One of the most difficult aspects of fiction writing to master is creating engaging and natural dialogue between characters. A compelling conversation can make us forget we’re reading at all, while an awkward one is distracting. Today we’ll look at three things to keep in mind when writing dialogue. They aren’t strict rules and, like anything, they can be broken to achieve a specific effect. However, using them as a guide will improve the readability of your dialogue and help conversations feel more natural.
Names in Conversation
A common issue in books I work with is the overuse of names in dialogue. In some cases, characters use each other’s name on every line or even with each sentence. Many writers do this to ensure the reader follows who is speaking, but it can feel forced and stilted.
We rarely use each other’s names in conversation. We may greet someone using his or her name and may even say it again when departing, but that’s about it. When writing dialogue, keep the use of names to a minimum. If you need to use it for clarity, try to use a combination of a name and a title, like “Lisa” and “my sister.” Let’s look at an example.
- “John, I can’t go with you to Chicago. My sister is sick and needs my help,” she said.
“I understand, Lisa. Family is more important and I can handle the meeting,” John replied.
“Thanks, John, I appreciate it.
“I’m happy to help. Please send your sister my best. Bye, Lisa.”
This is an extreme example, but it illustrates how unnatural it sounds to use names too often. With a few small changes, the text flows more smoothly and sounds like a real conversation.
- “I can’t go with you to Chicago,” said Lisa. “My sister is sick and needs my help.”
John nodded. “I understand. Family is more important and I can handle the meeting.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“I’m happy to help. Please send your sister my best. See you when I get back.”
The exception is when special emphasis is placed on a character’s name, like when an angry parent admonishes a child for coming home late. Names can also be helpful in conversations with more than two people to help the reader follow what is being said to whom. However, try to keep this to a minimum and look for other subtle ways to give the reader all the information they need.
After the closing quotation marks of dialogue, we often give a little information about who said the line or even how it was said. This is dialogue attribution, and it is one of the most abused elements of written conversation.
It’s tempting to use this space to give the reader more information about what the character was doing while talking, or (shudder) use adverbs to add emphasis. For example:
- “This is the best coffee I’ve ever had,” she said happily, reaching for the sugar and slowly stirring it into her cup.
The problem here is that the actions overshadow the dialogue. Ideally, the dialogue will stand on its own and be balanced by later description. A couple of small changes will help in this example.
- “This is the best coffee I’ve ever had,” she said. She smiled and stirred a teaspoon of sugar into her cup.
It’s also tempting to use flowery words to attribute dialogue, but this can often detract from it. Expressions like “she chimed in” or “he opined” are intended to give more information about what was said, but like the example above, they are of limited use. Write a separate sentence to explain actions actions, and try to use the dialogue itself to hint at how it’s being said. Be as simple as possible with dialogue attribution. With rare exceptions, stick to the basics like “she said” and “he asked”, with an occasional “she whispered” or “he shouted”.
The result is cleaner, more concise writing that keeps the focus on what the character is saying. When implementing this in your writing, use it as an opportunity to revise dialogue so that all the information formerly in dialogue attribution is clear from the spoken words themselves. If the character is speaking emphatically, choose words that make this apparent.
One of the greatest challenges in narrative fiction is providing enough information for the reader to understand the story’s world without telling them everything bluntly. Supplying this background information is called exposition, and while it is an important part of storytelling, it can easily be misused.
Heavy exposition in conversation often leads to what some critics call an idiot lecture, wherein characters discuss information that would already be known within the story’s world solely to explain it to the reader. The result is fake or unnatural dialogue that can be tedious for readers.
This can take many forms, but some expressions will give it away. Look for lines like, “As you know…” and “As I said before…” Remember, if both the speaker and listener know something, it’s unlikely they will need to discuss it openly.
This also applies to a character’s explanation of a decision or action by referring to the central plot. Imagine a story in which two protagonists are hiding from an invading army and carrying a map leading to the rebels’ hideout. When discussing their next move, one character says to the other, “If we don’t get out of here now, the soldiers will find us and steal the map, which will lead them right to our base.” In this case, the other character will be well aware of the situation.
Instead, focus on new information that suggests the larger picture but does not repeat what everyone already knows. For example, “Last night I heard soldiers walking right past this house. We should plan to leave tonight. The map isn’t safe here anymore.” This helps move the plot forward and makes the dialogue between characters more effective.
We see this frequently in Hollywood blockbusters, where a character will restate the main plot to remind the audience of how things fit together. Books have the benefit of not being limited to what is shown on screen, and what may feel awkward in a movie can be outright agonising in text.
The cure to heavy exposition is called incluing. This is a world-building technique in which details needed for the reader to understand the world and plot are delivered gradually and naturally over the course of the story. One method is to let the reader know new information only as it becomes available to the character in question, particularly if you’re writing from one character’s point of view. When that character speaks, they only mention what they know and what would be relevant to the people listening.
Mastering dialogue is difficult but doable. We’ll look at more tips in our next posts, but in the meantime, these three points will help your conversations be clearer, more natural, and more engaging.
Do you have a great trick for keeping dialogue compelling and clear? Let us know in the comments below.