If you need a list of tips on how to write character dialogue in a novel, this is one post you need to read! Scroll down to get some practical advice on writing dialogue in your novel.
1. Listen to people’s conversations
The first step in writing good dialogue in a novel is knowing and understanding how people talk. In order to gain that understanding, you should listen to people’s conversations whenever you get the chance. While out and about in the world, you have many opportunities to listen to people talking.
Of course, we do not mean that you should snoop or be obvious about it. We’re talking about those situations in life where you cannot help but overhear other people’s conversations: at the grocery store, waiting in line at the bank or post office, or even at a family gathering or a gathering with friends.
While listening, try to concentrate on what words they are using, what information they are conveying, how they are doing so, and how often they address each other by name (or not address each other by name).
Moreover, be present and mindful while you’re having conversations with other people. Note how your friends are talking to you, how your family members talk with you, and absorb all of that information in a passive manner. This will help you write the kind of dialogue that is as close as possible to real life.
2. Make the conversation only sound realistic
When two people are talking in your novel, your first step should not be marked by constraint or restraint. Allow yourself to write the dialogue as you see fit. Ensure the characters share all the information they need to share, in a manner that sounds most natural for them as per their characterization. Do not have any fear that you might have written too much dialogue.
Because after that, the next step is going to involve a lot of editing. You will need to look out for a lot of things, which we will cover in the tips below this one. The goal here is to make the conversation only sound realistic.
Real life conversations are lengthy, messy, and have a lot of repetitions. When two people talk on the phone, it always starts with a hello (and this happens when you see someone in real life as well). In a book, writing four or five lines of dialogue relating to just saying hello or making small talk with bore the readers.
As such, the goal is to make the dialogue – or conversation – only sound realistic. People rarely talk in real life the way characters talk in movies or novels, but, we all wish we did. After writing your lengthy, messy dialogue, prepare yourself for a lot of editing as per the rest of the tips below this one.
3. Give each character a voice and a goal
Each character needs to sound unique. They need to speak in a manner that is not only a reflection of who they are, but also a reflection of how they see the person they are talking with. For example, a character might have a strict voice and talk in a short, clipped manner with someone they do not like, but that demeanor might change if they are talking to a child.
Moreover, when two characters speak in absolutely the same manner, you’re writing dull dialogue. Even the dialogue tags that mark who is speaking each sentence will not matter. So, make sure that each character speaks in a voice and manner that is reflective of their characteristics.
Another thing each character also needs is a goal during the conversation. They would be either aiming to get some information from the other person, or they could be aiming to hide some information. Ideally, the most compelling dialogue happens when one person wants to get information while the other one is hiding it.
The conversing characters having opposing goals is the best thing you can do to write compelling dialogue. If two characters are talking and just agreeing with each other, it can get dull and boring.
4. Use contractions and forget about grammar
Contractions are words that have been created by combining two words that usually go together, like “I don’t” instead of “I do not.” The use of contractions in dialogue is advisable, if we’re talking about a contemporary novel set in modern times. Historical fiction or historical fantasy, on the other hand, might have different dialogue rules where contractions would be inadvisable.
The reason why using contractions is advisable is because we do that in real life all the time. We rarely say “I do not know,”. We say “I don’t know,” or even shorten it to “I dunno,” in speech.
The same applies to all other contractions. We rarely say “I cannot”, we say “I can’t” or even just “Can’t.”
Additionally, in real life, people rarely speak with proper grammar. They make mistakes. Your characters should make some grammar mistakes when talking. Not huge mistakes, but minor slipups that would be just enough to ensure that the dialogue sounds like two real people talking.
Of course, if a character is erudite or an academic, or if it makes sense for them to speak without contractions or grammar mistakes, then by all means, have them speak in that manner because that will help with their characterization.
5. Omit unnecessary bits of dialogue
We mentioned earlier how oftentimes, in real life, conversations can be repetitive. We often make small talk that is irrelevant, in order to just talk. As such, try to omit unnecessary bits of dialogue.
There is no need for the initial greeting of a “Hello” to be mentioned over a phone call, unless it’s needed. For example, if a person is getting a phone call from an unfamiliar number, it makes sense that when they pick up, they will say “Hello” in probably an uncertain manner.
But, when a character simply thanks one another, or bids goodbye and hangs up, you can omit these things and jump straight to the next action.
6. Have a reason for using character’s names
In real life, people address each other by name quite rarely. In a single conversation, you might address someone by name if you are in a room together and specifically need their attention but they are not even looking at you. So, if your characters are present in the room and making eye contact, then you do not need to have a character address another character by name.
