Dialogue is one of the fiction writer’s most powerful tools. But with great power comes great responsibility: while well-written dialogue can instantly engage the reader, poorly written dialogue can also easily turn the reader off. Kristen Kieffer at well-storied describes dialogue as a “complex literary powerhouse” – an apt description for such an important element of a fiction writer’s repertoire.

Like any skill, learning to write effective dialogue takes time and practice. It requires you to carefully study the writing of seasoned authors to learn from their skill and adapt their techniques to your own personal style.

There are, however, some general rules you can follow to get started. In this article, I’ll discuss five basic elements of effective dialogue.

#1 – Effective dialogue is used sparingly and with intention

Dialogue should only be used when it advances the narrative; that is, when it is either introducing or resolving tension. Dialogue is not a place to “information dump,” or to provide a lot of detail on the characters or the story all at once.

In this vein, dialogue should not be used too often. Otherwise, it can become tiring for your reader. Use dialogue only when a direct interaction between your characters is essential to the story.

#2 – Dialogue uses identifying tags with care

Identifying tags are the little words that come after speech in a text to inform the reader who is speaking: “they said,” “she said,” etc. While these can come in handy every once in a while, the most effective dialogue avoids using them too often.

You may worry about the reader being able to understand which character is speaking. If the writer doesn’t make it clear to the reader, won’t the dialogue be too confusing to follow? This is an important concern. Thankfully, there are other ways to address this without filling your text with “he said”.

For one, you should be sure that each character’s speech is distinctive. Just as you carefully craft a proto-persona to direct your self-promotion efforts, you should carefully craft your characters, and one great way to do this characterization work is through a character’s communication style. Are they direct, or do they prefer to beat around the bush? What is their word choice like? If you take care to make each character’s speech distinctive, you will be able to reduce confusion while also making your characters come to life for the reader.

In some cases, however, you may still want to indicate to the reader who has spoken, if only just to break up a bit of back-and-forth dialogue. In this case, you can use what NY book editors refer to as “descriptive follow ups”, which look like this:

“That sounds like a long shot.” James threw a pebble into the lake.

This makes it clear who is speaking while also conveying information about the character’s feelings, making for effective and impactful dialogue.

#3 – Dialogue avoids being too realistic

Although realism may seem like an admirable goal for dialogue, in reality, the most effective dialogue walks the line between realism and the purposes of the narrative.

In our daily lives, we have a lot of mechanical interactions: if, in writing a story, we had to write down every “thank you”, every “excuse me”, or every phrase we repeat multiple times when someone cannot hear us, that story would be painful to read!

Because effective dialogue in fiction is used only sparingly, it is inherently unrealistic: most people speak a lot more than would be interesting to put in a novel. So, don’t get too tied up in hyperrealism; otherwise, you may end up with dialogue that distracts rather than engages the reader. 

#4 – Effective dialogue honors the fact that people often leave a lot unsaid

Having given my warning against hyperrealism, let’s talk about a way that realism can contribute to effective dialogue. 

Sometimes, when writing dialogue, we are tempted to get the most bang for our buck, so to speak – we want our characters to get all their feelings across in a short few lines.

But in the real world, people leave a lot of things unsaid. We mislead intentionally, we leave room for interpretation to avoid being too direct.

When we mean to decline an offer, we may say “everything’s a bit too hectic right now for me.” Instead of rejecting someone’s advances outright, we may instead state that we “aren’t looking for anything serious.” The important thing here is not only the message sent, but the message that is implied through our rephrasing.

So, when writing dialogue, be mindful of respecting subtext and nuance. This makes interactions a lot more dynamic and interesting, and ultimately, the sense of realism also helps keep the reader in the narrative.

While realism is not necessarily a worthy goal in and of itself, being realistic with how honest and forthcoming your characters are in their interactions can create effective dialogue that leaves the reader guessing and wanting more.

#5 – Dialogue respects the relationships between the characters

While characters should have their own distinct style of speech in order for their personality to come across, their speech should differ when they speak to different people. Your main character, for example, will speak differently with their mother than with their boyfriend, just as they would speak differently to a stranger as opposed to a close friend.

Relationships and dynamics are very important to dialogue. What is at stake in this interaction? What are the power dynamics? How does the encounter move the narrative forward? Because so many points of tension in a novel happen between characters, dialogue can be essential to plot development.

I hope these few tips can help you reflect on your writing to achieve more effective dialogue. If your story involves an antagonist (and most effective stories do), you can take a look at our post on writing a sympathetic villain to learn more about characterization. If you’re ready to share your story, learn more about your publishing options.


 

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