Tips for writing good dialogue

For both prose writers and scriptwriters, the question of how to write good dialogue is an important one. Can we listen in on conversations by strangers, and get an ear for the natural ebb and flow of speech? Is it better to study films which are heavy in conversation? Or are novels a good place to see the everyday use of dialogue?

For me, the key to good dialogue is understanding the character that is speaking. Each person is a blend of their education, life experiences, the regions they have lived in and the people they have been around. There is also that element of mystery that every person has! Each has a lexis, an accent, a pattern of speech that is as individual as a snowflake. For me, an author can write good dialogue when they have a concise understanding of a character.

We know that the dialogue in a film or novel is not good if, at a glance, we cannot tell which character is saying what. If the speech all blends into one soup of chatter. On the other hand, we know that the dialogue is good when we can glance at a page and identify who is speaking without having to actually follow the text to find that out for sure.

Once the characters are clear in our head, good dialogue is within reach. This is why, in so many creative writing workshops, time is spent building up the layers of characters. At York University I decided to write a module entitled ‘Building The Biography Of A Character’ because for me, that is what we need to do to create good prose. I suggest that students use their writing journal to create worksheets about their character. They are a great way to allow the writer to look at different aspects of a characters life. On these worksheets you can ask penetrating questions of your fictional creations. What were they like at school? What do they have on their bedroom walls? What do they do in their spare time? What would make them happy? These are all ways to unlock the character and help you on your way to giving them some accurate dialogue.

You can, of course, redraft your story again and again to make the character stronger but for me the preferable approach is to have as clear a sense of the character as possible before you get going. This is because the whole plot may be different if you have a strong sense of your character- and what they might do- at the start. I have a little acid test that I use to check if you know a character well. You may find it useful.

If you think you have a really good sense of your character, ask yourself if you can depict them on the page as readily as you could write about a relative. If I asked you to depict a relative, regardless of your skill as a creative writer you would be able to portray them using their vocabulary, their dialect, and their speech patterns right away. You could probably even do a half decent impression of them if I was in the room! So- would it be as easy to depict your character?

It may sound like a lot to ask to write characters that you know so well, but by the end of novels I’ve written I’ve eventually got to the point where the character’s way of speaking is so clear to me that I don’t need to think too hard to imagine what they would say in a given situation.

This piece is titled ‘tips on writing good dialogue’. I may have just described one big tip, but there are smaller ones that can be of use as well. Take the opportunity to listen in to a conversation between people on a bus, or in a café. Do you notice how many aborted sentences there are? How many interruptions, and how many stock phrases used to start statements? As someone who has transcribed interviews with people for magazines I know that if you were to record someone’s real-life conversation word for word it would make for a pretty unreadable scene in a piece of prose. But that’s not to say that we can’t, in prose, use some of the interruptions, false starts, and stock phrases that just one character would use to bring them to life on a page. These little touches have a tang of reality about them. Some writers of dialogue, such as Harold Pinter and Woody Allen, are known for creating great dialogue that feels authentic. That takes tremendous skill. But surely truly great writers of dialogue capture people as they really are? What do you think?


Image Credit: OCA student Martin Hoare

1 Comment

  1. liz cashdan 26 August 2016 at 9:38 am

    Great talking points here. Know your characters well can’t be argued with, but occasionally a new character will walk into your story or show you a side of their personality you hadn’t bargained for!

    As for authenticity, real-life humdrum chat might not be what you want in a piece of fiction or script. Somehow, I suspect, every writer has to find the right balance between real dialogue and make-believe.

    It would be good to hear from other writers but maybe August isn’t a good month for discussion.


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