When they do address each other by name, it should be for important reasons. For example, perhaps one character is being overbearing or excessive in their reaction to something, and so the other one simply addresses them by name and trails off in an ellipsis.
Or, a couple in a romantic novel might have an argument. After spending a lot of time addressing each other by pet names or nicknames, one person suddenly using the full name of the other person has meaning. Another example, in any kind of novel, is a mother addressing their child by their full name (usually used in a humorous manner).
7. Add subtlety and subtext
In dialogue, less is always more. Absolutely always. If there is something that you can convey with as minimal dialogue as possible, then by all means, proceed to do so.
For example, perhaps two people are talking, and one is trying to convince the other to join them to do something. The other person is simply silent. So, one character talks and waits for the other one to respond. When they don’t, the first character tries again, listing some benefits. The other person is still silent. The tension for the first character builds each time they have to speak. And then finally, the person might just nod, or say “No.”
Or, maybe one person is asking another person how they feel after something bad or traumatic happened to them, and they say a short “I’m good,” or they can be sarcastic and say, “Peachy.” There is no need for elaboration, because just that is enough.
8. Use accents, dialects, slang, and foreign words sparingly
In an attempt to differentiate characters, writers often fall into the trap of overusing accents, dialects, and slang. They use accents and dialects in dialogue ensure the readers understand that a person is from Scotland or Ireland or Southern USA, for example. They use slang to convey the person is a teenager, or that they come from a certain part of the town/city or the country where the novel takes place. They also tend to overuse foreign words to indicate that a character is foreign and English is not their native tongue.
You can certainly indicate that a person is speaking with a certain accent or in a dialect that shows they come from Scotland or Southern USA. You can also use slang a few times to remind the readers that the speaker is a teenager, or that they come from a certain place where such slang is used.
But, you do not need to use accents, dialects, or slang every each time that character speaks. It’s enough to describe their accent once, or use slang only a few times. After that, leave it to the reader to imagine how that character sounds.
Additionally, foreign people who talk in English do not slip so often in their mother tongue when talking. So, save those moments for when something really important happens as a sign of losing control because of their emotional reaction to whatever has happened.
9. Write simple dialogue tags
A dialogue tag is a small phrase, usually consisting of two words, that comes before or after the spoken words of the dialogue. It indicates which person is speaking. For example, in the sentence:
“I am leaving next month,” Alice said.
The words “Alice said” are a dialogue tag.
Another trap that writers fall into is using a lot of adverbs as well as verbs to replace the word “said.” In fact, the opposite is better. The word “said” by itself is invisible, and it can actually help you to keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue itself, instead of detract their attention from the actual words.
For example, let’s say that a person is recounting something bad that happened to them. Let’s say that a woman is telling her friend how her boyfriend broke up with her. You might be tempted to write it like this:
“He told me he never wanted to see me again,” she cried tearfully.
It might be better to write it like this:
“He never wants to see me again,” she said, tears falling down her cheeks.
In the second example, the crying in a high-pitched voice is implied by the tears on her cheeks, and the fact that he told her he never wants to see her again is implied, though not outright re-told, by how she says “He never wants to see me again.”
10. Do not forget action
It is easy when writing dialogue to forget what might be happening around the characters who are talking, especially if more than one person is present at the time. However, when we have a conversation with another person, we are rarely standing still like two robots. We gesture with our hands, we pace, or lean forward or backward.
As with the previous example, someone might be crying when talking, or they might be laughing. A conversation can be interrupted by a passing car or a train, if the two people are outside. As such, consider adding little breaks in the conversation caused by outside forces or in the environment (for example, the presence of a child or a pet).
As stated in the previous tip, be careful of using verbs to change the word “said”, but also, do use those verbs to convey a certain action – if that action is absolutely needed. But, it is always better to describe the action after the word “said” instead of replacing the word with the action itself, like “cried”, “explained”, or “commented”, and more.
11. Do not use dialogue for exposition
This is the biggest trap that young and inexperienced writers fall into – using one character to convey something (worldbuilding-related, or something that happened in the past) to the other person. In colloquial terms, one might say using dialogue for info-dumping (i.e. sharing a lot of information about the world, the story, or a character at once).
Oftentimes, writers believe that using dialogue to do this instead of explaining some things outright is better. However, there is nothing more annoying for the readers than dialogue info-dumping.
Even if your protagonist is unfamiliar with something and needs an explanation, try to keep that explanation to a minimum, and try to break up the conversation in such a way as the readers do not feel that they received a lot of information at once just for the sake of receiving it.