Assistant Editor Toni Judnitch: When I’m reading submissions, I’m often struck by how quickly awkward or stilted dialogue can derail an otherwise good piece of writing. I probably should be less surprised—writing dialogue is one of the places where I struggle as a writer as well. Writers are, often by nature, thinkers, and this can stand in the way of creating characters who speak like, well, actual people. But writers can (and should) accomplish much more than just rendering natural conversations on the page.
Strong dialogue forwards plot, it demonstrates the nature of relationships, and it also (paradoxically) highlights what characters can’t or won’t say to one another. To offer some guidance to writers like me, who often agonize over characters conversing, I’ve constructed a list of some of the most common dialogue mistakes I see in submissions and some suggestions for overcoming them.
(note: I feel like it’s important to say that there are not RULES to writing fiction. For every suggestion, there’s a writer who can accomplish a brilliant piece by doing just the opposite.)
Mistake #1: Exposition through dialogue
Example: “Don’t you remember, Honey? We have dinner with your boss tonight, and he said if things don’t go perfectly, you’re not going to get the big promotion!”
Exposition is the background information within the piece about events that might have taken place before the story even begins. Sometimes it is necessary to convey this material, but when exposition occurs in dialogue, it can come across as forced. This can happen due to lazy storytelling—having a character just say what’s going on is easier than working that information into summary—but it can also go unnoticed because we hear it so often in other media. Watch any big blockbuster movie and you’ll find it (and if you want to be annoying at parties, I encourage you to shout “Exposition through dialogue!” at the screen). A character will explain the background to a haunted house or superheroes will remind each other about some earlier happening so the audience gets a not-so-gentle nudge to direct them to a plot point.
Suggestion: Try to picture your stories as a reader would experience them. Have a trusted friend read them to you. Use a text-to-speech website to have your story read by a British robot. Imagine them as captions to a movie. Once you are searching for it, exposition through dialogue is easy to find.
Mistake #2: Characters always telling each other exactly what they mean
Example: “You’re always going on and on about my promotion and it’s driving me up the wall!”
I’ve written before about my love of first-person narrators, part of which stems from how close that point of view gets to what it means to be a person. People are messy. It’s one of the things that makes the written word so great. But due to this messiness, people (and therefore characters) don’t often say what they mean. They talk around things, obfuscate, or lie. When I teach dialogue to my students, I often have them go out into the wild and simply listen. They always have a good time doing this and come back to the next session ready to report wonderful and strange things they overheard in elevators, in line at restaurants, or on the street. There’s mystery in it. Who were they talking about? How do these people feel about each other? What do they mean, exactly?
When I get a submission that’s lacking entirely in subtext, I feel removed from the world of the story because it’s not a true rendering of conversation. It’s not how people talk. If a writer chooses to make characters entirely forthright, they miss out on an opportunity to build suspense or complicate the plot.
Suggestion: Try writing a scene where the characters are talking about one thing (the weather, what’s for dinner, etc.) but they’re really talking about something else (the state of their relationship, the future, etc.). What’s going on under the surface of the conversation. What are these characters avoiding saying?
Mistake #3: Using dialogue when summary can get the job done faster
Example: Almost any telephone call.
One of the most common issues I see in my submission queue is unnecessary dialogue. I’ve read so many phone calls and family dinners that don’t propel the plot forward or give us a new understanding of the ground state or minds of the characters. While real-life conversations can be mundane, in works of fiction and particularly in works of short fiction, there’s greater pressure on dialogue to be contributing to the whole. Every word counts.
In part, dialogue is special because it’s physically set apart from the rest of the story: new piece of dialogue, new line. This raises the stakes by creating authority, by showing that what the character has to say is worth directly reporting. It’s important to get their words exactly right.
Suggestion: Ask yourself what the dialogue is adding to the story overall. Can you get away with summarizing it? Or cutting it altogether?
Mistake #4: Dialogue from children is too cute
Example: “You are the prettiest mommy in the whole world!”
Children are some of the most difficult characters to write because they can easily come off as too smart, too mature, too wise for their ages or worse—way too adorable. Inhabiting the headspace of a child is tricky because it’s been so long since writers have been children, and the kneejerk instinct is to swing way too far to one extreme or the other.
This isn’t nineteenth-century fiction where children are too pure for this world (and where being too pure for this world often gets you an old timey train ticket to death). Kids are complicated. They have rich interior lives and thought processes and should be rendered as such.
