Tips for Writing Dialogue

Here are some tips for making the dialogue in your novel or screenplay feel real without the waffle…


Hello folks, one day to the haircut. Right, before that, let’s talk about dialogue. There’s a knack to writing  dialogue, and some people have it, and others have to learn it. It’s a bit like playing an instrument. Some people can pick up a guitar and strum chords straight away. Other people, like me, need a little more practise, but that’s fine because soon we’ll all be playing Kumbayah in perfect rhythm.

Now, first thing with dialogue: maybe record yourself having a conversation with someone.

Make sure the other person knows for legal reasons, of course. Make it long enough to forget that you’re recording the conversation to avoid being too self-conscious, then transcribe the conversation. I did this with a friend of mine years ago, back when I first started writing plays, and it was amazing to know just how much waffle and repetition people speak before they actually get to the point. And we’ll discuss waffle in more detail in a moment.

Readers in reviews, they’ll say that they like their dialogue to feel naturalistic and real. But the trouble is, naturalistic and real is waffly, boring and distracting. The knack is to make it sound natural, while cutting out all the excess waffles.

Here are a few pointers; listen to others.

My cousin used to live tweet conversations he overheard on the bus to work and they were always hilarious with phrases that were absolute gems of dialogue. So whenever you hear a colourful exchange or phrase, jot it down in a notebook or your smartphone, you know, send it to yourself, keep a file of them somewhere. You may never use it, but doing this regularly will attune your ear to great dialogue. The more attuned you get, the better and more sparky your dialogue will be.

Cut the small talk.

Every now and then I hear someone complain that, “Oh, people in films never say hello when they pick up the phone. How rude.” There is a reason for that. We cut the unimportant stuff and get to the essence of the stuff that drives the story forward. This comes back to my point about naturalistic dialogue. I’ve literally had conversations that go like this: Mark, it’s your mum. How are you? Good. How are you and Dad? Oh, fine, fine, fine. Oh, good, good, good, good. That’s nice. Everything alright? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s all fine. Lovely, lovely. Good, good. That’s great. That’s lovely. That’s great… Oh your Great uncle died… What!?

You could never get away with that in a novel, unless it was a comedy bit. But the thing is, small talk… If small talk is essential for a character, then maybe fold that into the descriptive prose, you know: Mum called. She made the usual small talk, then hit me with the news. “Mark, I’m sorry, but your great uncle died.”

Next tip: Say it out loud.

I highly recommend talking to yourself. Write the first pass of your dialogue as freely and waffly as you like, go full naturalistic if you want, and then cut out all the fat. How to identify waffle and fat? Well, yeah, you’ve heard of the phrase chewing the fat? Apparently, this comes from small talk that sailors would make when chewing on salt hardened fat while they worked. This kind of chit chat that passed the time, you know. But as authors, we’re not passing the time with idle gossip.

We need to grip the reader. So our dialogue needs to do three things:

One: Move the story forward. Any exchange of dialogue needs to bring us closer to the end. Asking about the weather won’t necessarily do this.

Two: it needs to reveal character. Does your dialogue give us any insight into the character’s feelings and motivations?

Three: Build relationships. Does the dialogue create a dynamic that helps the reader understand relationships? For example, a father might yell at his kids, but be meek around his boss. That tells us something about him. If your dialogue doesn’t meet these criteria, then prepare the cutting snippers, because that dialogue might need to go. And you can get messy.

OK, so while we’re avoiding all the small talk, we can still sound naturalistic with interruptions, overlapping, half-finished thoughts, stammering… All these and more can help make your characters sound distinct.

Now, a quick word on slang, jargon and patois.

Use it very, very sparingly, especially when writing outside of your own experience. There’s nothing more likely to make the reader cringe than, say, a white person writing Jamaican patois, for example.

Some of you might have read the novel I co-wrote, Back to Reality. There’s an Italian character in that, Federica, who has a very distinct way of speaking. But we kept any overt Italian-isms to an absolute minimum to stop her sounding like Super Mario. We also gave it to an Italian friend to read to make sure we weren’t going to be banned from the country for life. You just need a tiny sprinkle of slang, patois to let the reader know the speech patterns, and they’ll hear the voice in their head and create their own accent and rhythm. You know, if you start emphasising it in every sentence of dialogue, it’s just too much. When it comes to jargon — military, police, scientific tech talk, doctors, things like that — use just enough to be authentic and avoid characters telling each other stuff they already know. You know, you get, “As you know, Dr. Smith, we make an incision here…” Use your prose to let the reader know just enough to add two plus two.

Again, I know it’s easier said than done, but it comes with practise. You have to keep the voices distinct as well. How can you stop characters from all sounding the same, or sounding like you? It’s important to make characters distinct. And a fun exercise is to remove all of the dialogue tags in an exchange and see if you can tell who’s saying what. Maybe give it to someone else to read and see if they can tell the difference.

This is where you need to get in character. If you find a character’s dialogue is bland, then, as an exercise, write the scene from their first person point of view, think about any moments of hesitation, frustration, what they really want to say, as opposed to what they actually say, how they hear the voice of others in that exchange. Do they find some people annoying, grating? Are they in a position of power in this scene, or are they having to watch what they say in order to get what they want?

Also, think about word choice. Do they use short, abrupt phrases? Or are they verbose and erudite? Do they use any slang, do they swear ten to the dozen? Think about their background and their world. You know, a working class docker will have very different dialogue to a nun… She’ll swear more for a start. Once you’ve done that, I think you’ll find it easier to write in their voice when it comes to dialogue. And have a think about subtext. You know, having characters blurt out exactly what they mean can be effective.

But mostly we should work with subtext:

Dialogue that defelcts, defends and skirts can be really engaging. Saying exactly what’s on your mind can have terrible consequences. You know, only the cold hearted tell their boyfriend or girlfriend that they want to break up. You know, characters that feel real will do everything they can to avoid delivering bad news. No one likes that. Or they will tailor what they say to the social situation.

Body language is also your friend.

We pick up so many clues from body language that it’s important to pair dialogue with descriptions of your character’s posture and mannerisms. Something like, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with a shake of the hand and a smile, is very different to, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with pursed lips and a withering glare. And tension. Thinking about subtext and body language brings me to how dialogue can build tension. Tension in a story comes from unanswered questions. Will he propose? Will she say yes? And dialogue can really help drive that tension and resolve it. Make every word count, keep the story moving forward, and keep the reader on the hook, which is easier said than done, of course. Well, I hope that was helpful.

And until next time, happy writing.

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Author, screenwriter, and co-founder of the Bestseller Experiment podcast.

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