Ask yourself these starter questions when stumbling over dialogue.
- Is your dialogue “on the nose” or too obvious where the characters say exactly what they think and feel? Add subtext.
- Do you have subtext in your dialogue? Subtext is what’s really happening behind the words. If you don’t have it, rewrite and approach the scene from a different angle.
- Do all your characters speak with correct grammar and full sentences? They shouldn’t. Vary speech patterns and word choice per character. Try reading it out loud.
- If you deleted all the dialogue tags, would all your characters sound the same? Rewrite. Dig deeper into your characters.
- Are you using dialogue to disguise info dumping and backstory? Rewrite.
- MG Higgins says: Are your dialogue tags repetitive? Use action beats to show who is talking.
- Ansha says: Do your characters always answer questions right away? Change it up and have them reply with a questions or state something unrelated – maybe to avoid answering.
- Kris says: Is your dialogue choppy? Don’t be afraid to let your characters have a real conversation as long as its relevant.
- Karen says: Do you use too many exclamation points in your dialogue? Show the characters’ emotions through their words and actions.
- Is your dialogue pulling double duty? Dialogue can foreshadow while developing character. It can reveal emotion while moving the plot forward. The more weight it pulls, the better it will be.
Check out this and this and this and this and this post on writing dialogue. I had a hard time finding writers covering dialogue tips on their blogs. If you know of any send them along to me.
Update: Check out the The Blood-Red Pencil. And check out Fiction Groupie.
I’ll post more as I find them.
Nice list! I especially like using subtext. Here’s one: Are your dialog tags becoming repetitive? Use action to show who’s speaking rather than a tag.
Yeah, I’m a subtext kinda gal. Gotta love subtext!
When one character poses a question to another, don’t always have them reply… have the character ask another question… state something seemlying unrealted.
And I try to add movement to my tags.
“Why were you so late?” she closed the door.
“Why do you always nag me?” he turned around to face her.
“You are such a hypocrite!”
“Takes one to know one, sweetie.”
I think you learn a lot about your characters if you redirect the outer dialog toward the inner conflict.
You have a good point Laura about Dialogue on blogs… it’s a tough topic.
Thanks for the suggestions so far! I agree, dialogue is tough. And so isn’t the subject of subtext. I’m still figuring it out. 🙂
I like adding movement to the tags also — feels more realistic. In my WIP there’s a lot of “thinking” by the protagonist, so there’s some of that as well mixed in. But, I’m somewhat confused about subtext — I think I get it. It’s like characters don’t always say what they really mean, right? I’m trying to work it into my revisions.
I always try to say it out loud or at least hear the character say it in my head — so it’s not stilted.
How about, as a tip, simply adding more dialogue. In other words, don’t be afraid of letting the characters have a real conversation.
You’ve got a great list Laura. You’ve covered all the things I would say on it.
I always hate when writers use too many examination points. I love it more when the characters says something and by their actions you can tell their mad.
Or worse, using the dreaded dialog tags — yelled, shouted, screamed. It’s good every once in a while, but you can do it too much.
Have a great weekend! 🙂
Thanks Karen and Kris for your ideas. Great ones.
Kris – I’ll have to look around for some good example and definitions of subtext for next Friday!
Great post, Laura! Writing good dialogue is such a fun topic to discuss because there is so much to say about it. And you’ve really nailed it.
Great stuff. In addition to trying to implement this in my writing, I harp on this stuff to my teen writing students…especially the part about using too many exclamation points. They are not the magic punctuation that makes dialogue sparkle. Nuff said. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂
Helpful article. Karen Lange mentioned it on her blog and I had to come check it out. Thanks for sharing.