Mistake #5: ALL CAPS FOR EMOTION
The actions and words of your characters should get across their emotions. If you’re feeling compelled to hit (PUNCH!) the trusty caps lock key, think about the context of your character’s words. Consider adding an action (while remembering that your first idea is often the worst idea or changing what they have to say to contain greater subtext.
Looking Forward: Suggested Reading
For realistic child narrators, try out ZZ Packer’s brilliant short story “Brownies.” It does an amazing job of rendering the inner complexities of children (of course, the first-person narration adds layers to this effect because the speaker is telling the story from some point in the future. Her remembrance and the subsequent telling is key).
Many people will suggest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” to teach subtext, but I think Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” also shows characters talking past one another in a way that’s sublime.
And for those caps-lock activated writers out there, you might consider reading George Saunders’s “Home.” It’s a powerful story that’s based almost solely in dialogue, and Saunders reveals the family dynamic and tensions masterfully through their conversations.
To check out more submission trends and tips, CLICK HERE
Time now to brush up on our skills. Which reminds us that, whatever you do with your dialog, TVWriter™ can absolutely guarantee that it’ll be much, much better if you shorten it. That’s right. Whatever your characters just said, make them say less.
What do you think, Laura Harrington?:
by Laura Harrington
“You can write the sharpest, most glittering, wisest, poetic, hilariously dazzling dialogue, but if that dialogue doesn’t do its true work and open the dramatic world underneath, it’s dead on arrival.” John Guare, author of Six Degrees of Separation, House of Blue Leaves, and one of my favorite titles of all time, Bosoms and Neglect.
True confessions: As a playwright – and as a novelist – it drives me crazy when dialogue is the poor stepchild in a book. So I get a little worked up about it and I can sound kind of crabby. Please bear with me. I think writing great dialogue is critically important and I believe that if you tune up your ears to good dialogue, that skill for voicing will inform all of your writing.
Why does it matter? Great dialogue makes a good book even better. Dialogue that’s really working can move your plot along almost effortlessly. Less than great dialogue can undermine our belief in your characters and our interest in the world you’ve created. How does that happen? Every time a reader thinks: That’s awkward, or: That’s not how people talk, you’ve chipped away at what you’ve so carefully created: your reader’s belief that these characters are real.
In addition, dialogue can be a wonderful way to elegantly reveal back-story or exposition. Too often, however, dialogue is under-nourished and ignored.
If you really want to learn how to write great dialogue, take a playwriting workshop. It will be well worth your time and energy.
Mistake #1: Characters use each other’s names all the time.
“Bob, I’m so sorry I ran over your cat.”
“Jenny, what are you, an idiot?”
Maybe Jenny would use Bob’s name in this situation, to soften the blow of her bad news. But why would Bob interrupt the explosion of his anger by using her name? He wouldn’t.
Writers overuse characters’ names as a form of exposition; it’s a simple way to let us know who’s talking. But in real life when you know someone well you almost never use their name. When you do, it’s usually for emphasis.
A simple rule of thumb (and there are always exceptions): For each page of dialogue don’t use character names more than once.
Mistake # 2: Forcing characters in high context relationships to speak low context dialogue.
What are high context/ low context relationships?
People in a high context relationship know each other very well. For example: married couples, siblings, business partners, or roommates. Married couples do not need to tell each other how old they are, how many children they have, or how long they’ve been married. When/ if they do, the reader experiences this as false. People who know each other have a wonderful short hand to their dialogue; they assume a great deal. This is very interesting for the reader because we get to try to read between the lines. Much is inferred in high context dialogue. That inference engages the reader, we prick up our ears and pay close attention. For an excellent example of this, look at the first scene in David Mamet’s play: Glengarry Glen Ross.
Low context relationships occur between people who don’t know each other well. For example: you and your doctor or lawyer, the prosecutor and the accused, a cop and a suspect, a new neighbor introduced into a decades old poker game. In all of these relationships it is natural to ask direct questions and solicit information.
You can create these situations in order to get a great deal of exposition out quickly. This is why low context relationships are so important and why you’ll find them used to great dramatic effect. Think of police and medical dramas, courtroom dramas, narratives based on the new kid in town.
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by Writing Workshops Staff
Don’t let anyone tell you differently: writing strong dialogue is hard work.
It takes serious effort to create characters whose words are engaging, realistic, and drive the story forward. Whether you’re writing a mystery novel or the next best piece of historical fiction, your character dialogue can make or break the whole book.
Here are five common, yet often overlooked, mistakes in crafting dialogue that could be holding your project back.
Dialogue That Sounds Too Poetic
We’re all for beautiful prose. But the second you start crafting character dialogue that sounds too poetic, your work loses a lot of credibility.
