6 Tips for Writing Dialogue that Snaps, Crackles, and Pops!

dialogueOne of the tell-tell signs of a new or inexperienced fiction writer is weak, bland, or bloated dialogue. In his book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, James Scott Bell says one of the fastest ways to assess the skill level of a writer is through dialogue.

Dialogue in our stories should be like the dialogue we hear when people around us are talking. Start and stops, half-finished sentences, changes in direction, questions not answered directly, tension, and so on. All of these elements make dialogue a lot more interesting. And by using the 6 tips below, we can write dialogue that snaps, crackles and pops!

1. Write dialogue that does many things at once.

In a post by Grace Fleming on About.com, she writes “Dialogue should set the scene, advance action, give insight into characterization, remind the reader, and foreshadow. Dialogue should always be doing many things at once.” It’s multifaceted. It shouldn’t just convey a character’s thoughts.

2. Keep the character’s voice in mind but keep it readable.

According to Grace, dialogue doesn’t have to be grammatically correct; it should read like actual speech. However, there must be a balance between realistic speech and readability.

3. Don’t use too much slang or misspelling to create a character’s voice.

Also remember to use speech as a characterization tool. Word choice tells a reader a lot about a person: appearance, ethnicity, sexuality, background, and morality. When you consider these elements, and use them in your dialogue, they really add punch!

4. Use Tension!

dialogueSometimes saying nothing, or the opposite of what we know a character feels, is the best way to create tension as shown in this example.

“Hi Jonathan.”

Jonathan folded his arms across his chest, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “Hi,” he replied.

Nancy braced herself. Something was wrong.

It’s important to keep in mind when writing a character’s thoughts not to use quotations. If you must write a direct thought, always italicize what is being “said” within the character’s mind as the example above.

5. Side-step the Obvious

In the WritersDigest.com post, 7 Tools of Dialogue James Scott Bell says one of the most common mistakes aspiring writers make with dialogue is creating a simple back-and-forth exchange. Each line responds directly to the previous line, often repeating a word or phrase (an “echo”). It looks something like this:

“Hello, Mary.”

“Hi, Sylvia.”

“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”

“Outfit? You mean this old thing?”

“Old thing! It looks practically new.”

“It’s not new, but thank you for saying so.”

Boring! This sort of dialogue is “on the nose.” There are no surprises, and the reader drifts along with little interest. While some direct response is fine, your dialogue will be stronger if you sidestep the obvious:

“Hello, Mary.”

“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”

“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”

“I need a drink.”

This exchange is much more interesting. It suggests something more is going on in the scene. USA Today Best-Selling Author, Laura Parker Castoro calls this type of dialogue a ping-pong match.

This is when the dialogue is not direct, back-and-forth as the first example between Mary and Sylvia, but just out of reach of the character being spoken to.

6. Read Screen plays to write better dialogue

In a Writer’s Workshop I attended, Literary Agent Mike Farris recommended reading screen plays to learn how to write better dialogue. I finally followed his advice today.

I pulled up “The Maltese Falcon” original screen-play written by John Huston on the Internet and read through the first ten pages. I’m definitely going to read the entire 161 page document because I can see the value of doing so.

Not only will it help in writing better dialogue, it will also help with using beats of action instead of “he said/she said,” and will help develop skills in showing the appropriate emotion of the characters, something I still struggle with. Find the screen play of your favorite movie or TV drama that you think has good dialogue and learn from it.

PS – If you have a great tip for writing dialogue that snaps, crackles or pops, drop me a line and let me know what it is.