Putting Words in Their Mouths | How to Write Good Dialogue in Fiction

by WiseFool

There are many ways that a good story can be ruined, bad dialogue is one of them. So, what are the secrets to writing natural, captivating speech?

There are many so-called rules to writing good fiction. The one golden rule being, there are no rules. Some writers can break all of the 'rules' and still produce a masterpiece.

And the same is true of writing dialogue in a work of fiction. However, in order to write ‘good dialogue’, especially if you’re new to creative writing, there are some guidelines that should be followed.

The Joy of Fiction

What makes the difference between a good book and a bad book?

Anybody who has ever enjoyed a book will know that the secret to a really great read is that you are completely absorbed in, what is essentially, a fantasy world. Part of your brain knows that what you’re reading is the figment of someone’s overactive imagination, but you’re completely sucked in.

While you’re reading, logic loses the battle and you believe (on at least some level) in the fantasy. For a short period, the world that the author has created comes alive. Consequently, whether you’re conscious of it or not, you’re investing a great deal into the reading experience.

If, however, you are unable to invest, believe or become absorbed in that world, the book loses all enjoyment. You are no longer interested in the characters or their plights.

So, what makes the difference between willingly suspending your disbelief and not? Well, I’m sure there are many reasons, but, for me, it is a simple one. If I can see the process involved in writing, if I can sense the author’s ‘hand’ involved, I am no longer able to invest in his or her creation.

We all know a novel has been written, but we don’t want to think about its creation while we’re reading. The author and his or her blood, sweat and tears should, therefore, be invisible. There are many pitfalls, where an author may unintentionally reveal him or herself to the reader, exposing the ugly innards of the creative process - and poor dialogue is one of them.

Why is Good Dialogue Important?

How bad dialogue can ruin an otherwise great story

Like so many things in life, the key to good fiction is in making it seem effortless. One of the quickest ways to remind your reader that your short story, novella or novel has been painstakingly wrenched from your imagination, is to ruin the believability and readability of the story with cringingly awkward dialogue.

We all know bad dialogue when we read it and we’re instantly turned off by it. The simple fact is that you can have wonderfully poetic prose, with swathes of gorgeously descriptive narrative, but, if you put in just one phrase of hideously clunky dialogue, you’ve lost your reader's interest. It really can happen that quickly.

Next time you’re reading a book, try to distinguish what it is that works (or doesn’t work) about it. When you come across a book that doesn’t float your boat, notice how quickly that decision is formed.  Remember, this is exactly how other people are judging your work. Once you’ve lost a reader’s interest, it’s all but impossible to get it back - mostly, because they’ll never pick the book up again.

Not for one second, am I suggesting that dialogue is the only key to keeping a reader captivated and entertained. However, I do think it has importance that can be overlooked by some new writers.

Guide to Being a Bad Writer

How to Be a Boring, Bad Writer

There Are No Rules!

Surely, the operative word is 'creative' writing?

Personally, I do believe that there are no rules to good creative writing. After all, some of the finest works of literature break all of the so-called rules and literary conventions. So, as far as I’m concerned, there is no rule book.

However, I do think that there are certain guidelines that can help keep a creative mind in check. Even if you can recognise good and bad dialogue in other’s work, you may not be so adept at spotting mistakes in your own.

Rather than offer an arbitrary list of dos and don’ts, the following guidelines are intended as suggestions - things to think about while writing or editing your work. With a bit of luck, they will help you avoid the mistakes that could turn your readers off.

6 Steps to Good Dialogue

How to ensure your characters have convincing and captivating voices

As you may have gathered, these are not to be viewed as hard-and-fast rules and there are occasions when some or all of this advice can be ignored. It very much depends upon your characters and your story. However, the following should be borne in mind.

1. Characters’ Speech Should Be Natural

In order to maintain the believability of your fictional world, it is advisable to model your character’s dialogue on normal, natural speech. In order to achieve this, it’s a great idea to spend some time listening to people talk; on the bus, in a restaurant or café, simply listen to conversation and get a feel for various styles and rhythms of speech.

That said, there are some facets of natural speech that should be avoided, as you’ll soon see in the points below.

2. Does Your Character’s Dialogue Have a Purpose?

In natural conversation, people often chime in with essentially irrelevant comments. However, in fiction, if your character is speaking just for the sake of speaking, it may be worth removing the passage. Generally, dialogue should always have a purpose.

So if the speech says nothing about the character or does little or nothing to advance the story‘s plot, you may want to consider removing it. Of course, in some cases, the fact that a character jibbers on meaninglessly may be the trait you wish to present (think Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice), which is fine, but beware that this may make the character annoying or dislikeable.

3. Steer Clear of Clichés

Typically, authors are always on the look out for clichés and avoid them at all costs. However, it can be easy for a dialogue cliché to slip beneath that well tuned radar. Essentially, if it’s cheesy and seems contrived, your reader will instantly be able to see you at work - the thing we’re trying desperately to avoid.

Unless it is obvious that the cheese-factor is part of the character, in which case that needs to be clear in other facets of his or her representation, any kind of cliché is best avoided.

4. Avoid Excessive Hesitation

Again, depending upon your character, you may want to throw this ‘rule’ straight out of the window. However, consider the way you and the people around you speak. Chances are, there are a lot of pauses, ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ - if you transcribed a regular chat, you would notice the jerky, clumsy speech and immediately notice how ugly it seems on the printed page.

