Writing Better Dialog
02 Wednesday Sep 2020
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Does your dialog sound robotic? Does it sound too scripted?
Writing dialog is not easy. Anyone can write dialog, but not just anyone can write good dialog, witty dialog, or a perfect banter between characters.
There will be some authors that naturally write enjoyable dialog without ever trying too hard. However, every author has strengths and weaknesses. You have to work harder on your weaknesses. If dialog is your Achilles heel, this post is for you.
There are a few steps to writing good dialog. Many of the steps involve not writing dialogue.
Step 1 – Learn about dialogue
Google this phrase: ‘what % of communication is verbal’. The first link I found said this:
55% = Body Language
38% = Tone of voice
7% = Spoken words
That means 93% of dialogue is not even dialogue.
Does your dialog use 100% spoken words ?
That can be one of the biggest problems an author has when writing dialogue. Using only words in dialogue will feel unnatural to the reader. The readers will immediately sense that something is off. The reader may not know why the dialogue is awkward, but it will likely drive them to put the book down. What is wrong? Well, 93% of our dialogue is wrong.
Step 2 – Get to know your characters
If your dialog is robotic or sounds scripted, you likely don’t know our characters well enough. You might need to spend some more time in prewriting with your characters.
Do you have a character sheet for each character?
If not, you likely need to stop reading this article and create a character sheet for your characters and come back. If you already have character sheets, then all you need to do is add some information to them.
What should I put on the character sheet?
- Make a list of common emotions:
Emotions: happy, sad, angry, frustrated, annoyed, curious, lustful, loving, indifference, in deep thought, melancholy, excited, etc.
- Body Language (under each emotion)
- How does a character’s body change based on each emotion?
- Tone of voice (under each emotion)
- What does a character’s tone of voice change based on each emotion?
- Add speech patterns for each character.
Does one character say “uh,” a lot?
Does another one start every sentence with “Well”?
Does one always answer a question with a question?
Example: In my Trinity of Mind series, Alexis never uses contractions.
Step 3 – Get to know your setting
People do not talk in a empty void. They are somewhere. What is the setting? Remember, settings is all about location and the five senses.
Answer these questions:
- Where is the character? Describe the setting.
- If inside, what is the air like? Is there air-conditioning?
- If outside, what is the weather like?
- What does the character:
See? (near or far)
Hear? (near or far)
Taste? (this is less common)
Touch or feel? (this is very common, but often forgotten)
- What is the mood? What about the setting adds to or fights against the mood?
- Repeat steps 1-5 again. It may take multiple repeats to get the setting down.
Step 4 – Mark your dialogue for improvement
Now that you know your characters better, it is time to review your problematic dialogue. Here are some things to do:
- Cross out any dialogue or words that could be completely replaced with body language
- Highlight sentences devoid of tone.
Step 5 – Rewrite/Practice
- Replace all your crossed out dialogue with body language.
Example: (Two fifteen-year-old boys saying hi.)
“Hi, Mark,” Bill said.
“Hi, Bill,” Mark replied.
Ok, nobody, especially no fifteen-year-old, speaks like this. Let’s replace this with body language.
Bill glanced at Mark and nodded a hello.
Mark’s responded by lifting his index finger, and the rest of his fingers followed in a barely perceptible wave.
See, 93% of communication isn’t verbal. We change the above dialogue by removing all the dialogue and brought the characters to life in the reader’s imagination with visual action.
2. Change the dialogue you highlighted as devoid of tone:
The three common ways to write tone are:
- Using words in the dialogue that indicate tone.
Examples: Nice words, comforting words, mean words, swear words, threats, promises, sarcasm, etc.
There is a huge difference in tone between these phrases, yet all the phrases do the same thing: ask someone to leave:
“Will you please just leave?”
“Get the hell out of here!”
- Punctuation. There are three options: . ! ?
. = normal voice
! = Emphasized
? = A question, which indicates intonation.
Notice in the example in #1 above, punctuation was used.
FYI: Do not ever use !! or !? These punctuations are considered unprofessional. They will usually indicate subpar writing, usually by an indie author, who failed to pay for an editor.
- Dialog tags.
But wait! Stop! Don’t tell the reader the speaker’s emotion, show them. Remember how you just wrote down on the character sheet how the character’s body reacted to emotion. Use that action, straight from your character sheet.
“I don’t want to go,” her little girl said, feeling a mix between dejected and stubborn.
“I don’t want to go!” her little girl stomped her foot and pouted her lip.
Notice how the bad example told the reader, but the good example engaged the reader’s imagination and brought the little girl to life.
- Speech Patterns.
Try not to overdue speech patterns. But if a character starts almost every sentence with “Well,” then do it. If a character always answers a question with a question, then you need to make sure that happens. Other characters should notice these quirks. Then if a character ever bucks the trend, you can have other characters notice, and it can emphasize a scene.
- Settings. Make sure the setting takes part in the dialog. Find the important parts of the setting’s description that work with the mood.
This isn’t all there is to dialogue, but if you start here, your dialogue will likely take a big improvement leap.
There is so much more to learn:
- Dialogue of young girls, teenage girls, women, aged women.
- Dialogue of boys, teenage boys, men, aged men.
- Dialogue of different countries. Accents. Different words, phrases, sayings, etc.
- Dialogue of an alternate species, particularly in Sci-fi and fantasy in world-building. Think of dragons, elves, orcs, Klingons, Vulcans, etc.
- Dialogue of sociopaths vs normal people
- Dialogue of a liar.
- Proper use of stereotypes in dialogue vs offensive uses of stereotypes in dialogue