Dialogue is often one of the clunkiest elements I read in a requested manuscript. It’s difficult to balance the nuances of real-life speech and the guidelines for written conversation, but it doesn’t take much to improve the dialogue you have already created. Here are six steps to improving written dialogue:
Step 1: Sit at a coffee shop and listen to conversations.
Write down fragments of what you overhear. This is the best way to get real-world inspiration for your dialogue. For example, if you’re writing a book about teenagers, then listen in on a conversation between teenagers. No matter your protagonist, you can find real-world inspiration for how they talk, what they care about, and how they connect with other people through conversation. If a coffee shop doesn’t work for your research, then pick another public location. Parks, libraries, bookstores, restaurants… almost anywhere will work.
Step 2: Avoid dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are almost always unnecessary. If two characters in your book are having a conversation, readers don’t need to know who said what after each line. Your readers can assume that the speech is moving back and forth. Dialogue tags can make your writing look clunky and also waste your allowed word count on absolutely nothing.
Step 3: Look up other ways to say “said”.
Even when you try to avoid them, sometimes you will need to use dialogue tags in order to let the reader know who is speaking. And when you do, occasionally find different tags than “said” to keep things interesting.
Step 4: Remove (almost) all name mentions.
Most writers have a bad habit of including characters’ names in speech in the early drafts of a novel. People rarely call each other by name in real-world conversation. Don’t let every line of dialogue start with someone’s name because it’s unrealistic.
Step 5: Get rid of the small talk.
Many people will tell you, when advising how to write dialogue, to make it sound as close to real-life speech as possible. This is one exception. Small talk happens a lot in real-life (how many conversations about the weather have you had in your lifetime?), but it shouldn’t be in your novel. No one wants to read small talk; readers are looking for interesting dialogue that is engaging and moves the plot forward.
Step 6: Read all dialogue out loud.
Go ahead. Do it. Read every single line out loud. Pretend your dialogue is the script of a play and act it out. The way you’ve written it (and the words around the speech) should include hints at the emotion behind the words. Reading your dialogue out loud is the best way to catch errors, judge its compelling nature, and check that it sounds authentic.
Now go forth and write great conversations!