A Half-Dozen Things to Improve Dialogue

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A Half-Dozen

Scenes are the center of all writing, and dialogue is the white-hot moment of a scene. Here’s six things to use to make your dialogue drive your storytelling.

1. Keep the commonplace out. Our conversations are full of lines line “Fine, and how are you?” or “Hello,” or “How ya doing?” A real slice of real life, but they don’t have enough energy to keep readers wondering what will happen next. Dialogue builds drama as its main mission.

2. Be sure to hear the silence. Good dialogue includes lines where nobody’s speaking, but you can see something happen. A strong statement from one person in the conversation, met by silence. “He listened to the bacon fat hardening in the pan,” would be an example.

3. Encourage conflict. People who agree don’t make for riveting subjects. You can move from disagreement to argument, and then to flat-out fighting. Not every patch of dialogue needs to be a battle, of course. But look for it, or allow the confrontation to flow out of character oppositions. Bonus: you can use an argument to give a small dose of exposition. Exposition is dialogue can become invisible, not calling attention to the necessary but energy-sapping backstory.


4. Let the camera roll. Write longer in a scene than you believe you should. You will have the chance to trim it later on, but keep that lift of energy flowing. Take things the wrong way, and let your characters misunderstand each other. Go too far, let their energy rise.

5. Vary character voices. So many ways to do this: have characters drop words to speak in fragments. Use a verbal tic like “If you ask me…” or “Here’s the thing…” at the start of lines. Have a character be a chronic interrupter. Or uncertain, using “I don’t know.” Infer dialects with the way you build lines. “Is the talking finished right now?” suggests a non-English speaker.

6. Use beats within scenes, around your character tags. For example, when you use a character’s name as in “Henry said,” then add “pushing the broom in short stabs at the concrete.” A great way to use dialogue to convey emotion. Keep me ready to listen by keeping me inside the scene, watching as well as hearing.

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