Why does the writing resonate with you the way it does?
When I began my journey into the world of writing as a teenager, that magical writer in my life was Stephen King. There were other favorites and other writers who I admired, but many of the writers I liked were of an older generation, and felt inaccessible, like Bram Stoker or Shirley Jackson.
But King had tapped into levels of my subconscious that I had not known to exist before, and much of that came from relatable characters who had similar conversations the ones my friends and I were having at the time. Be it the kids from Derry, Maine in IT or the post-apocalyptic survivors of The Stand, King’s characters always sounded so real to me; something that many other writers failed to achieve in my teenage eyes.
Let’s take a look at some bad dialogue and discuss what’s going on in it. For this, I will offer up samples of my own writing to be the sacrificial lamb, so-to-speak. What you are about to read is an excerpt from a draft of a novel I wrote some time ago. In it, the novel’s central character is about to reveal to his psychiatrist that he may have played a role in a murder he is suspected of committing:
“My, err- Situation is more complicated than before.”
“How so?” Have you ever felt like you were drowning, looking for a way to the surface?
“It’s complicated.” Or how about in a car that’s just gone off the road, plummeting into a lake far below. Do you know what that feels like? To be staring out into murky darkness, windows spider-webbed and cracking all around you? That was what James felt in that moment. The secrets. The lies. The windows cracked worse and the moment before the water came rushing in went at a snail’s pace. It lasted an eternity.
“Complications are what I am here for. It’s why I make the money I do.” Doctor Pearce waved his hand as if to say “Come on.” James closed his eyes once more, considering what his best course of action was from here.
“I have a secret. One that I cannot talk about.”
“Well, the secret has been revealed to… Several people. It started with three, I was one of the three.
Now three is at least five. Two of five cannot talk, one has and one wouldn’t. If the two talked, it would jeopardize the lives of the other two. The other two are people they care about, love actually.”
“Is the secret embarrassing?”
“Criminal.” Pearce nodded, as if resigned to some dark truth. James was careful never to say exactly what happened, but Pearce was a smart man, far more intelligent than himself, he was sure. He was sure that Pearce knew that Rick did not just walk away.
“Your dreams are telling. And you’re not having them anymore?”
So… What’s going on here? Well, as James, the main character, is beginning his confession, he begins to have an internal monologue describing the feeling of the life crashing down around him. He describes the sensation of being trapped in a car underwater, of feeling the pressure of the water pressing in all around, and of the slowly coming to the realization that there is no way out.
The first issue is obvious: Why wasn’t this included in the conversation? James’s description of this eternal dread that he cannot let out is far superior to what is actually happening with the spoken dialogue between himself and Dr. Pearce.
Second, the dialogue that we do receive is stilted and melodramatic. Consider the fourth to last paragraph, where James is detailing who has discovered the truth about his “secret.” While this might have been a decent way to summarize the situation internally, one must ask the following question: Has anyone spoken a sentence like this ever before? Because if they have, I have never heard it. James sounds as if he is speaking in riddles.
Finally, while there are other grammatical issues that I am sure you can nitpick in the passage, there is one glaring issue that stands out above all others: James’s admission of guilt.
Though the plot dealt with characters teetering on the edge of losing their mind attempting to reconcile their sins to maintain their freedom and sanity, James essentially admits to killing someone, and his doctor just moves on.
Not only are we dealing with disjointed, stilted, nonsensical dialogue, but there is all the opportunity in the world for it to have been good, which might be worse than having bad dialogue that goes nowhere.
Sometimes, when writing a novel (or any work for that matter), self-editing can be a bit like building a jigsaw puzzle. All of the pieces are often present within a first draft, but it is up to the writer to determine how it all fits together.
Then there are those who make it all seem so easy and so effortless that most of us don’t even notice when we have found something magnificent.
Writers known for their sharp dialogue include Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Elmore Leonard, and Harlan Ellison, among others, but for the sake of consistency, I will use another example of my own writing, though one that I feel is much better than the first passage given above.
This excerpt is from a short story called “Of Ghosts and Graveyards,” published on my personal blog in April of 2018. These are the opening lines:
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
The question cut like a knife in the silence, and I shivered at it.
“Ghosts. Do you believe in them?”
“No,” I said at once. Ghosts? What is this about?
“I think we’ve got one,” Harry said, the light reflecting in his glasses, covering his eyes from my view. Had said. God, how long have we been here? Unending eons of time. Overworked and underpaid.
“Think there’s any chance of getting overtime for this?” I waved my hand over the mess of charts and papers, two messy sheathes that once evened out would be about two inches thick each. Reports, reports for this quarter, last quarter, next quarter, not one recording the sixteen-hour days, the time away from friends, and family, not that it mattered to me. Harry’s laugh snapped me back to attention.
“Not a chance,” he muttered, sounding exhausted. I leaned back, watching as the light’s reflection vanished from his glasses, revealing deep luggage, packed for weeks.
