Best-selling author Stephen King once said, “Good dialogue is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is deadly” (181). As readers, we can readily agree, but if you’re like me, an author intent on improving her craft, you want to know how to write dialogue that is a delight. You’re seeking guided practice—some rules. Here are seven insights I’ve gleaned from Janet Burroway, the author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.
*Develop an ear for how people talk. Listen to conversations everywhere you go. Take mental notes. “The trick to writing good dialogue is hearing voice. The question is, what would this particular person say? The answer is entirely in language. The choice of language reveals content, character, and conflict, as well as type” (49). But as you are composing your characters’ interactions, remember that dialogue isn’t not the same as idle chat or small talk.
*Cut the slack. Just tell the important bits. When my kids were small and I was a working mom, I used to watch soap operas to relax, but I didn’t have a lot of free time. From observation I theorized only one big event happens in each episode. Between big events, the characters simply react to the smash-up event that occurred. I’d fast forward though scenes searching for the pivotal scene–until the characters looked stressed, a gun went off or a car crashed, you get the idea. Then I’d slow the recording and watch. We as writers want to focus our dialogue on the big or important moments in our character’s interactions while skipping the rehash and small talk. Burroway points out that dialogue isn’t merely transcribed speech. It’s distilled speech, the interesting bits that inspire listeners to lean in closer. Edit out the boring bits and focus on what isn’t being said as much as what is. In other words, work the conversation so that it become more than merely the words the characters are saying (47).
*Write double or triple duty dialogue. When composing characters’ interactions follow Sloane’s Law–compelling dialogue should always do more than one thing at a time. If it doesn’t, it’s too sluggish or passive to work in fiction (47). What is meant by doing more than one thing? Well, Burroway says, “Because direct dialogue has a dual nature—emotion within a logical structure—it’s purpose in fiction is never merely to convey information… it needs simultaneously to characterize, provide exposition, set the scene, advance the action, foreshadow or remind” (47).
*Be careful when you use summary or indirect speech. Know why you’re switching the narrative to quick summary or retelling. Although you can employ summary or indirect speech to explain events readers already know, don’t skip over the heart of the scene or the important event. Make sure that’s in direct speech, so that readers feel immersed in your characters’ significant drama (47).
*Don’t use dialogue to info-dump. Don’t allow characters to talk about they both know merely to pass along information to the reader (52). At best, it’ll read false. At worst, it will sound like you’ve crammed words into your characters’ mouths. As you already guess, this pulls readers out of your story.
*Know what your characters want and pitch them against each other. As toddlers we learn to talk and use communication to get what we want. As adults, we’re practiced at using speech to persuade or argue for the things we seek. “David Mamet suggests that people may or may not say what they mean, but always say something designed to get what they want” (54), and fortunately, in fiction, characters don’t always want the same things. Conflict piques readers’ interest and advances story.
I’ve saved my favorite suggestion for last.
—When writing dialogue, make change your mantra. Your dialogue becomes action if it inspires change (53). When there’s the possibility that characters’ conversation will lead to something happening, or a shift in the character’s thoughts or circumstances, readers feel involved.
Writing dialogue that delights readers isn’t an easy, but it’s essential to selling stories and something we can and should strive for. I hope
I’ve helped you on your writing journey. For more awesome insights on writing, consider checking out On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway.
Burroway, Janet, et al. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. University of Chicago Press, 2019.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Hodder, 2012.
by: Mia Jo Celeste
Mia Jo Celeste comes from a family of writers and English Teachers, so it’s no surprise she’s both a writer and a teacher. Currently, she’s pursuing a Master of English at Mount Mary University.