Writing Dialogue that Flows

Balancing your novel's conversations

Learn how to write dialogueWelcome back, it’s great to see you once again for another exciting entry in my drafting process series. I hope you are ready for today’s discussion, which is all about the aspect of writing I personally had the least experience with going into my first novel, dialogue. Although it may not seem obvious at first, dialogue is one of the most flexible tools you have at your disposal during the drafting process. For well-written dialogue not only helps to establish characters and the relationships between them, but can enhance and reinforce theme and atmosphere, impart vital information (or even misinformation), provide context and background, foreshadow, inject humor or tension into a scene, and a great deal more. This is why many authors (yours truly included) initially find writing dialogue to be a bit tricky or even intimidating.

Part of the reason that writing evocative dialogue takes practice is that dialogue in fiction sounds rather different from our conversations in the real world. This means that there is a good deal more to writing dialogue that flows than simply imagining how a conversation might play out based on our everyday experiences. Even more so than with descriptive writing, every line of dialogue in your novel should have a clear purpose for being, and should additionally be well-matched for the characters that are speaking as well as the overall goal for the scene. Structuring dialogue becomes even more complicated when a group of three or more characters is speaking at once, and maintaining clarity, focus, and authenticity in such situations will take a bit of practice before the dialogue in your scenes sounds the way it should. But never fear, because by the end of this entry, you will have a rough model for how to write effective dialogue lodged into your brain, along with some ground rules to keep in mind as you craft, edit, and refine the numerous conversations that will play out over the course of your book.

We are first going to cover some general rules to consider when drafting dialogue, then take an in-depth look at another aspect of writing that is challenging for many new authors, dialogue tags. Finally, we will examine how to construct a character’s inner monologue, which follows many of the same rules as crafting dialogue.

Ten rules for writing powerful dialogue

1. Don’t try to make your dialogue sound like real conversations

Most novice writers seem to have the idea that dialogue in fiction needs to sound realistic in order to be effective. While in fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. It is important that your dialogue feels realistic when read, but this effect is generally achieved by cutting out a great deal of the mannerisms we use constantly in everyday speech. Real speech is chocked full of filler words, commentary noises, ambiguous replies, repetition, social niceties, and otherwise empty phrases that are being supplemented by body language and facial expressions. While you want to imply that all of these things are occurring in your story’s dialogue, actually writing them in will make the conversations between your characters awkward, cumbersome, and unengaging (not to mention rather boring).

This means that when you sit down to hammer out the dialogue in your scenes, you are only going to be borrowing the shape of natural speech patterns, while keeping the words themselves focused and laden with material that moves the story along and provides your reader with important details. In essence, you will be cutting your conversations down to the heart of the matter, highlighting important information while only giving an impression of relaying a lengthy conversation.

One thing to keep in mind is that conversations in the real world serve a number of important social functions. They help us to maintain our relationships and to spend quality time with friends and loved ones. To share critical experiences alongside random insights. In short, they are a vital part of our everyday lives and social existence. On the other hand, dialogue in novels only exists to serve your story and your reader’s experience, and thus the purpose and structure of dialogue in fiction must change to reflect these divergent needs.

2. Every conversation should possess a clear purpose

More so than perhaps anywhere else in your writing, you are going to want to keep your dialogue short and sweet. Focused and written with a clear purpose. Every conversation and to a lesser extent, every line of dialogue should have a reason for being included in your narrative. A scene possessing unnecessary or cumbersome conversations will quickly lose tension and focus and cause your reader’s attention to begin to wander. So then, what are some reasons to include dialogue in a given scene to begin with?

Well for one thing, conversations are an efficient means of providing critical facts and context directly to the reader, information the viewpoint character might not otherwise possess. In dialogue we can learn about important events in real time alongside the point of view character, their reactions letting us know how to feel about these latest revelations. Dialogue can also be a powerful way to reveal a character’s personality, as well as the dynamics between two individuals, emphasizing any shared goals or conflicts between them (see below for more detail). It can also be used to help establish the atmosphere of a scene by injecting the emotions and perceptions of the speakers directly into the narrative, raising or lowering the present level of tension.

