So said Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of written dialogue and one of my biggest influences as a writer.
These tips were mostly inspired by his genius, not my own. But they are guidelines that serve me well.
DIALOGUE TIP #1
Dialogue should always do something to advance the plot or help to develop a character. Ever notice how people on television and in movies never end a phone conversation by saying, “OK, see you later. Bye.” The person always seems to make one final funny or inflammatory remark and then end the call.
In written dialogue, you can leave out the mundane openings or closings of spoken dialogue. They’re implied. And you should never start a thread of dialogue with throwaway comments or you end up with something horribly boring, like this:
“Hi,” I said
“Hi,” she said.
“How are you?” I asked.
“OK,” she said. “How are you?”
“Are you going to that party this weekend?” I asked.
Can you imagine having to sit through that kind of boredom just to get to the story? Me either. So make sure every scrap of dialogue in your story does something to advance the storyline or help establish character development. If it doesn’t, throw it out.
DIALOGUE TIP #2
Dialogue tags are those “he said”/“she said” parts of the sentence that let the reader know who is speaking. The important thing to remember about dialogue tags is you can’t get too cutesy with them. When a reader sees “he said” or “she said,” they aren’t really distracted by it. Their brain processes the necessary information (i.e. who is speaking), but the words “he said” or “she said” are like wallpaper. They just fade into the background.
What is distracting for a reader is if you try to mix it up every other sentence by using dialogue tags like “she replied,” “she gasped,” “he grunted,” “she squealed.” Unless you are really trying to illustrate a specific mood or, again, working to develop characterization, “he said” or “she said,” or “[insert character name] said” is perfectly fine. Be really selective about using descriptive dialogue tags.
DIALOGUE TIP #2 1/2
When a character is saying a lengthy piece of dialogue, it can also be helpful to split up the sentence. Sometimes it just flows better.
For example: “This is insane,” Maria said as she scratched at a bug bite on her arm. “I can’t believe we are sleeping outside for three nights. Being outdoorsy sucks.” The alternative is “This is insane. I can’t believe we are sleeping outside for three nights. Being outdoorsy sucks,” Maria said as she scratched at a bug bite on her arm. Read both of those passages out loud. Which one flows better? Which one helps keep you focused on who is speaking? Which one adds some action and characterization to break up the dialogue?
DIALOGUE TIP #3
Always edit out loud. Find a quiet place and read your writing out loud to yourself. This is true of all writing, not just dialogue. You will discover many issues with flow and tone just by editing out loud.
DIALOGUE TIP #4
Listen to the way people speak. Spend as much time as you can eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants and stores. Really listen to sentence structure.
Look at the two examples here: “Are you serious? You went on a date with him? But he’s totally creepy. And his clothes…the absolute worst.”
And now this: “Are you serious that you went on a date with him? He’s totally creepy and his clothes are the absolute worst.”
Look at how the first example is punctuated compared to the second. The first one is punctuated to illustrate how someone might talk to a friend. The second example is how someone would present the same sentiment in a written format. Read both of them out loud with appropriate pauses for punctuation. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Keep in mind that writing dialogue is very different from your typical writing. Dialogue isn’t always grammatically correct. How many people do you know who use the word “whom” in casual conversation? Hopefully none, but the point is that dialogue should sound natural in the reader’s ear, not forced and fake. Grammar is important, but not at the expense of good dialogue for your story.
AND THE MOST IMPORTANT DIALOGUE TIP OF ALL...
Practice. The more dialogue you write, the better you’ll get at it. Authenticity in dialogue doesn’t just come from having a good ear, but from practice, practice, and more practice. So keep writing!
Kat Spears has worked as a bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter (not the artistic kind). She holds an M.A. in anthropology, which has helped to advance her bartending career. She is the author of Sway (Sept. 2014) and Breakaway (Sept. 2015), both published by St. Martin's Press. Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr under @katwritesbooks and listen to the Spotify playlists for her novels under katbooks.