How To Write Good Dialogue: Ten Tips

In the first of our four part 'Teach Yourself To Write' series, Irving Weinman, a published writer and creative writing tutor explains how to write great dialogue...

Irving Weinman

TIP 1 - Show, Don't Tell

Remember that dialogue is part of the action of fiction. Dialogue doesn't tell the readers about the characters, it shows who characters are. Four key qualities of good dialogue are that it: 1) keeps the story or novel going; 2) reveals the characters; 3) is believable; 4) interests the readers.

2 - Listen To Yourself

The first and best source of the dialogue you write is your own speech. You've been practicing dialogue all your life. You speak in a range of emotions - anger, fear, love, loathing, joy and revulsion. You speak in a variety of speech levels - formal and informal, standard and slang, curses and expletives you haven't deleted. Your speech also includes a mix of jargons reflecting your work and interests - baking, banking, bowling, gardening, garage bands, plumbing and physics.

3 - Listen To Others

Use the dialogue of other people. Become more aware of how other people speak, how they emphasize certain words and swallow others. Listen to the sound of their voices. Are they deep or high and piping? Are they rough or syrupy? Are they questioning even when they're not asking a question? or do they chuckle though they're not saying anything funny? Listen!

4 - Read

Use the dialogue written by others. No, this doesn't mean you copy out their dialogue. It means take a close look to find out what it is that you particularly love about the dialogue in favorite books. Try to achieve that with the speech of your own characters. The same goes for dialogue in plays, films and TV that catches your ear.

5 - Read Out Loud

After writing a scene of dialogue, put it away for a while. Then go back and don't just re-read it, read it out loud! That's right: read it out at the speed and with the emotional tone you would as if you were the character speaking it. Reading your dialogue out loud helps you to hear if it works.

6 - Supportive Narrative

How much supporting narrative should you write for your dialogue? Enough. In other words, you can't decide before you actually write it. Supporting narrative is used for identifying the speaker, indicating speech tone, describing the speaker or listener's facial or bodily expression or action, stating unspoken thoughts or expressing the narrator's reflections or observations. Some dialogue may have no supporting narrative, some may have more narrative than there is dialogue.

7 - Vary Forms

Dialogue can be used in other forms than in scenes and narration to enliven fiction. It can be used in monologues, that is, a character's very long speech (not first-person narration), in which part of it can be shorter bits of dialogue. Dialogue can also occur in thoughts, as when a character remembers or imagines conversation. And dialogue can be presented in letter, in diaries, as telephone conversations, voice messages, even as emails or texts (she sd u r a fool bt u dnt fool me).

8 - Indirect Speech

Use indirect speech, for example - She said that I was a fool - as a good way to shift smoothly from narrative to dialogue or from dialogue back into narrative.

9 - Foreign Dialogue

When you present a foreigner speaking English, remember that a little bit of accent, or odd grammar, or lack of idiomatic speech goes a long way. As for presenting foreign dialogue, either be direct: She said in Estonian, 'You are a fool,' or write it in Estonian and have a character translate it. You can also use character reaction and comment to give your reader a good idea of its general meaning.

10 - Beware Of Slang

Remember that nothing dates as fast as slang. So if you're writing a scene in which two fourteen year olds are talking to each other and there's nobody around of that age, do a little research. The slang you used when you were fourteen in the 1980's or 90's is pretty much a dead language!

Write Great Dialogue is published on 30 November, by Hodder & Stoughton. Join the conversation at: @TYCWriting.