Conversations themselves can also serve as critical moments in your plotline, triggering or resolving various plot points and subplots. Dialogue is especially powerful between characters with opposing goals, as there is often as much left unsaid as spoken between them, granting the words themselves new meaning and nuance. In this case, even a seemingly empty conversation might be dripping with hidden meaning. As with every rule of writing, you have to make decisions based on what feels best for your unique story, but in general, if a conversation serves no clear purpose, either revise it, present it as a brief summary, or remove it all together.

3. Each character and group should possess their own mannerisms, voice, and speech patterns

This next rule is one of the aspects of dialogue I personally found a bit tricky to master. However, it is rather important to at least wrap your head around this concept if you want your conversations to be engaging and memorable. The idea is similar to crafting a unique voice for your PoV characters, in that each character who is speaking should sound distinct from one another in their word choice, body language, and interpersonal dynamics. Remember that each of your characters comes from a different background and possesses their own unique life experiences, filtering their perceptions and shaping their approach to conversation in general.

One strategy for creating a unique conversational voice that I originally mentioned way back in the section on crafting characters, is to provide each speaker with a word, phrase, tic, or conversational tendency they use frequently. Another is by paying close attention to how the speaker feels about the person or group they are addressing, allowing their words and emotions to be shaped by how they perceive the others and by how they expect them to respond.

Tone, body language, and facial expression

Flowing conversations are about more than the words spoken themselves, as your characters’ body language, expressions, and tonality also play important roles in communicating what is happening to your reader. Laughing, shrugging, winking, and sighing. Making direct eye contact or refusing to meet someone’s gaze. Confident verses furtive body language.

Each of these gestures communicates important information that can totally change the meaning of the words themselves. You will want to make sure to include such mannerisms in your dialogue, not only because they add rich detail and communicate mood, but also because they can effectively demonstrate a wide range of emotions and social considerations in a remarkably few number of words. They can also help to break up thick blocks of conversation, helping to smooth out the overall pacing of your narrative.

4. Use dialogue to establish the personalities and mindsets of your characters

Dialogue is an ideal place to reveal and establish character. The words a character chooses, the emotions they convey, how they perceive and react to others. Each of these places contains an opportunity to show the thoughts, emotions, and mindset of your characters to your reader. Do they treat others with casual kindness or cruelty? Listen closely or verbally push their way past the other speaker? Do they have an open mind, or are they just looking for an excuse to reinforce their preexisting expectations and prejudice? Each of these decisions will change the way your reader views a given character, as watching how people talk to and treat one another is one of the ways in which we form lasting opinions about others in everyday life.

Conversations are also a great way of relaying a character’s past experiences and present goals to your reader (along with flashbacks and exposition). This means that not every line of dialogue needs to be dripping with vital information or thrumming with conflict, as some exchanges might just be included to reinforce the personality of a character or the relationships between individuals or groups.

5. Dialogue is also a powerful tool for revealing the relationship dynamics between your characters

This is an extension of the last rule, but deserves a bit of space to talk about on its own. The idea here is that conversations, the manner in which two people speak to one another, can be an incredibly powerful way to reveal the dynamics of their relationship. Rather than simply telling your readers that two characters have bad blood between them, show their animosity and resentment over the course of a brief dialogue. Or perhaps two characters are falling in love. Rather than just saying it, show their budding affection and desire in the manner in which they speak to one another and in the body language that falls in between the lines of dialogue. There are a number of ways to reveal relationship dynamics over the course of a conversation. It will influence the words a character chooses, their tone and expression, as well as the way in which they interpret the words and deeds of the other person.

People can say one thing, but mean another

Although this may seem obvious at first, subtext and subterfuge are incredibly powerful tools for establishing a scene or modifying its tension or meaning.

There are many reasons a character might hide their true feelings or knowledge. They might have a goal that is in conflict with the other person. Or maybe they just don’t like them much. Maybe they are just pretending to agree with someone so as not to rock the boat, or to preserve the other individual’s good impression of them. Perhaps they are a predator, lying and misleading another for their own personal gain. Deceit and subterfuge are especially powerful when we know that one of the speakers is lying, adding a new layer of tension to a scene. It can also be used to set up effective cliffhangers, when a character discovers at a critical moment that they have been deceived, and that the other person does not truly have their best interest in mind.

