The ability to write convincing dialogue is an essential skill for any fiction writer. Dialogue can make or break a story. It is a crucial element in storytelling that brings characters to life and helps readers connect with them. Good dialogue should not only reveal character traits, but also move the plot forward, build tension, and create an emotional connection between the reader and the characters.
Here are 10 tips on how to write convincing dialogue in fiction:
1. Make it sound natural
Dialogue should sound like real, but polished, conversation. It should never be a word-for-word transcript of how people speak in real life with all the ums and repetition. Written dialogue should be a strategically revised version of how people talk, with unnecessary filler words and repetition removed.
One way to make dialogue sound natural is to read it out loud. This helps you identify awkward phrasing, overly formal language, and stilted conversation. It’s also helpful to listen to how people talk in real life, paying attention to sentence structure, slang, and regional expressions.
2. Show, don’t tell
Good dialogue should reveal character traits, emotions, and motivations without explicitly stating them. Don’t just tell the reader that a character is angry, let them yell “I can’t believe you did that!” and slam their fist on the table. The reader can infer the character’s anger from their behavior and tone of voice.
3. Use subtext
Oh, subtext. Subtext is the underlying meaning behind what characters say. It is what they really mean, but do not explicitly state. Subtext can add depth and complexity to dialogue, and create tension between characters.
For example, a character might say “I’m not hungry” when they really mean “I AM hungry, but I’m upset with you and don’t want to eat with you.” The subtext adds depth to the conversation and reveals the character’s true emotions.
4. Use dialogue tags sparingly
Dialogue tags are words used to indicate who is speaking. They include “he said,” “she asked,” and “they replied.” While dialogue tags are necessary to avoid confusion, they can become repetitive and distracting if overused.
Instead of using dialogue tags for every line of dialogue, try using action beats to indicate who is speaking. Action beats are actions or descriptions that accompany dialogue, such as “he poured himself a drink” or “she looked out the window.” This not only adds variety to the dialogue but also helps create a mental image of the scene.
5. Use dialect and accents carefully
Dialect and accents can add authenticity to dialogue, but they should be used sparingly and carefully. In fact, I would say that unless you are an expert (you grew up speaking with the dialect), tread with extreme caution. Writing convincing dialogue in dialect or with an accent can be difficult to read and can distract from the story.
If you do use dialect or accents, use them consistently and sparingly. A few well-placed words or phrases can convey a character’s background or regional identity without being overwhelming.
6. Embrace silence
Not all dialogue needs to be spoken. Sometimes, silence can be just as effective at conveying emotion and creating tension. Pauses and nonverbal communication can say just as much as words.
For example, a character might pause before responding to a question, indicating they are considering their answer. Another character might fidget or avoid eye contact, indicating discomfort or guilt.
7. Avoid exposition
Exposition is information that is necessary for the reader to understand the story but is not conveyed through action or dialogue. It can be tempting to use dialogue to convey exposition, but this can come across as clunky and artificial. Do a word search for the phrase “as you know.” It it comes up in dialogue, you should cut that line and find some other way to get the information across.
Instead of having characters explain things to each other, try to convey information through action or description. For example, instead of having a character explain their entire backstory in a conversation, have them look at a photograph or visit a place from their past.
8. Vary sentence structure and length
Good dialogue should be varied in its sentence structure and length. Monotonous dialogue can quickly become boring and predictable. Using a variety of sentence lengths and structures can add rhythm and flow to the conversation.
Short sentences can create tension and indicate urgency, while longer sentences can convey a character’s thoughtfulness or uncertainty. Varying the structure of the dialogue can also help create a unique voice for each character.
9. Use contractions
This one seems like it would go without saying, but I’m actually surprised how often I see clunky, word for word dialogue in early drafts. You should absolutely use “can’t” instead of “cannot” or “it’s” instead of “it is.” Using contractions in dialogue can make it sound more natural and help create a conversational tone.
However, it is important to use contractions appropriately. Not all characters would use them, such as those who speak in a more formal or archaic style. Similarly, it may not be appropriate for a character who is angry or upset.
10. Stay true to the character
Every character should have a distinct voice and way of speaking. Dialogue should be consistent with a character’s personality, background, and motivation. A character’s dialogue might also change over time as they experience character development.
For example, a character who is shy and introverted at the beginning of the story may become more confident and assertive as they grow. Their dialogue should reflect this change in their personality.
Keep it real
Writing convincing dialogue in fiction is a skill that takes practice and attention to detail. Dialogue should sound natural, show rather than tell, use subtext, and avoid exposition. Dialogue tags and accents should be used sparingly, and sentence structure and length should be varied. Above all, dialogue should be consistent with the character’s personality and motivation.
Do you have any tricks that you use for dialogue in your stories? If so, drop them below. I always love to hear how other folks navigate these tricky waters.