How to Write Captivating Dialogue

I love good dialogue! Comic books, movies, books—engaging conversation is one of the best ways to get to know the characters. Which is why, as a writer, I strive to avoid stale dialogue as much as possible. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, I want to go over some tips and tricks that have worked for me (either as a reader or a writer).

First, let’s go over some dialogue basics when writing novels.

Dialogue Tags

These are the “he said” and “she said” of the narration.

Most writing advice says to avoid getting creative with dialogue tags. Things like “he exclaimed” or “she requested” are considered signs of newbie writers for most agents and editors.

Why? Because these things were popular over 60+ years ago, and are now considered cliché. You’re supposed to express everything in the dialogue itself to cut back on needless explaining.

However, if you still plan to use a dialogue tag, make sure it’s something plausible. I see a lot of writers give physical attributes that don’t work. Example:

“I like this,” he laughed.

You don’t laugh words, so this is an odd way of stating it. A better way to write this would be:

He laughed. “I like this.”

Or if you really want it to be a dialogue tag:

“I like this,” he said with a laugh.

Careful about the clutter of words, though. You don’t want the physical descriptions attached to the dialogue tag to be too long, because then it wrecks the flow of the conversation between characters.

Writing dialogue with no tag is also great.  Look at these two examples:

“Catch,” Billy shouted as he threw the ball.

Bill threw the ball. “Catch!”

The second example has a more dynamic feel, and you already know who is speaking. This is great way to incorporate dialogue into the narrative, and you won’t have to worry about what tag to use!

Now that we have some of the basics out of the way, let’s move into a few tips I find extremely helpful.

#3—Dialogue Should Pull Double Duty

In a perfect world, all your sentences should pull double duty, but dialogue is the best place for it.

What do I mean by “double duty”? I mean, whatever is being said not only moves the story along, but it gives valuable information to the reader—either about character development, plot, tone, or character arcs.

Every character has a voice! A unique way of saying things that gives you more insight to them as a person. Use that to your advantage and all your dialogue will pull double duty.

Look at this conversation:

“Do you like black roses?” Bob asked.

Mary shook her head.

“Why not?”

“Everyone in town says they’re cursed.”

This conversation works—it’s just not very engaging. Now let’s take a look at this example:

“Do you like black roses?” Bob asked.

Mary shook her head. “Are you nuts? Those things are cursed. Don’t even mention them around town.”

Mary has a lot more personality in this example, and we find out that not only do people think the black roses are cursed, but we also feel that Mary believes it. Let’s look at it one more time, but with a different personality-type Mary.

Do you like black roses?” Bob asked.

Mary shook her head. “Not really. Every kook in town thinks they’re cursed, so I haven’t seen one in years.”

See how Mary’s personality is vastly different in this exchange? She’s more ambivalent to the “cursed” situation, and probably doesn’t even believe. She didn’t need to tell us that directly—the dialogue pulls double duty! We know what the town thinks, AND what Mary thinks!

#2—Be Subtle, It’s Effective

A lot can be said when the characters are subtle. Let’s look at these two examples!

“Why don’t you like dogs?” Bob asked.

Mary frowned. “One bit me as a child.”

Again, this is fine dialogue, but not very engaging. Let’s take a look at a subtler approach!

“Why don’t you like dogs?” Bob asked.

Mary pulled her long sleeves down to her knuckles. “I had a bad experience.”

In this conversation, the question isn’t technically answered, but the reader now gets to ponder. The obvious answer is that a dog bit her, but the subtle way Mary recounts the story (even going so far as to hide herself) indicates trauma. This conversation, although less direct, creates drama that isn’t present in the first conversation.

#1—Read Your Dialogue Aloud

Fun tip: if you ever get bored reading your own dialogue, it might not be up to snuff.

But seriously – the conversation should flow when you read it aloud. Acting out the bits where someone hesitates or pauses can also help get a feel for that the dialogue needs.

The real goal of writing dialogue is to not only be engaging, but to also capture the essence of verisimilitude (a concept I’ve talked about before – it basically means to imitate real life without being 100% accurate).

Conversations in real life are filled with repetition and inane statements. If you transcribed dialogue from your life, you’d realize that 80% of it was filler or automatic responses to general inputs.

“Hello.”

“How are you?”

“Fine. You?”

“Tired. I went to a soccer game over the weekend.”

“Wow. Where?”

“My kid’s elementary school. It’s over on, uh, what’s that street—you know the one—with the roundabout.”

“Yeah.”

“Over there.”

“Cute. How old is your kid again?”

“Seven and a half.”

“That’s an adorable age.”

This might be a real conversation, but it should never appear in a book. The reader will disengage immediately. If they wanted real talks about someone else’s kid playing soccer, they’d just go back to work.

Anyway, I hope some of these things helped!

As always, thanks for sticking around. If you’re interested in flintlock fantasy tales, check out KNIGHTMARE ARCANIST, or if you prefer epic space opera, try STAR MARQUE RISING.

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