6. Dialogue should provide your reader with information that is important to your world, plot, and conflict

Another powerful use of dialogue is as a form of exposition, relaying important information directly to your characters and reader via the natural vehicle of a conversation. However, please don’t have a character stop and explain an idea or event that the other person should already be fully aware of, as this technique is overused and your reader will know that you are just using the conversation as an excuse to tell them something. On the other hand, if you set it up properly, an explanation from one character to another can be a great way to sneak in some important facts regarding the world and present situation, one that feels a great deal more natural than merely laying things out for the reader in a paragraph of raw exposition.

7. Use dialogue to progress your core plot and various subplots

In general, even when a conversation helps to characterize or modify a scene, the conversation should also serve to drive the plot (or subplot) forwards. Or put another way, every lengthy conversation should be a vital step in between revealing a problem and resolving it (or at least help to propel events towards the next important plot point). A conversation itself can change the present situation and its meaning quite a bit as well, moving a character closer to or further from their goal, obfuscating or revealing the path before them, or by enhancing or diminishing their motivation and resolve. That being said, not every line of dialogue needs to be a plot-driving conversation, as a few snippets of casual speech can add a great deal when establishing a setting, compressing time, or revealing the present mood of a character.

Grant each character who is speaking a clear agenda

Most conversations in everyday life occur spontaneously and for the mundane reasons we discussed earlier. However, some of the time individuals will initiate a conversation with a clear agenda, having something they want or need to get out of the exchange, which is driving the manner in which they respond to the other person. Maybe Tom wants Erik to loan him some money, but wants to sweet talk him a bit before making the ask. Or perhaps Sally has broken her mother’s favorite statue, but can’t quite bring herself to admit it right at first. Eventually (ideally fairly quickly in your scenes), the speaker will arrive at the heart of the matter (or otherwise make a move to achieve their goal). Arming your characters with hidden agendas is a great way to make the most out of your dialogue-laden scenes, adding tension and subtext to an otherwise routine interaction.

8. Keep your dialogue tight, focused, and lean. Less is more

If you come out of this conversation and only take one thing with you, let it be this: In order to write effective dialogue that flows, you are going to need to cut, trim, and distil your words down to their bare essence… and then likely shave off a bit more. This means you should never say in two sentences what you can say in one, or convey in a dozen words what you can reveal in six (or even with a grunt or gesture). This is because, as we have discussed, good dialogue in fiction is not realistic. It is an idealized reflection that borrows the form of a real conversation, but also one that removes most of the words and noises that would take place in the real world.

Exercise: Paring down your dialogue

For this exercise, you are going to take a conversation from a section you have already drafted and attempt to streamline it using the technique outlined below.

To begin, cut out most of the greetings and the small talk. Boil off your filler words, empty phrases, and repetition. Don’t write in complete sentences (people don’t use them much in real speech anyway). Even cut people off mid-sentence if you can do so effectively. Don’t go overboard and remove 100% of these things, but only leave in a tiny dollop of filler speech and social niceties in your dialogue. That way your reader will still know they are happening without you diluting your conversations with unnecessary, boring words (although it is perfectly fine if some of your characters tend to be more talkative than others).

Don’t be afraid to use a bit of summary to cut down on unneeded chatter. For example, if a character is relaying an event the reader has already witnessed, simply say “X told Y about Z,” rather than forcing your audience to listen to information they already know for a second time. In general, shear off any redundancy you can, be it in the words themselves, the structure of your sentences, or in the information they contain.

Don’t be afraid to mix up the structure of your dialogue

Although you will want to keep your dialogue generally short and sweet, do still stop to mix up the pattern of your sentences and paragraphs from time to time. Just as with your [descriptive writing], making all of your dialogue take the exact same shape will naturally tend to bore your reader. This means that sometimes your characters will speak in short sentences, while others lines will be meatier. One character might speak several times before the other gets a chance in one exchange, while in other sections they pass the conversation back and forth more evenly. Sometimes you will toss in significant pieces of description and body language into an account, while in other places the characters might speak for some time without a break.

