6 Tips For Better Character Dialogue

indexI had never before listened to audio books nor even considered doing so until one day, on a particular long commute, I happened to turn the radio dial to an audio book station—I was hooked.

My preference is to read the text myself but this new station gave me the opportunity to discover books I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen or had the time to read.

On the occasions when my commute time allows for an extended listening of the latest novel, I am not only entertained but also educated. How?

Well, as a writer I have discovered particular storytelling elements and techniques that I would have not discerned when reading.

The fact that I have been able to better perceive the art of the craft when listening makes sense when one considers that storytelling, in its origin, was orally recited. So it is reasonable that one’s ears are better suited to distinguishing the beauty as well as the dissonance in storytelling when one listens.

The discovery I have recently made is that there is an art to dialogue, which shouldn’t be overlooked and cannot be ignored when one hears the text narrated.

Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more people as a part of a book, play or movie. The operative word is “conversation.” Conversation is, by nature, and should be organic, flowing and authentic. Not planned, stilted or forced unless, of course, it is small talk at your neighbor’s Christmas party.

As writers, our main objective is to create characters who are believable, relatable—real. One of the main components to this creation being successful is dialogue.

A writer can compose a character who is imbued with passionate emotion, vibrant thoughts and an exciting course of adventure but if these emotions and thoughts are related, even partially, through strained and artificial dialogue it detracts from the character’s authenticity.

So the question is what constitutes “good” and “bad” dialogue? I suppose that the word choice of “good” and “bad” is a bit polarizing and not entirely constructive. Perhaps it would be better to consider, for the purpose of writing believable characters, the principles that achieve that end.

The following list, although not comprehensive, is a good start.

Don’t Overdo Dialogue Tags

He said, “…” She said, “…” He said, “…” Ugh. It’s particularly grating to hear monotonous tags surrounding otherwise interesting dialogue. Use them just do so in moderation.

Give Action to Your Words

A viable solution to the overuse of “He said,” “She said” is to intersperse the dialogue with action. This doesn’t mean your character should ask a question then waltz around the room. Instead, it’s subtle action that contributes to creating a character who is more textured and interesting. “I saw the body,” he said. vs. “I saw the body,” he gasped with horror.

Don’t Spill Too Many Beans

Dialogue can be an effective means for giving the reader information, however too much can cause characters to seem contrived and cause conversations to become tedious. After all, people in real life rarely give one another recaps complete with time-stamped details unless, of course, the listener has memory issues.

Take the Snore out by taking the Bore Out

Of course you want your characters’ conversations to be authentic, but you don’t want to sacrifice interesting and entertaining for realistic. Rare is the reader who wants to read awkward chitchat or the dull minutia of a character’s day. Good fiction should feel like real life without all the boring bits.

Let your Characters out of the Box

Be careful not to stereotype your characters when writing their dialogue. Don’t rely on slang, profanity or cliches. All contribute to jejune conversation and may distract or alienate your reader from the character, which is precisely the opposite of your objective. Dialogue that is layered and multi-dimensional will reflect characters who are layered and multi-dimensional.

Allow your Characters their own Voice

Try not to force a particular voice onto your characters. Not all detectives talk like Sam Spade and not all organized criminals talk like Bugsy Malone. Instead, choose the words, the tone, the style that reflects the character you have created. If a character’s dialogue feels natural then the character will seem real.

Thank you for reading. I’m excited to hear what you think.

4 thoughts on “6 Tips For Better Character Dialogue

  1. Like audiobooks for you, Video Games helped me find the perfect balance of dialogue for my stories. Even a good viewing of theatre every now and then helped. Listening to dialogue in your ears helps you find out the words which feel unnatural and out of place by a character’s mouth, one that feels out of place when you listen to it, because it is not justified by the character’s style of speaking to give it a place in everyday speaking.
    One more point you should mention for writing better dialogue, which I think you didn’t write on purpose, because of its sheer simplicity is “To observe people speaking.” I feel that it the reason audio books and games and theatre allow us to see various intricacies which we cannot catch while reading. Observing helps us form a baseline on how people talk and react in everyday situations.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Shrey! Yes, listening to people is a great one to add, and it is because of its simplicity that this tip is overlooked. However, it is a very important point because writers often become so wrapped up in creating their characters in a particular way that they forget that these characters are people and therefore, they should emulate people. I never thought of video games–I wonder how many others find this to be a great medium to glean an authenticity for their characters.

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About Sherry Parnell