“Look, I’m getting the hell out of here, we can finish this tomorrow morning.”
“This is tomorrow morning,” I said.
“Shit,” Harry muttered again, tired eyes looking at the monitor, hidden again in the greenish-blue tint his glasses took on. He ran his hand through dark hair, a lonely gray hair lonely no longer, sprouting up here or there. “I don’t care anymore, man, I can’t take another minute in this damned place.”
“Relax,” I said, knowing it was useless.
“I’ll relax when I’m home,” he said, more upset than anything else.
I said nothing else.
While I won’t spend too much time patting myself on the back, there are a few distinguishing elements I should point out that separate this passage from the first.
The dialogue here is much sharper and focused. There is a constant feeling of driving the plot forward and everything is consistent. The dialogue tells a story, even if one was to cut out all of the extra material, and most importantly, the dialogue always serves a purpose.
This story begins with two characters working doubles in an office where they are responsible for producing technical reports to management, and our nameless protagonist’s admission that he does not believe in ghosts, as well as his quick change of topic, will eventually come back to haunt him (pun intended).
So, what is there to be learned from studying your favorites?
Well, that depends on your favorite writer. King’s dialogue is sharp, witty, and to the point. Characters will very rarely stand around talking about the weather. Instead (and this also works as a general piece of advice for better writing), his dialogue always drives the plot forward. The dialogue serves to develop characters, deepen interpersonal relationships between characters, to tell the reader what they need to know, and to strengthen the internal monologue of the point of view character.
Approaching the classics: Shakespeare and Words
There were two school-related projects in my lifetime that forced me to use dialogue, and both were related to Macbeth. The only difference is that one was in my senior year of high school and one was in my junior year of college. Odd, right?
Strangely enough, I was assigned the same assignment twice, once in a 12th grade classical literature class and once in Shakespearean Tragedies at UNLV. The basics of this workshop type assignment were simple: Imagine a scene that doesn’t exist in Macbeth and write it. Bonus points were awarded in both situations for using period-accurate Elizabethan English.
For the High School version students were given a specific prompt (The Ghost of Banquo confronting Macbeth), and for the college version of the assignment students were allowed to pick any moment from the text and write about something that happened before or after so long as it fit within the story without otherwise disrupting Macbeth’s chronology.
Image: Act V, Scene V from The Tragedy of Macbeth
Workshop-type assignments like this are always the best method for enhancing any part of your writing, but I found this to be especially helpful for writing dialogue because writing what could be defined as Shakespeare fanfiction forces the writer to utilize dialogue and almost nothing else.
While there are many books about writing that feature writing exercises, one of the best places to look for these kinds of assignments is social media.
Twitter has a thriving writing community, and there are many handles and hashtags dedicated to providing both writing inspiration and these kinds of assignments. Some of these include:
Writing Prompts (@WritingPrompt_)
Selected Writing Prompts (@selectedPrompts)
Daily Writing Tips (@writing_tips)
When in doubt, write it out: Practice, Practice, Practice
This leads to my next strategy, and that is to simply write the dialogue and nothing else. Imagine you are writing your novel as a screenplay. Your main characters are standing in a room together. What are they saying?
Like the Shakespearean exercise discussed above, here is another exercise you can perform to help improve your mastery of dialogue:
Locate a work of fiction you have previously written that features several different characters
Select a passage from this work that features characters in conversation
Write a synopsis of the scene, detailing the beginning, the middle, and the end
Rewrite the scene using only dialogue between characters that achieves the same progression and outcome of the original scene
Once you complete this exercise, try it again with another scene. The only way to truly improve is to practice writing dialogue over and over again. While it is helpful to read good dialogue (as good reading always leads to good writing), there is no replacement for actually sitting down with pen and paper (or keyboard and word processor), and writing through it all.
Most importantly: Your characters have a voice, so let them speak!
And this leads to my final point: It is okay to let your characters explore each other. Once your characters have been well-defined in the research process of beginning your novel, they have a surprising way of coming to life in ways that you might not have necessarily expected.
If you leave two characters alone long enough, you might begin the conversation differently than you intended and this is okay. Let them speak for themselves. Do not stunt a conversation because it isn’t what you expected it to be; allow the words to flow naturally.
Imagine yourself as a fly on the wall in the room, taking in the atmosphere. Allow the characters to tell their story, and be there to take it all down.
Never be afraid to let your characters take you on an adventure, you never know where they will take you!
These have been my five methods for learning to write better dialogue. Do you have more tips and tricks to learning better dialogue writing? Is there anything that I missed or you want to talk about next time in the Writer’s Corner? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!
About the Author
Originally from New Jersey, Shane moved to Las Vegas to start his college career. He has now entered his last semester at UNLV and will be receiving a Bachelor's Degree in English and Professional Writing. Shane has also obtained an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice (with high honors), and has written several novels, two of which have been published.