Infuse your conversations with natural imperfections

If you stop and listen closely to the actual words used in real conversations (try a bit of public eavesdropping if you don’t believe me), you will quickly notice that people don’t usually speak using complete, grammatically-intact sentences. For human beings often stutter, stammer, and drift off. We lose our train of thought, repeat ourselves, and inject filler words and sounds, all without losing the beat of the conversation. Don’t be afraid to show some of this real-life messiness into your written dialogue, as it will appear perfectly natural and authentic to your reader (as long as you keep these rules in mind).

Make sure to balance the speakers in conversations with more than two characters

If you thought writing dialogue was already tricky, just wait until you have a conversation where three or more characters are speaking at once. Thankfully, you should not find yourself in this situation too often (you are in control here after all), but sometimes multiple conversations are both necessary and add a great deal to a given scene. The most important things to keep in mind are making it easy for the reader to identify who is speaking (you will be using more tags in multiple conversations than in those between two people), as well as to balance out the overall flow of the conversation so it progresses smoothly. In general, characters with the most at stake in a scene should be given more words, and remember to let the natural relationships and power dynamics between your speakers help to dictate who takes control of the larger conversation.

9. Intersperse longer conversations with snippets of action. Don’t let your characters ramble on while standing still

Most of the time people don’t just stand there talking for long minutes while nothing else is happening. They chat while moving from one place to another, in the middle of chores and work, or while nursing a cup of coffee or bottle of beer. So to in your fictional conversations should you try to break up longer segments of dialogue with splashes of action and description. This helps to render a scene more dynamic and engaging to your reader, and helps to prevent what is known as conversational Ping-Pong (in which characters trade single lines back and forth for the entirety of a conversation).

You can also use dialogue to break up blocks of description and exposition

This is the inverse principle of the rule I just outlined and is a useful piece of advice to keep in mind as well. The idea here is that too much of the same kind of writing tends to lose focus and bore your reader. This means that long sections of description and exposition possess some of the same problems as thick blocks of conversation. In these cases, consider using a bit of dialogue (or inner monologue) to even out the pacing and keep the action fresh for your reader. Even a single line or two can make an otherwise cumbersome block of narration easy to digest.

10. Remember to use dialogue to modify the level of tension and establish atmosphere in a scene

In general, every dialogue longer than a few lines should involve tension between the speakers. Tension in dialogue is a natural product of needing to find out how a conversation resolves. Of whose goals will be achieved and whose will be thwarted. In essence, tension is a vital component of why well-written dialogue is so engaging to read. A good conversation can be used to reinforce and generate pressure in scenes of rising tension, and to provide a release valve via humor and other devices in scenes of falling tension. Dialogue is also a powerful way to create and maintain atmosphere, the dominant emotional tone you want a scene to evoke within your reader.

Dialogue tags

Dialogue tags are one of the most difficult things to make sense of for many novice writers. They can make or break a given block of speech, rendering it elegant or amateurish by the manner of their implementation alone. Conventions for using dialogue tags in fiction have changed over time as well. Novels written in the 80’s for example, make liberal use of dialogue tags that are almost universally considered purple by today’s standards. But take a deep breath and keep on reading, because by the time you arrive at the end of this section, you should have a better idea for how dialogue tags work as well as how to effectively integrate them into your conversations.

What are dialogue/speech tags and why do we use them?

Dialogue tags exist in order to attribute a given line of dialogue to a character, allowing the reader to know who is speaking and in what manner. Used effectively, dialogue tags will naturally blend into the background of your narrative, directing the reader without drawing attention to themselves and away from the action. “Said” is by far the most common dialogue tag used in modern fiction, as well as the one you will be using most often over the course of writing your novel. These tags are unique to writing, as in real conversations, movies, and manga, who is speaking is always immediately obvious.

Six tips for reining in your use of dialogue tags

1. Try to use as few dialogue tags as you possibly can without making your conversations ambiguous

As I mentioned earlier, speech tags only exist to let the reader know who is presently speaking. You can’t cut them out of your novel entirely, nor should you try, as making it difficult for the reader to identify which character is speaking is frustrating and immersion breaking (just like having too many or overly cumbersome tags). This means that if a tag can be cut without making the conversation ambiguous, it probably should be (especially in conversations with only two speakers).

