10 Tips To Improve Dialogues: From Me, To YouA Lesson by Sebastian Romero
Why should you read this? Well, dialogues are an extremely important part of a story, they are the bones. Just how it says in the book Self-editing for Fiction Writers: “What’s the first thing acquisitions editors look for when they begin reading fiction submissions? Several editors we know have answered that question the same way: ‘The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.’” So, that’s that. What more can I say? No but really, what I can tell you as a reader is that good dialogues and bad dialogues make the difference on me reading a book. And even YA books can have good dialogues.
Why should you read this? Well, dialogues are an extremely important part of a story, they are the bones. Just how it says in the book Self-editing for Fiction Writers: “What’s the first thing acquisitions editors look for when they begin reading fiction submissions? Several editors we know have answered that question the same way: ‘The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.’” So, that’s that. What more can I say? No but really, what I can tell you as a reader is that good dialogues and bad dialogues make the difference on me reading a book. And even Young Adult books can have good and bad dialogues. And in both cases, I will probably stop reading a book (or at least not like it as much) if it has bad dialogues.
So here are a couple of tips I have, from me to you :)
I. They shouldn’t speak like you:
Everyone has patterns, tics, and every author has a way of speak, so it can be a challenge not to make your characters speak like you.
It is important for you to know which are yours, for me it can be starting everything with a ‘Well’.
For example: “Well, you didn’t say that,” “Well, I’ll have to see,” when I could just as easily take out the ‘Well’ and it would still make sense.
And technically speaking, there is nothing wrong. People do speak like that. But when all of your characters use the same pattern of speech, then there’s a problem. It’s not the character speaking, but you.
II. Make patterns in their dialogues:
Contradicting or adding to the last part (however you want to look at it), because everyone have patterns of speech, or different ways to say things, and a good character should have them too.
For example, everyone who’s read The Catcher in the Rye can know what I’m talking about, because of Holden. He always repeats the words and phrases: “That kills me,” “Phonies,” and “Goddam,”.
You can do it with words your character repeats, with a specific sentence structure, with word-count (someone who answers only one or two words), etc. Be creative!
III. He ‘said’, he didn’t ‘growl’:
I believe as Hemingway did, every time you want to end a dialogue, just end it with a ‘(S)he said…’, and then if you want to, you can specify how he or she said what he said. The only one I do let myself use sometimes is ‘asked’, because, after a question, it just seems wrong to write ‘He said’ (but that’s personal).
But really, speaker attributions should only let the reader know who’s speaking, not how he’s speaking.
This, for me, has a lot of benefits:
The first is that it makes your work to seem a little more mature, and it gives it some elegance.
Also, it gives you a space to write with more specificity how he or she said what they did.
For example, when you write “‘Go now,’ he screamed.” or “‘I love you,’ she whispered.” most people, me included, will jump the “screamed” and “whispered”, and go to the next line, which makes the reader forget or ignore how (in what form) the character said what he said. But when you just write the ‘(S)he said…’, after it, you have time and space to specify and describe with more and better words how it was all said.
Also, there are so many silly speaker attributions writers use that don’t even make sense when you read them carefully: “‘I’m happy,’ he smiled.’” or “‘I hate you,’ I spat.”, for example. Like, how can you smile something?
Finally, you have to trust your dialogues and readers, and if your dialogues are good, I will know how it was said. For example, if there is war, and one guy screams to another that he’s going to kill him, I won’t suppose that it was ‘whispered’ or ‘lulled’. I’ll suppose it was screamed or said harshly.
IV. Don’t he-said-she-said-he-said me:
When there is a conversation of two, after a while (and if there are no interruptions), you don’t have to tell me who’s speaking.
For example, if a boy and a girl are speaking with each other, in the beginning of the conversation, you’ll have to do the: “‘Hello,’ He said. ‘Oh, Hey,’ She said.” But after a couple of dialogues, you can just stop repeating it. It is understated, and when it’s done, it can be annoying.
To prove it, I’ll quiz you with a small dialogue from one of my stories:
“‘Tell me, do you live all alone in that house?’ Asked the detective.
‘I do… Sometimes.’ Said Roger.
Who asked the last question? Was it the detective or Roger?… You see, it can be easily understood.
However, when there is a conversation where there are more than two characters, this can be harder. Not only because you don’t necessarily know who’s next unless there is a pattern, but because not even a ‘he’ or ‘she’ will suffice anymore in some occasions (because there are only two genders, and if there are three characters, two of them are bound to be of the same gender).
Yet, there are circumstances when you don’t have to tell me who’s next, and on those ocations, you can skip the speaker attributes. For example:
“‘Will you all go to the party?’ Asked Patty.
‘Yes!’ Said everyone except Jackson.
‘Will you go?’ Patty asked again, specifically to him.
‘I’m sorry, I won’t be able to.’”
Here, there is no need at the end to specify who answered Patty, for it is obvious it was Jackson.
V. Some realities don’t seem real when written:
In real life, dialogues are too long, too full of pauses, too full of unnecessary stuff. You need to try to make your dialogues realistic, but not extremely realistic.
For example, I’ll show you these two dialogues, and you’ll see what I mean:
Example 1. “Hello,” Louise said.
“Hello,” Robert said.
“How are you?”
“Great and you?”
“So, what’ve you been up to?”
“Nothing really, and you?”
“Hey, and are you going to the game?”
Example 2. “Hello,” Said Louise.
“Hello;” Said Robert
“Hey, so are you going to the game?”
