How to Write Better Dialogue

MASH_TV_Cast_1972 public domain
M*A*S*H publicity photo 1972, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dialogue, when done right, advances the storyline, compels readers, and develops characters. When done wrong, it jolts readers out of the story and causes them to lose interest.

REAL-LIFE DIALOGUE VS. STORY DIALOGUE

I don’t know who first said this, but this is the main rule for writing believable and interesting dialogue: Each of your characters should say what only that particular character would say, if he had all day to think about it first.

A great example of this rule is the TV show M*A*S*H. Written in the setting of a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean war, M*A*S*H stayed funny and meaningful and wildly popular in no small part because of its dialogue. Every spoken word advanced the story with clever commentary that rang true to the character speaking.

In real life, no one consistently fires off witty remarks, without skipping a beat, every time he talks. And in real life, no one innocently says things that unintentionally come out either poignant or hilarious in turn. But M*A*S*H ran for eleven seasons, through 256 episodes, won multiple awards, and was praised by real-life M*A*S*H veterans for its realism. The takeaway? Keep your dialogue true to character, but never lagging.

CUSSING, SLANG, AND REGIONAL OR CULTURAL DIALECTS

As a rule, avoid cussing, slang, and regional or cultural dialects. Some writers argue, “but that’s how people really talk.” Sure. You want realism. A fine line separates realism from distracting the reader away from the story, though, and the trouble is, only the reader can tell where that line is for him or her. Slang is quickly outdated, and dialect easily turns to stereotyping or gibberish if it’s not your dialect and you wield it wrongly. And you won’t know if it’s wrong until someone tells you.

A good percentage of my pay comes from non-American English speakers who tried to write an American dialect and failed. Companies hire native-born Americans to fix the language when it is technically correct, but it’s still somehow “wrong.” Only someone saturated in the culture can fix it.

An Amazon product description for a makeup applicator reads: “A sponge with a nap that glides across the skin. Applies and blends minerals like no other sponge. Non-latex washable and will last forever use to take off any excess minerals use to add more minerals where needed for camouflage.”

And that doesn’t just go for other countries, it goes for subgroups within your own culture, too. I once turned down a job writing about snowboarding, because I knew that I could never get the language right. I’ve played in snow, I know people who casually snowboard, and I research, but a serious snowboarder would see right through me, because snowboarders have a subculture with its own dialect, and I’m not a part of that subculture.

That is not to say you can never use cussing, slang, or dialects. If you’re writing about your own subculture, go for it. If you’re writing a historical novel, the slang and dialect will never get outdated. If your story’s in the future, your readers will grok it if you make up slang. Writing is art, and art breaks rules. But tread lightly.

talking-heads-2 publicdomainpicturesdotnet
Artwork by Fran Hogan publicdomainpictures.net

TAGGING DIALOGUE

Newbie writers use a variety of verbs to tag dialogue. Whispered, yelled, sobbed, etc., describe the sound the speaker makes when talking, so they can be used in moderation. But non-speech-related verbs just sound odd.

“What do you mean?” Jane heaved.

“As I told you,” Mark slung back, “I want a divorce. You can’t hold me.”

Jane simpered, “The children stay with me.”

Newbie writers also use character names in dialogue in place of tags. But no one talks like that, so that makes your characters sound like they’re reading a script. Don’t do that either.

“What do you mean, Mark?”

“As I told you. I want a divorce, Jane. You can’t hold me.”

“Mark, the children stay with me.”

A simple he said or he asked sounds better, even if you say it again and again. Simplicity in tagging dialogue keeps the focus on what your characters are saying. That’s the interesting part.

Jane asked, “What do you mean?”

“As I told you,” Mark said, “I want a divorce. You can’t hold me.”

“The children stay with me,” Jane said.

Even better, though, is using the action of the story to tag the dialogue. Give your characters personality and movement and leave out talking about talking whenever you can. In the following, notice that paragraph breaks mark the dialogue breaks, and no tags are actually used.

Jane picked at the threads of her sweater. “What do you mean?”

“As I told you.” Mark took a deep breath, but did not turn to face her. Instead, he kept his head down, toward the drink in his hands. “I want a divorce. You can’t hold me.”

She stood, feet apart, hands on her hips, her eyes fixed on the back of his head. “The children stay with me.”

See? That’s better, isn’t it?

Next time we’ll talk about Punctuating Dialogue. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Share your questions or writing progress!


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