Why? Because most people don’t speak that way. We don’t use long, perfectly put together sentences worthy of a Pulitzer. So the more down to earth you can keep your dialogue, the more authentic your characters will seem to your readers.
Dialogue That’s Too Realistic
Of course, you want your characters to convey a good degree of believability. But rewriting verbatim the last fight you had with your partner? That’s not going to cut it.
Think about it this way: how many times have you engaged in a conversation with a friend while internally screaming for them to get to the point? We turn to books because our brains have a natural desire to know what happens next. So cut out the fluff that you put up with in real life for the sake of your reader’s (and your) sanity.
Forsaking Dialogue In All the Right Places
On the flip side, some writers miss golden opportunities to drive emotional impact through their dialogue. This is especially true when there’s relational tension between characters that you, as the writer, must resolve.
Let’s say your protagonist has been madly in love with her neighbor since they were kids. When she finally confesses her feelings, show the confrontation through dialogue – not explanatory prose.
Repeating What’s Already Been Said in the Narration
Over explanation can be a pesky problem that you’ll need to weed out if you want to craft a gripping page-turner. Try to avoid any redundancy in your dialogue. If the narrator’s already summarized an action, there’s no point in the dialogue emphasizing the same point all over again.
Imagine you have two characters conspiring on how to break into a convenience store in the dead of night. You don’t need to explain their plan of action through both dialogue and narration. Choose one or the other.
Not Distinguishing Between Character Voices
Listen closely to the people in your life, and you’ll notice that they all have their own unique tapestry of word choices, inflections, and cadences. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is animating each of their characters with the exact same tone and voice. Don’t get me wrong – it can be a real challenge to dimensionalize the way each character speaks. However, the more time you put into distinguishing between them, the more powerful your writing will become.
A good place to start is with your character sketches. Make a list of people you know will serve as realistic reflections of the character you’re writing, and spend some time observing how they speak. With a bit of extra effort, the difference will become palpable.
Writing Dialogue Just to Fill Up the Page
“Hi Lucy,” he said.
“Hi Michael,” she said.
They glanced to their left, where a crowd of other students were seated.
“Oh, hey guys,” they said.
Are you asleep yet? I wouldn’t be surprised. Of all the things that will get your reader to hit the snooze button, filler dialogue is at the top of the list. Try to avoid unnecessary conversations at all costs. They do nothing to drive your narrative forward, or convey the dimensionality of your characters.
Even if you’re a dialog pro, you’ll need to discern between when it helps, and when a concise summation would be more effective.
What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to writing good dialogue?
Ten Common Screenwriting Mistakes and How to Fix Them
By: Ben Larned
It’s no secret that writing is difficult. Isolating one’s self, staring down a blank page for hours on end, tasked with creating something meaningful that works on both an emotional and structural level. This makes finishing your any screenplay an accomplishment in itself, and while the process does get easier over time (or at least more familiar) even the pros need to watch themselves when it comes to common mistakes and pitfalls. No screenplay is perfect, of course, but there are mistakes that writers make across the board – and these errors are easily avoided.
Here are 10 of the most common slip-ups to steer clear of when crafting your masterpiece.
Neglecting Spelling and Grammar.
Let’s start with the obvious one. At least, it should be obvious, yet still so many screenplays have their first impressions ruined by poor grammar and spelling. Don’t rely on squiggly green-and-red lines on your computer – take the time to read through every single page of your document and check for those simplistic or sneaky errors. It’s all but guaranteed you’ll find something to correct, whether this is your fifth script or your fiftieth. And if it’s any consolation, a detailed read-through is just as likely to illuminate other, more vital areas that aren’t working as well as they should.
Screenplays have prescribed formats to which you, as a professional screenwriter, must adhere. Font and spacing may seem arbitrary, but clarity on the page is essential for an easy-read. Write your script in courier. Capitalize character names when you introduce them. Indent your dialogue and parentheticals. Formatting can be a tedious beast to meet head-on, so make sure to download screenwriting software like WriterDuet, which will take care of the technical details so that you can focus on story.
Drawing From Tropes.
Cinema is a young medium, but its formulas and stereotypes have been established since the early days. And they are instantly recognizable. If your characters fall squarely into archetype – flawless heroes, damsels in distress, soulless villains, fools – their stories will become dull because we’ve seen them before.
This is particularly true of female or marginalized characters, who behave less like real people and more like insulting caricatures and stereotypes. Ensure that your characters are behaving organically, driven by a tangible objective in an authentic environment. Understand their depths and quirks before you start writing – then keep them honest and complex throughout your story.