2. When a tag is required, using “said” is best (most of the time)

When I first began to revise my novel, my instinct not to use the same word over and over made me want to mix up my “said” tags as much as I vary my nouns and verbs. However, I learned as I progressed that said doesn’t leap out from the page in the same manner that descriptive language does when someone is reading. It is an expected convention that a reader can process automatically without being aware they even did so. This means that reading the word “said” won’t slow them down or get in the way of their immersion, so you should be using it as your default tag even if you have to wrestle down your natural instincts at first.

Sometimes however, a “said” just isn’t going to be able to communicate the attitude or inflection of a speaker adequately to your audience. Sometimes characters will need to scream, yell, whisper, or whine. In general, when choosing a tag other than said, you are going to want to pick the simplest word that conveys the precise meaning you wish to impart. The one that remains closest to the nearly-transparent “said.”

The worst thing you can do in your conversations as a new writer is attempt to use dialogue tags purely to prettify your prose or show off your vocabulary. Tags constructed for such purposes will almost certainly shatter the fourth wall, reminding the reader that they are looking at words on a page and not allowing them to simply immerse themselves in your wonderful dialogue and plot. If you do want to use a tag other than said just to mix things up, you can sprinkle in a few such as “replied,” “answered,” “continued,” or “asked,” but these should still not be nearly as pervasive as said in your conversations.

3. Swap them out with action tags instead

This is a great bit of advice I was fortunate to come across before revising my first novel, containing a technique that allows you to remove a large percentage of the dialogue tags in a conversation without making it unclear who is speaking. The idea is that you can use action tags (movements of the face and body) to identify the speaker while simultaneously injecting a bit of physicality and motion into a scene.

Exercise: Using gestures, expressions, and movement through space instead of said

One of the best ways of removing “said” as well as other dialogue tags from a conversation, is to replace them with action tags instead. Take a look at the following lines:

“I’m worried Betty’s speech is going to flop,” Tom said nervously.

“Oh are you? Well I’m sure she is going to do just great,” Jim replied sarcastically.

Vs.

“I’m worried Betty’s speech is going to flop,” Tom wiped his sweating palms across his jeans.

“Oh are you? Well I’m sure she is going to do just great,” Jim smirked.

In the first version of this micro-conversation, we have both a dialogue tag and an adverb after each speaker. In the second, there are no dialogue tags at all. Instead, Tom’s palms reveal that he was speaking and nervous while doing so, while Jim’s smirk displays his sarcasm. Not only is the second version tighter, it is a conjures a more vivid image, as we get to see body movements and facial expressions, all without slowing down or breaking the conversation.

This technique offers a number of advantages when reining in your use of attribution tags. Instead of using a redundant dialogue tag, an action tag can help to build or progress a scene using vibrant imagery. They can also be used to convey emotion or intention without simply telling the reader. They can be set in motion in order to keep a scene moving along at a brisk pace, as well as to incorporate aspects of the setting into the dynamics between your characters. Combined with said, action tags will help you to save more descriptive dialogue tags for special occasions, preserving their power while helping to render your conversations easy to read and preserving the pace of your narrative.

When using dialogue tags other than said, choose evocative tags that don’t sound overwritten

This is really two pieces of advice. The first is that you should choose evocative tags that have a specific meaning, one that is important to your scene, when you do decide to include tags other than said. The second is that you should still pick the simplest tag that conveys the precise shade of meaning you are attempting to communicate.

What then, are dialogue tags that (usually) sound overwritten? Tags like “interjected,” “clarified,” “exclaimed,” “reported,” “retorted,” and “pontificated,” which are more about the context in which the conversation takes place rather than the manner in which the words were spoken. That is not to say that you should never ever use these tags (it is fine, for example, to use reported if someone is actually delivering a report.) Tags that don’t make sense as forms of speech should be avoided too. Someone can whisper or yell for example, but can you really hiss, spit, explode, screech, or purr while speaking? When deciding if a word is right to use as a tag in your conversation, ask yourself the following questions: First, “Is the tag revealing a nuance of the speech that could not be conveyed with a simpler word?” And second, “Will reading this word get in the way of my reader absorbing the conversation at a natural pace.” If the answer is yes to the first and no to the second, try including the tag and see how it fits.

