Blog: Books - Writing great dialogue

A novel without dialogue is like a long-haul flight in the economy section of the aeroplane. It is tedious, hard going, and your readers will be wishing for the journey to end. But with the perfect combination of description and dialogue, a novel is lifted to another level above the clouds. For the reader, it’s as though they’ve been seated in first class.  

Dialogue between characters is essential to any novel as it carries out many basic functions. It can set the scene, reveal character, quicken pace, further plot, foreshadow events, divulge a theme, provoke emotion and convey information to the reader.

Not every scene in a novel needs dialogue and there is no formula as to how much dialogue a novel needs or what the correct balance is between conversation and description. But if a writer knows where their story is heading and knows their characters well, this balancing act should be relatively simple and come quite naturally. 

IMAGE: Unsplash - Luke Ellis-Craven

IMAGE: Unsplash - Luke Ellis-Craven

But there are a few rules that a writer should follow when it comes to writing dialogue. 

·     Dialogue should do more than one thing in a scene (see above).

·     Dialogue must perform a task and never be inert. It ALWAYS has a purpose.

·     It should distinguish characters from each other as every person speaks differently.

·     A little is a lot when it comes to swearing. A character who swears heavily can come across as aggressive and angry when you don’t intend them to

·     Less is often more. Think about the importance of silence, pauses, a raised eyebrow and what is not said during an exchange.

·     Stephen King said, ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs.’ Use them sparingly. It is stronger to say, ‘Emily roared’ than ‘Emily said loudly’, so follow the master’s advice. However, tags such as murmured, shouted, whispered and snarled can distract the reader. If you have the dialogue right, then you shouldn’t need them. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Highly commercial fiction and YA literature will have more markers for readers.

·     Eliminate the useless elements of speech, such as ‘Hi! How are you, today?’ The reader should always feel as though they are walking into a conversation that has already begun. 

A conversation between two or more people in a story is a dance. There has to be a rhythm to it. If you read it aloud, you’ll be able to tell if it flows and hums, if there is a music to it. When I’m writing dialogue, I read it aloud. When I’m developing a dialogue, I rehearse the conversation aloud. It’s a simple technique and it works. 

The author’s job is not to replicate real conversations. That would be boring. The author’s job is to condense what would be said in real life so that meaning is conveyed without the unnecessary bits. 

Some authors have a talent for dialogue. Others find it hard work. If you’re in the latter category, read plenty of great dialogue. Toni Morrison, Elmore Leonard, Barbara Kingsolver and John Steinbeck all write excellent dialogue. See HERE for some more, wonderful examples.

Finally, listen to the dialogue in great films and quality TV shows, and to everyday conversations you happen to overhear as you’re waiting in line to use the economy bathroom.

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