Technical aspects or some basic rules for writing can help clean up your prose, but there are also stylistic elements to consider. I view the following tips as stylistic as opposed to technical because I think they are more subjective and are often more difficult to nail down. Rather than going through your story and knowing you should (likely) remove some adverbs, these tips require more engagement with what you’re writing.
You don’t have to follow all of these, and there are going to be times when these might not make sense for the story you’re writing. But I think all seven of these things are worth having in mind when you write or edit dialogue scenes.
1.) Don’t Write the Way People Actually Speak
There are a lot of newer authors who think that trying to make dialogue sound natural means making it emulate real-life conversations. The problem is that dialogue is meant to serve the story, not recreate the real world. There are a lot of conversational exchanges and conventions that are really boring when written out, and holding on to them in your story will just bog down your narrative. At the end of the day, your dialogue needs to advance the plot of a story, something dialogue doesn’t have to do in real life, so the constraints are much different.
2.) Create Tension Between Inner Dialogue and Outer Speech
I’m sure you have some firsthand experience with this, but what people think and what they say is often not fully in alignment. Sometimes it’s entirely opposite. This could be because the character doesn’t trust who he’s speaking with, is a lair himself, or maybe is just awkward and has a hard time articulating thoughts.
Building tension with not just what is being said but also what goes unsaid is a great way to amp up a conversation and make your dialogue scenes a lot stronger. This is especially effective when writing in the first person, but it can also work in third, so I think it’s something that is always worth considering.
3.) Make Sure Your Characters Are Doing Things
Actions and gestures are a great way to break-up dialogue and enhance a scene. Making sure that what you’re writing doesn’t end up being a purely verbal exchange will make the scene stronger. It gives the reader insight into what’s going on outside of the dialogue, bringing them more into the story and really setting the stage for them.
4.) Give Your Characters Physical and Verbal Tells
Combining the previous two points, if you can develop unique physical tells for your characters, that can really make a dialogue exchange stronger by adding subtext to a conversation. Having your character display this subtext in the way that he moves or the way that he says things is also a great way to do this through showing and not telling.
If your character needs to have an inner monologue to display these thoughts, that can work, but having him scratch the back of his neck or reply in a monosyllabic way when he’s usually talkative is a stronger way to show the same thing. This works especially well if you aren’t in that character’s head during that scene.
5.) Don’t Make Your Dialogue Didactic or Preachy
This may be a personal opinion, but I really dislike long diatribes in which a character explains his or her grand philosophical theory of everything. This is especially problematic if said rant or exchange is out of character and meant to display the author’s views on something. If the character is, say, an evil genius prone to ranting about things, then that’s fine, but I would generally try to avoid any preachy rants.
6.) Don’t Make Your Dialogue Expositional
Don’t use dialogue as a stand-in for exposition. Turning a block of text describing something into dialogue doesn’t make it any better or more engaging. It arguably makes it worse because the dialogue will now read as unnatural.
Your characters should never be explaining things they would already understand to each other purely for the benefit of the reader. If you find that your dialogue scenes are doing this, then you need to find better ways to explain the context of your story, or really a better way to show it without having to dig into so much exposition.
7.) In Late, Out Early
Just as with every other scene, we don’t necessarily need to see a whole exchange of dialogue, only the parts that are important to the story. Starting a scene in the middle of an exchange is a great way to bring the reader into the moment and skip over any boring or unnecessary parts of the conversation. TV shows will often remove characters saying “hello” or “goodbye” from conversations because, though realistic, it is boring and bogs down the narrative. If you enter the conversation late and leave before it ends, then the reader can assume that societal niceties are observed without having to actually read through them.
As I said in the opening, these aren’t all 100% necessary things to keep in mind for every story. Sometimes these suggestions won’t fit stylistically with what you are trying to accomplish. But in general I think these are very much worth keeping in mind when you write dialogue scenes.
Do you think these tips are helpful? Are there other dialogue suggestions you use that I didn’t mention? Please let me know in the comments.