4. Remove redundant text and tags

When only two characters are conversing, it is often not necessary to include a tag at all to indicate who is speaking, the indention and fresh line are enough to show the speaker has changed. When you do use tags in such conversations, make sure not to include redundancies such as including a dialogue tag and action tag in the same sentence, or by adding redundant tags and punctuation. For example in the sentence:

““John, get over here!” Mary exclaimed to John,” both the attribution tag exclaimed and the second John are redundant, as both the speaker and recipient have already been indicated to the reader.

5. Avoid adding adverbs to your dialogue tags

Adding adverbs to your dialogue tags (rare exceptions aside as always) is one of the easiest ways to make an otherwise delightful conversation drone on and sound poorly edited to your reader. For one thing (as we discussed in the previous post on descriptive writing), most adverbs can be removed simply be using a stronger verb. Even more importantly, they are making your reader spend too much time unpacking who is speaking rather than following the conversation itself. Let me show you what I mean:

“Bobby!” Jan yelled excitedly. “I did it. I finally beat Jim at pool,” she continued delightedly as she ran over to Bobby’s side. “I knew I could do it,” she said proudly, “I just never thought it would be so soon,” Jan concluded in a satisfied tone.

Vs.

“Bobby, I did it! I finally beat Jim at pool,” a delighted grin lit up Jan’s face. “I knew I could do it,” she ran to Bobby’s side. “I just never thought it would be so soon.”

6. When editing, remember to read your dialogue out loud

This is a technique I advise using all throughout the revising process, but one that is especially useful when constructing and pruning dialogue. The idea here is simple, you just read the lines of your dialogue out loud at a conversational pace, just like you would in an actual conversation. Although conversations in novels don’t read the same as those in real life, you still possess a lifetime of instincts regarding how words and sentences should sound, and hearing yourself say them helps you to catch mistakes that might slip under the radar when just scanning with your eyes alone. It can also help you to more accurately gauge your pacing and tone.

Inner Monologue

Inner (or interior) monologue a term referring to when a character’s thoughts are presented directly to the reader. It is generally reserved for first person and close third person viewpoint styles, granting your reader access to the surface thoughts and emotions of your viewpoint characters. In general, such snippets of monologue will be no longer than a sentence or two at a time, representing a running commentary of the PoV character as they interact with the world around them or ponder ideas, events, or other people. Providing verbatim access to a characters’ thoughts is a technique that differentiates novels from other types of story. One that offers many advantages as well as an incentive for your reader to keep on turning those pages. After all, being able to vicariously ride along inside someone else’s head (and life) is one of the primary reasons many people find reading fiction to be so engaging to begin with.

Although you may occasionally include longer blocks of a given character’s thinking, inner monologue will generally be brief and dropped into the middle of a scene, allowing us to check in with their thoughts and feelings while remaining in the midst of the action. You shouldn’t try to reveal every stray thought or emotion a character has via interior monologue, for these can be implied indirectly in other ways. So save your monologue for when it will add to a scene, either by giving us special insight into your character, or by allowing us to feel and perceive events vicariously through their eyes. If you break away for monologue too often (as with many aspects of dialogue) you will disrupt the natural flow of a scene.

Stylistic options for conveying inner monologue

Let me suggest a few ground rules for including monologue in your novel. First, I advise that you do not use quotation marks around a character’s thoughts, as the reader will naturally assume the words are being spoken out loud and will have to suffer an immersion breaking adjustment when they realize they were following a thought instead (usually only when they get to a “he thought” at the end of a sentence).

Next, monologues almost always occur in the first person present tense, although at times characters will think in the past tense when contemplating prior events. In my experience, the best way to indicate that a sentence is a line of monologue is to place it in italics in a new paragraph. However, if you are just summarizing the character’s thinking and not relaying it directly, italics are unnecessary. When using italics, monologue tags become unnecessary, although you may choose to include them (rarely) for stylistic purposes (e.g. thought, remembered, pondered, realized, etc.)

Whatever style you ultimately decide on, make sure to be consistent throughout your novel, as your reader will quickly adapt to your convention and expect it going forwards (breaking their immersion if you stop and change things up).

That’s it for our discussion on dialogue and speech tags, now it’s time to head over to the next entry and dive into the various components of scenecrafting.

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