5 Tips for Writing Great Dialogue (or editing what you have into greatness)

21 Jan

Believe it or not, this post was drafted a week ago, ready for me to publish last Tuesday. That was all set to happen until I fell into a black hole in which the first rewrite of my NaNoWriMo 2012 project was the only thing that existed.

I got completely sucked in and nothing else happened, hence the blogging silence last week. Still, I don’t feel too guilty as the writing is most important, right? (Even though that means I’ve already broken one of my writing goals for this year. Whoops…)

Anyway, as I was going through this first rewrite, I was mainly ironing out some of the bigger plot issues and also improving dialogue. Funnily enough dialogue proved to be the biggest problem.

I say funnily enough because I hadn’t really thought of dialogue as a problem area — or rather I assumed I would have other, bigger problems first and foremost.

But the more I read up on dialogue in novels, the more I realise I was making all the mistakes that were mentioned (and a few more that were apparently just unique to me!).

So here are my 5 tips for writing great dialogue (or editing the dialogue that you already have into greatness).

1. Remove -ly adverbs

Most of the time, these -ly adverbs are unnecessary, because they are just reiterating what the reader knows from the dialogue. And if they aren’t unnecessary, the dialogue probably needs rewriting to make it stronger. (If you’re not 100% sure what I’m talking about, I mean words like angrily, sadly, happily etc.)

The only time these should be used is when it’s to do with the volume of the speaker’s voice, which can’t be conveyed through the actual words used, e.g. ‘she said softly’.

Consider this:

“Thank you so much,” she said gratefully. “That’s very generous of you.”

Firstly it’s a bit of an exaggerated example, but the idea is there. If you take ‘gratefully’ out of the sentence, it’s easy to tell that she’s grateful because she’s thanking someone:

“Thank you so much,” she said. “That’s very generous of you.”

If it wasn’t entirely clear, then maybe the dialogue could be reworked to convey the emotion better.

2. Try and use ‘said’ almost exclusively

I understand this one causes a bit of debate amongst writers, and usually I flip back and forth to either side of the argument. But I read something recently that really helped me understand why this is a good idea.

It basically boils down to this: ‘Said’ is almost invisible, and whilst it enables the reader to know exactly who is speaking, it doesn’t detract from what they’re saying. ‘Said’ helps the flow of the writing.

Other verbs that a writer might use to describe speech are either difficult or impossible to achieve physically, such as ‘she grimaced’. A grimace is a facial expression, so I don’t really know how a person might go about grimacing a sentence (!)

If you’re worried about filling a page with ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, then consider whether the speaker attribution is actually necessary. After a sentence or two not only is it unnecessary but it often gets in the way (unless more than two people are involved in the conversation).

3. Use contractions

This one was a little bit trickier for me to get my head around, as I’m used to more formal (non-fiction) writing in which writers are told not to use contractions. Fiction is a completely different ball-game, however.

The point of dialogue is to be as realistic as possible, and that means taking into account the way people speak.

Compare the following:

“The car would not start this morning,” he said.

“The car wouldn’t start this morning,” he said.

It’s only when the above sentences are read out loud that the first becomes very jarring. I’m willing to bet that no one actually speaks like that (and in fact some people would probably just say, “Car wouldn’t start this morning.”)

4. Give your characters unique voices

This is a lot harder to learn and do, but I think the best way to go about this is to listen to different people speak. Everyone has words that they use a lot, or something they do with their hands or face when they talk.

My OH subconsciously mimes actions with his hands, so if he said to me, “I wrote an email,” he would almost always mime typing with his fingers. (I love this, by the way. Never fails to make me chuckle.) My mother says, “Whatnot” a lot.

With a bit of observation and planning, you can pick out actions and words that suit your characters and incorporate it into their dialogue and other scenes where appropriate.

5. Read dialogue aloud

Reading dialogue out loud is when you really get to see how well it works. It’s been the most useful method for me when looking at what I’ve written. Like in the example in point three, you can see on the screen that ‘would not’ is clumsier than ‘wouldn’t’, but it’s only when you read the sentences aloud that you realise just how much clumsier.

Not only that, but reading aloud helps you to work out who should say what, and when they should say it. In reality, people generally speak in short sentences, and rarely make “speeches” of several sentences one after the other. This is something I found a lot of in my WIP, and even if one character was interrupting another, it was done very politely! Reading aloud helps you to work out what is realistic.

I’ve also read that recording yourself reading the dialogue is even better, because when you play it back all you have to do it listen (rather than reading it to yourself). I’ve not tried that one though — if you have, what do you think? Is it easier than just reading aloud?

* * *

Now, you may or may not agree with the points above, but I think bearing these in mind whilst I rewrote a lot of the dialogue in my WIP has improved it no end. I also think it will help me write better dialogue in the future (here’s hoping, anyway!).

Coming next is phase 3: the line edit. I’ve decided to do this on paper, so my poor printer is currently working overtime…

Now it’s over to you: do you have any tips for writing or editing dialogue?

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8 Responses to “5 Tips for Writing Great Dialogue (or editing what you have into greatness)”

  1. Alex J. Cavanaugh January 21, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    Reading out loud makes a huge difference.
    I’ve learned those things along the way although the unique voice is sometimes difficult.

    • Stacey Mitchell January 25, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

      Yes, that’s what I’ve found to be one of the hardest things.

  2. Elle Turner January 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    Although I don’t like doing it, I think reading aloud definitely helps – it makes it so much easier to spot the laboured bits.
    Keep up the good work! :-)

  3. Anita Chapman (@neetswriter) January 22, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    Reading aloud definitely helps. Last year I read an interview with Anne Tyler which said she reads her whole MS into a tape recorder. I’ve heard good things about text to speech software, but haven’t tried yet. I find watching films/TV with characters similar to my own (as in where from etc) very helpful.

    • Stacey Mitchell January 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

      Her whole MS? That’s interesting. I don’t really like the sound of my voice when recorded so I think that’d put me off editing!

      Watching films/TV with similar characters is a great idea.

  4. Natalie January 22, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    All your points are great. I’ve read a lot about removing adverbs and since then have noticed how much I use them when I don’t need to. I completely agree with the ‘said’ thing. I have edited out a lot of very silly expressions. Contractions also make a big differences – my mind seems muddled on this one as I have used a lot in my prose but not in my dialogue! I’m not sure if my characters have unique voices yet. A couple of them definately do but the others still sound somewhat the same – something I need to work on. As for reading dialogue aloud, I need a day at home so I can do this! I have done all my editing so far after work in a cafe full of people! I cannot think of any dialogue-writing points to add to this.

    • Stacey Mitchell January 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      At first I couldn’t see the problem with adverbs, but then when I realised how many are unnecessary the lightbulb switched on.

      Wear some earphones and you can get away with talking to yourself in the cafe — I often see people having conversations on the phone (I assume, anyway) like that!

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