Therefore, you should avoid too much of these habits. That's not to say 'umms' and 'errs' shouldn't be used, but I would recommend using them sparingly. If you do choose to use them frequently, for one particular character, to illustrate his or her hesitancy as a personality trait, then it’s a good idea to avoid it in the story's other characters.

5. Get to The Point

Wherever possible, it is a good idea to avoid long, rambling passages of dialogue. Unless, of course, this is character-based. Usually though, in a basic fictional conversation, you’ll find that when editing your work, several words, or perhaps even whole sentences can be trimmed without losing the meaning. So, unless you have a specific reason for setting your character off on a longwinded monologue, it is a good idea to keep things as short and sweet as possible.

6. Make Sure The Words Suit The Character

While listening to others' conversations, you’ll have noticed the individualism of each person's speech habits. Consequently, you need to ensure that each of your characters has his or her own unique voice. It’s essential that they don’t all ‘sound’ the same, because, for a reader, that can become tideous very quickly.

Therefore, it can be very helpful to think about your character; where he or she is from, their culture, what accent they may have, possible speech impediments etc., etc. Make sure that any and all of these individual traits are reflected in the character’s dialogue. For example, if your protagonist is a working-class, London girl, who drops her aitches, make sure you write with this in mind. “Oi, I ’ad that!”

If All Else Fails

How to tell if your dialogue is leaping off the page

If you want to know whether your dialogue is scintillating or stinking, it is a great idea to read it aloud. You may choose to do this yourself or get someone else to help you; having a friend read while you listen or vice versa. Either way, it should allow you to notice any of the obvious pitfalls above.

If the dialogue is easy to read and easy on the ear, then there’s a good chance you’re onto a winner. However, if you find that your tripping over some of the words or that it simply doesn’t flow, then it may be a good idea to rework some of those passages.

More Creative Writing Tips

Exposition is important, and can even be vital, to your short story, novel or play. However, if handled incorrectly or clumsily, it can verge on painful for your reader.
In most cases, characters are the heart and soul of your story. Despite the fact that they only exist in a make believe world, they must be ‘real’ to you and to your readers.
All writers, at one time or another, have suffered the frustration of what feels like a complete creative drought. Read on, to find out how to beat writer's block.
Updated: 05/19/2012, WiseFool
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Sam on 08/11/2012

Thank WiseFool, that is very helpful. Pinned it to my writing tips board on Pinterest, so that I can find it again, SY

WiseFool on 08/11/2012

Hello Sam, glad you found it helpful.

In regard to your question, there's no right or wrong method, and you can, usually, tell if it's going to seem clunky by reading it aloud. However, I would recommend using a nice broad variety of verbs: 'wailed', 'mumbled', 'stuttered', 'snapped'. And, I'd also advise making sure that it's necessary to signpost who is speaking. If it's obvious who's doing the talking, don't bother with anything at all. For example, you're writing a scene with two characters: Bill and Ben, it could go a little something like this:

"I don't know why I have to wear the feather boa," Ben grumbled, folding his arms across his chest.
"Because I wore it last time."

It can only be (or is very likely to be) Bill who responds, so there's no need to add, 'Bill replied'. That can help to break up the repetitiveness of 'he said', 'she asked', etc, etc.

Hope that helps! And thanks again.

Sam on 08/11/2012

Great and very helpful article, but I do miss information about the point on how to integrate dialogue seamlessly in the text. He said: '...' She answered '...' then both said unison '...' are obviously bad examples, but what would be good ones?

WiseFool on 03/12/2012

Hello PDXJPrice, thanks for the comment. I may have to rewrite that passage, because I certainly didn't mean that "umm" and "err" shouldn't be used - just that it shouldn’t be overdone. There's a fine line between writing dialogue that reads 'naturally' and dialogue that reads well. A normal conversation can make for very ugly reading if it is transcribed, so an author has to walk a fine line (for my money, anyway).

PDXJPrice on 03/12/2012

good article. I have always done pretty well with dialogue. I read my parts out loud and I use a lot of contractions and slang, In my career as a proofreader editor and critic, the number one turn off for me is stiff or bad dialogue. I do disagree with you on using words like "umm" and "err" Listen to how people talk... these kind of nonsense words are natural and add a realism to speech. Just don't over use them. One of the masters of dialogue is Quentin Tarantino who says that :when people talk, they just talk. they don't talk about the plot."

Overall, very good advice. Sharing. Take care!

WiseFool on 03/05/2012

Thanks, Lucyl. Glad to hear that the information is useful. When I found the 'bad writer' poster, it made me chuckle, so had to share. Of course, it's also very true.

lucyl on 03/05/2012

A very helpful guide. really like the how to be a bad writer bit.

WiseFool on 03/05/2012

Thanks, Jo. I had never made the association between the Welsh and Yoda before, but you're absolutely right!

JoHarrington on 03/05/2012

I agree with every word of this! As for listening to how things are said, I'd also add that you should pay heed to a person's place of origin. For example, Welsh people structure their dialogue a little like Yoda. (I'm convinced that he's Welsh!)

I'm so glad that you're writing in this section too. It needs to be filled with guides. :D

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