Craft Engaging Dialogue in Three Steps

When I ask my clients about their writing weaknesses, a large percentage struggle with crafting great dialogue. If you’re one of those, keep reading for three tips to spice up your on-page conversations.

As a developmental editor, unrealistic dialogue is something I run into with most newer writers. The words sound forced and not at all like what real conversation does.

My first tip for them is to read the conversation aloud. It’s amazing how much your ear can pick out that your eyes won’t blink at on the page.

We hear conversations everywhere and our ears are attuned to that. If you stumble over what’s between the quotes, it probably needs to be tweaked or even overhauled.

Here are three steps to get you started:

Step One

Remove filler words

I’m talking about um and uh. Authors put them in because they want to “show” the character stuttering or stumbling over their words. Use them sparingly for this purpose because readers will get frustrated at their recurrence.

Another way to tighten speech is to use contractions. Most of us speak this way. You might have one character who is more formal, but as a general rule most people—even the highly educated—are lazy speakers.

This means they don’t talk in complete sentences. Think about the last conversation you had, did you use complete sentences? Or did you give four-word answers or sentence fragments?

Step Two

Every word spoken matters

As with scenes, every bit of dialogue needs to reveal information about the plot or character.

Using action beats in lieu of speaker tags (she said, he said), is a great way to reveal the character’s emotions without saying “she yelled” and “he choked out.”

Adding subtext is a fine art. Subtext is what we don’t say and includes body language like facial expressions, nervous tics, and obvious attempts to change the subject.

In real life, we don’t always say what we mean, and in fiction, your characters should rarely say what they mean. At least not completely.

Step Three

Add interruptions

This segues naturally from the subtext mentioned above. Unfinished conversations leave room for miscommunication and misunderstanding, both of which will up the tension in your scene and story.

Let your characters talk over each other. You know people who interrupt. It doesn’t have to be rude. Sometimes, we assume we know what the person is going to say. In fiction, let your characters assume incorrectly leading to those misunderstandings mentioned above.

Distractions and things that sidetrack a conversation are wonderful plot devices to help build suspense or increase tension. Which keeps readers engaged and turning pages.

Pay attention to the dialogue of a favorite television show or movie in the genre that you’re writing. What ways do screenwriters use subtext?

It can be fun to eavesdrop at the coffee shop, too. You might be inspired to add a twist to your story or give your character a unique style of speaking.

Do you struggle with dialogue? What tools have helped you?

1 thought on “Craft Engaging Dialogue in Three Steps”

  1. Yes. Dialogue is something I need to work on myself. Lately I’ve read a few books that were good ideas, but I felt like the dialogue was a weakness. I kept thinking an experienced editor would say the dialogue was too “on the nose.”

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.