Of all the scenes we write, dialogue is the most complex and rich. Most writers I know take several passes to get it right. On average, I find there are seven clear steps to nailing a dialogue scene.
1) Get the characters talking This may sound obvious, but it’s an effort to break out of ordinary narration and hop into the characters’ heads. If we’re writing first person, we have to stop sharing the consciousness of their narrator to let the other people come alive. Writing down what each character says, in their own voices, will probably be quite enough to concentrate on in one pass.
2) Visuals Dialogue needs to be more than just a soundscape. Characters act while they speak. They shrug, pull faces, refill the kettle or polish a sword. The scene has to exist visually in the reader’s mind. While you’re writing, it’s easy to get tunnelled down one sense – usually aural – and forget that there are others.
3) Change As every scene must move the story on, we hope that each dialogue scene will contain something that matters to the characters. They can’t just natter for nothing. Even if they’re establishing their characteristics, it’s better if the scene does something else too. That could be a plot change or a shift in their relationship – perhaps the scene bonds them more tightly or creates rifts.
4) Reactions When your characters are talking, are they also reacting? If your other scenes show their internal dialogue, does this continue while they’re talking, or has this evaporated because you were concentrating on making them vocalise?
5) Subtext The scene might have more heft than a simple exchange of information. It might be a battle to get the upper hand. One character might be telling the other that he loves her, or to stop trying to find out what happened to the missing neighbour. The scene might have a layer that only one group of readers will understand: for instance, if the novel might be read by both adults and children, it may contain meanings that will only make sense to older readers.
6) Language Depending on your genre, the language might add a poetic dimension, reinforce your themes, reflect the characters’ different backgrounds and outlooks. Pathetic fallacy or your descriptions may add colour, feeding the texture and atmosphere of the novel.
7) Declutter Dialogue scenes are meant to run swiftly in the reader’s mind. Although we need context, action and description, we don’t need to add every breath and eyeblink. It may not matter that the character pours a glass of water while he lets out a sigh. You may have been too obvious with your allusions; the reader may be able to fill more blanks than you think. Let the scene sit for a few days, then go back with a fresh perspective and take out the clutter.
Do you have any steps to add? (Apart from a complete phase of changing your mind – which for me happens to me ad infinitum when I’m letting the characters talk to each other.) Share in the comments!
If you found this post useful, there’s an entire section on dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. Weightless editions are ready right now, twinkling on the servers of Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords and Kobo.
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31 thoughts on “Write great dialogue scenes in 7 steps”
Thanks for the post! I think good dialogue is some of the hardest stuff to get down right.
Another suggestion: I’ve seen a lot of early drafts where people hem and haw a lot– trying to decide what to have for dinner, figuring out whether or not they’ll go to that party, etc. It’s very realistic, but it makes for seriously dry reading.
I look forward to hearing more.
That’s a great point about hemming and hawing. And some writers seem to feel that if their main characters are talking, we need to hear every word they utter. Not necessarily so!
wow, this is a great way to call attention to things other writers and readers take for granted.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve stopped reading because of bad dialogue.
Another step you could mention is voice or diction. When I write narrative I strive for grammatical perfection, but when my characters talk I try to leave more dangling participles and end on prepositions. It makes them feel more real and helps to distinguish characters’ voices.
Great point there, Ensis. It looks very stilted if characters speak in complete sentences and if they all sound the same. Thanks for commenting!
Dialogue is hard to perfect because it’s something that a reader shouldn’t even notice. The only time we do notice it in novels is when it’s done wrong so when it comes to writing our own story we have to keep our eyes peeled. I learned best by just flipping through pages of my favorite books to see how it was done 🙂
Reading other good dialogue is definitely a great way to learn. We need to prime our critical sense so that it’s got a strong base level. It’s the way most of us learn about grammar and spelling too – by unconsciously absorbing the good examples from well-written, well-edited books.
Thanks again Roz (and looking forward to that NYN II!),
Would another “step” be to read the lines of dialogue (dialogue only) out loud?
– do they sound realistic?
– anything that doesn’t “sound like that character”?
– anything clunky?