The first example may be more like what a real conversation sounds like, but it’s boring and tedious. As we can see ni the second example, the conversation goes right to the point, its concrete, it’s effective.
Also, when writing dialogues, one is more inclined to write in a grammatically incorrect manner, and even more with the character is a drunk, a baby, someone poor, or from another culture. This may be good, and it could give your character some livelihood and complexity, but when you write their dialogues literally imitating phonetically, like Emily Brontë with Josef (don't get me wrong, I love her and the book, but it was tough getting through his dialogues), it gets harder for the reader to follow and that can be a problem for you as an author.
VI. Not too long, not too short:
By this I do not mean the length of the conversation, but the length of each dialogue. Of course, with this suggestion specifically, you’re going to have to stick with your character specifically, so if it’s someone who’s very talkative, then make him speak a lot, and long dialogues, etc. But as a general rule, don’t have dialogues that feel monologs, or dialogues that are so short that they take five pages to finish, while you could’ve also done it in just one or two.
Again, each character speaks differently, but just as a general rule, be balanced. Except you have a concrete and conscious reason to do so, procure that you’re dialogues don’t last more than four or five lines. Again I mean each dialogue as an individual, not that the conversation should be short.
A perfect example is the second chapter of Gone With the Wind, where Scarlet has a conversation with her father that lasts for about ten pages or so, but each dialogue is short and adequate, so it doesn’t feel tedious.
VII. One name at a time, please:
Okay, so here’s the thing. You have this character named Bob Adams…. His wife calls him Bob, his son calls him Dad, and the gardener calls him Mr. Adams. So what will you do if all these four characters are in the same room?
When you’re narrating from a first person perspective, it’s easy: you call a character the way the narrator calls him. However, when you’re writing with a third person narrative, what should you do? My advice is to choose at the beginning at the scene. This doesn’t mean that for the rest of the novel you’re going to call that character that, but at least have consistency during scenes. This gives you balance, and otherwise it can be confusing and even annoying.
For example, if you call your character Bob at the beginning of the scene, don’t change to ‘the dad…’ or ‘the father…’ when the son comes in. Just stick with what you started it, otherwise some people could believe that there are more characters instead of just the one, and it could get confusing. You don’t want people thinking that they love Bob but hate Mr. Adams.
VIII. Indirect dialogues can be cool!
A lot of people I’ve talked to tell me they tend to avoid indirect dialogues, because they are harder to do. And I agree, sometimes. And even reading a lot of them can be harder or tiring sometimes. But I swear that that’s not always the case.
First, I’ll explain what an indirect dialogue is, with an example:
Direct dialogue: “‘I broke up,’ he said.”
Indirect dialogue: “He said/told me that he’d broken up.”
I find indirect dialogues to be extremely helpful when telling an anecdote or while a character is remembering things, and it gives it a touch of realism, because when we remember, we don’t really remember the dialogues exactly as they were, but we paraphrase them.
Also, I find that you can use indirect dialogues can help and create a symbol or be a characteristic of the narrator (especially the first person), i.e. maybe someone who doesn’t like giving away power and control, or someone who likes the spotlight.
IX. Don’t break rules just to break them:
Some writers may be compelled to break all the, dare I say, conservative rules of dialogues (and of writing in general), and you will decide whatever you want. But I do ask you, don’t break rules just because it’s popular to do so nowadays. If you do, you should do so for a reason. Sure, there are geniuses and master writers like Kafka and Foster Wallace and Faulkner and Saramago who don’t indicate when the dialogue starts, or who write it all in the same paragraph, and don’t use quotation marks.
But my suggestion is this: breaking those rules makes reading and enjoyment harder for the reader (most of the time), so sure, I’ll read Faulkner or Marquez because of who they are, and because I know they’re good, but I—or at least most people—won’t read something extremely complicated and experimental from a new, emerging writer I know nothing from.
Look, I don’t want to sound mean or an a*s, I do like experimental stuff, The Sound and The Fury is one of my favorite books, and I’m reading Infinite Jest, but if you’re going to want me to have a notebook beside the book, and to move back and forth to the Endnote section, then I’m only going to do so if I know it’s worth it.
So why risk it? I’m not saying you shouldn’t experiment, or break the rules, but that you should do so in a cautious manner, always with a purpose, and remember this: if I can do it in a simple way, then why make it complicated? Or as Virginia Woolf said: “When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?”
X. It’s okay to be selfish with your writing and have fun:
Even though this one is very self-explanatory, I want to be more open about it. These are the rules that I find useful, if you don’t find them useful that’s okay, and if you do, that’s great! This doesn’t mean that I always follow all of them, sometimes I don’t intentionally, and sometimes I just forget about them.
If you want to make your characters whisper, or if you want all your dialogues to be always in the same paragraphs, or if you want to change the character’s name every chapter, that’s okay.
Sometimes you might simply not be in the mood for such an elaborate story with long lists of rules, or sometimes you might find that a rule doesn’t apply in a specific story, and that’s okay, it happens. Writing should be fun, you shouldn’t be intimidated by it, or bored with it.
Challenge (Choose one):
I really, really hope I could help you in anything at all. I'll keep posting :)
I normally don't ask this, but please rate and comment: what did you like? What didn't you like? What did you find helpful? I need to know so I know how to improve too :) You want more tips? For me to express them even more fully? To be more concise? What do you want?
Added on July 4, 2016
Last Updated on July 6, 2016
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
AboutI am a Mexican author. I study literature and psychology. I'm moving to Iowa next fall.