It’s happened to all of us. You’re trying to write an emotionally engaging scene and your dialogue comes out sounding like it’s spoken by robots or by actors in a bad soap opera. Here are our top tips on how to write dialogue that sounds natural, reveals character and adds energy and drama to your story or novel.
1. Do use dialogue to reveal character, relationships and conflict. For a powerful exchange, figure out what your characters want on both a surface and deeper emotional level and let their individual agendas drive what they say.
2. Don’t use dialogue to do the work of exposition, i.e. to provide background, context or description. In most cases this results in dialogue that’s flat and unnatural.
3. Let most of the meaning come through subtext. In tense moments, people rarely say exactly what they mean (see point 1). Let the subtext guide response, rather than surface meaning.
4. Consider what your characters want to say but can’t or won’t—sometimes what’s not being said is more revealing than what is. Try cutting an important revelation and see what your characters do. Omissions can add tension and energy to an otherwise lacklustre exchange.
5. Think about how your characters speak (pacing, grammar, vocabulary) and what that reveals about them. Are they a bit wordy or ultra terse, do they use slang or speak more formally, are they prone to malapropisms or do they sound like they memorised the dictionary, does their vocabulary reveal where they’re from or what they do? If your characters all sound more-or-less the same, you’re missing a huge opportunity.
6. Keep it snappy. If your dialogue sounds leaden and dull, put it on a diet. Challenge yourself to cut a third of the words in every exchange. And keep the conversation moving! Unless you’re trying to get across that a character is a real windbag, don’t let them speak in paragraphs.
7. Vary the length and structure of sentences. Throw in some fragments. Your dialogue will sound more like it’s spoken by humans instead of smart robots.
8. Spice things up with interruptions, digressions and non sequiturs. They can help you increase tension, reveal character and subtext, and make your dialogue sound more natural.
9. Break up dialogue with small actions, gestures, or description to help the reader imagine the scene and reveal character. And look for opportunities to replace adverbs (e.g. “he said angrily”) with a gesture or small action to reveal your character’s emotional state.
10. Don’t use flashy verbs for dialogue tags. Stick to verbs that won’t distract from what’s being said, for example “said” or “asked”.
Bonus tip: Remember to start a new paragraph when switching speakers or characters. Your writing will look more professional, and it will be easier for the reader to track the exchange.