I read somewhere that well-written dialogue is also often much cleaner than the way we actually speak (which is full of meaningless fluff – well at least I am haha), ie no “Good morning”, “Morning”, “How was it up at the supermarket?” etc
And with respect to decluttering, I have to vacuum out endless adverbs written in first draft and find body language beats to do the same job.
That applies to endless comma-ridden lines of dialogue too (for me). Punctuate with full stops and resume with another sentence and suddenly it sounds much better.
I like the idea of trimming down attribution as much as possible – really turns up the pressure on me to write dialogue in character and makes for a snappy read (when it works). I will admit that I haven’t been in the least bit successful in this yet, so I fully expect that “said” will be the most used word in my manuscript 😦
Hi Robert! All good points. Especially the fluff. Fluff is like mantelpiece decorations – a little bit will seem lifelike and personalised. Overdo it and you can’t see what’s important.
And your point about body language is good; you don’t need to repeat ‘said’ nearly so often if you write the scene visually, with other ways to keep track of who’s talking.
Here’s one I hear a lot: stick with “he said or she said” most of the time so the dialogue tags can do their job but remain invisible.
Repetition is a funny thing, Jennifer. We can repeat very common words a lot without annoying the reader. But words that are less common – ‘she snarled’ – jump off the page and the reader notices if it appears again. ‘Said’ fades into the background.
Some great points, Roz. I love writing dialogue and have a couple of characters (The Two Blokes) who turn up now and again for a “chat”. It is a hard part of writing and some of your points will help anyone wanting to improve their dialogue writing.
Thanks, David. If you can hear the characters as separate entities in your head that’s a great help.
Really useful guide. Thank you. With my dialogue I tried to think about what each character would say in that situation and write that. When I finally publish my novel we’ll find out if I’ve been successful or not! One useful tip that I read when I was writing my dialogue scenes, was to never write more than three separate dialogue lines without identifying which character was speaking. Sometimes if the dialogue is lengthy but it is not clear who is speaking, it can get confusing and before now I have found myself counting back the lines to work out who is saying what. Thanks for a really useful post. 🙂
Nice tip about remembering to indicate who’s speaking – I’d never heard of the ‘threes’ rule but I do pay special attention to the flow and whether the reader can tell who’s who. Sometimes it’s not as obvious as putting ‘Sharon said’, but there are ways you can slip an action beat in to keep the reader on the right lines.
I can’t remember where I read it now, but it’s something that has always stuck with me. I think dialogue writing is a real skill and for me is definitely the hardest part, sometimes it flows, others it doesn’t and that’s why I really like your tips. You’d think it was easy considering we all spend all day talking!!
Excellent advice, and timely. I am currently working on a scene of mostly dialogue that will be pivotal to the story. this could not have come at a better time. Thank you!
Excellent article, Roz. Everyone should read it, print it out and tape it to the lamp on their desk so they have the reminders handy as they wright….doing that now!!
Cheers, Susan! Glad to be taped to your lamp… ow it’s hot
Really enjoy your posts and approach to teaching. Would be interested in examples drawn from published works that you think best illustrate the principles above.
In drama, like many I’ve been amazed by David Mamet’s dialogue. The spoken equivalent of painting’s hyper-realism, and a stunning conveyance of character beyond the plot point. In fiction, James Ellroy’s stylized staccato is almost the inverse, verging on the surreal but no less gripping at times. In recent popular fiction, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has some alternately breezy/electrifying dialogue.
What might you recommend?
Thanks Ron! Great tip about Gone Girl – I shall have to read that. And Mamet is a world of his own, which is just what he intends. It’s a flavour that runs through the whole work. They speak with Mamet voice in Mamet world. In prose, I find Evelyn Waugh’s satires do the same, although in a less mannered way – but they still have enough style to create a sealed world.
As for published examples, I think Ruth Rendell is terrific at authentically different voices for each of her characters. With word choice and sentence construction, she creates a strong sense of each character’s individuality. She covers all the other bases well too.
Great post – I had to get out my notebook and take notes! So many things I want to pay attention to on the rewrite phase. Reposted to my facebook author’s page.