Is brevity the soul of wit? Often it is – to write good dialogue, you need to be as conscious of what to leave out as what to put in. I’ll discuss both in this post.
Avoid ping-pong dialogue
A scene in which two or more people are having a conversation should be more than just ‘talking heads’. Where are they – and can your description of the location reflect how your viewpoint character feels about it? Does the speaker make gestures or facial expressions? How do people react to the words of others? What does your viewpoint character think about what’s being said, and what does it mean for their story? Can you pace the dialogue through the scene by weaving in these other elements, and add variety too? And remember – if you have many lines of ping-pong dialogue without speech tags, your reader may become confused about who’s speaking. I know I often do!
The Reedsy blog, under ‘further reading’ below, suggests that speech should have no more than three beats (phrases) before you need a dialogue tag, and action, or a switch to another speaker.
Leave out the small talk
This is a matter of trusting the reader. Just as you don’t need to show the nuts and bolts of everyday actions that your character performs, you don’t need all of the hellos and goodbyes, the questions about how a guest likes their tea, etc. Your reader will assume some things.
Of course, some details are included for a purpose – to show something, perhaps, or to slow the pace right down. I discuss this in more detail in my post on ‘housekeeping’, under ‘further reading’ below.
Unless someone is giving a lecture or a sermon, it’s rare for a person to speak for an extended period as though they’ve prepared the speech in advance. A long speech will feel unrealistic, and what they have to say may be more interesting if it’s teased out gradually, considering the points as above for ‘ping-pong dialogue’.
Be realistic – but not too realistic
Characters will have their own way of speaking, their expressions, vocabulary and ‘voice’. Make sure that they dialogue sounds natural – if you’re not sure, then read it out loud. Realistic speech is often less formal than written language. ‘I really do not think that is a good idea’ might sound unrealistic, whereas ‘I don’t think you should do that’ may be more natural. But do leave out the hesitation, the ums and ahs, the backtracking that might realistically happen (unless they’re a firm feature of a particular character’s voice) – they could make things slow and confusing.
Do show how the characters interact
Dialogue can really show how the characters in your story relate to one another, and can give a general view of what key characters are like as people. Showing a character’s responses can also hint at what they’re really thinking, which may not be exactly what they’re saying – and readers enjoy reading between the lines.
Dialogue is a great tool for showing rather than telling your reader about a character – you could show them as irritable, for example, or kind and generous. Just don’t forget that telling has a good place in a story – for reflection and exposition, for example.
Do stay close to your viewpoint character
Sometimes there are actions, sounds, smells etc. that can be experienced by everyone present in the scene. If you want to give the reader a strong sense of being close to a viewpoint character and have the reader experience events as that character does, then keep returning to that character and give their reflections and reactions – things that are specific to them that no one else in the scene can see. I’ve linked to posts on narrative distance and viewpoint under ‘further reading’.
Do use dialogue to move the story forward
Most importantly, dialogue in general needs to move the story forward. Consider what the reader will learn from what’s being said between the characters and how that contributes to the story’s journey.
Dialogue can really give life to your characters and story, and help to centre the story around a character’s experience. Read some out to your writing group, practise and rewrite, and your dialogue will soon be dazzling.
Happy writing, everyone!
My post here, on housekeeping in storytelling, discusses how to maintain the reader’s interest by making sure you only include details for a purpose, and leave out the dull bits.
My post here discusses how to get showing and telling in balance in your writing.
Reedsy’s post here goes into further detail about writing dialogue.
Originally posted 22 April 22