Forgetting the Plot (or, Skipping the Outline)
Why did you start writing your script? The answer may vary in its details, but the gist should be the same: to tell a story. So many screenplays fall flat because their scenes are pastoral, or their characters aren’t driven towards a goal. In other words, they’re boring. They don’t show change or action.
Each scene of your script should develop upon the same narrative. To ensure that this happens, outline your story before writing dialogue and action. Map out your arcs and progressions. How-to guides like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and Syd Field’s Screenplay provide suggested formats in which to do this.
Crafting Awkward, Listless, or Endless Dialogue
Writing dialogue for film is extremely difficult. It can’t mirror actual speech – too cyclical and directionless – but it can’t sound unrealistic. This is a paradox, but it’s one that must be overcome. Overly long dialogue sequences that don’t drive story, conversations that spell out intent without subtlety, and characters who simply don’t talk like people can ruin a script.
Try to minimize your dialogue to the essentials – plot development and character detail – and don’t let your characters say exactly what they mean.
Playing Director In Descriptions
So you have an idea for the coolest tracking shot this side of Goodfellas. Your script isn’t the place to describe it. Screenplays are economical blueprints that lay down dialogue, action and settings, and that’s all. Avoid spelling out camera movements – instead of “ECU,” say “INSERT,” and rather than “CAMERA TRACKS” say “WE FOLLOW…” The same goes for dialogue: actors don’t want adjectives telling them how to deliver lines. Let the conversations speak for themselves, and leave visual or emotional details to the directors.
Not Punishing Your Characters
Maybe your protagonist is your fictional doppelgänger. Or the mother figure reminds you of your own parent. That doesn’t mean you can coddle them and give them everything they want. A story must have conflict – characters need to fight for what they want – and if the conflict is light or short-lived, the story loses steam.
Knock your characters into the dirt… then help them lift themselves up again. On the opposite side of this, don’t torture your characters uselessly. We want them to fight, and maybe succeed. Be a tough, but fair, creator.
Leaving Your Story Unfinished (or Too Neat)
This goes back to #4. Nothing is more frustrating than spending 90 to 120 minutes in a fictional world, invested in a story, and then realizing it’s over without proper resolution. Your story doesn’t have to answer the quandaries of the universe, but it does need to make good on its promises.
When crafting your outline, make sure your story completes its arc, at least enough to roll credits without betraying your viewers’ trust. On the flip side, offering cheap conclusions without proper struggle doesn’t work either. Punish, then reward.
Letting The First Act Slide (or, Saving the Best for Last)
If your script lands in the hands of a busy executive or agent, chances are they won’t have time to read the whole thing. That means the first 10 pages need to grab attention immediately. If your script meanders before starting its story, it doesn’t matter how groundbreaking the ending is – the beginning must be just as tight.
Give readers a character to hold onto, a world to invest in, and a struggle to care about that will carry them past that boundary. After that, you can wow them with your ending, but you have to get them there first.
Submitting Without Rereading
It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are. No human being can make it through a 120-page document without making a mistake. These errors listed above are easily committed, but just as easily fixed, as long as you double back to actually check for them.
Scan for spelling issues. Remove camera directions. Read your dialogue out loud, and make sure it sounds plausible. Most of all, ensure that your story is consistent. Revisions can be head-splittingly tedious, but they are absolutely essential.
Shape your creation to its fullest potential before sending it out to fend for itself – you won’t be there to make excuses for its overlooked mistakes.
Don’t make these common writing mistakes!
We all need help writing a novel from time to time—whether that be during national novel writing month (NaNoWriMo) or while working on your novel as part of your New Year’s resolution—and we want to help you improve your novel (and avoid mistakes in all your future writing). There are several missteps that unpublished writers make that scream “rookie” to agents and publishers. Most are easy to fix, but the key is identifying them. That’s where we can help.
In this Writer’s Digest free download, How to Avoid Amateur Mistakes, James V. Smith, Jr., walks you through 14 of the most common faux pas that many writers make when working on their first few novels. Making these changes will help improve your writing and make it look more professional. Plus, it will help you speed up your writing process and allow you the opportunity to write a novel in a month, if you’re up to the challenge.
With the tips on avoiding mistakes and novel writing help in this free download, you’ll be on your way a novel that’s professional from start to finish. Enter your email to join Writer’s Digest and get your free download.
Enter your email to join the Writer’s Digest newsletter and get your FREE download!
Sneak Peek – Tips on Writing Better
As a writer, one of your top goals should be not to intrude in your story. The problem is, many of us do it without even realizing it. Here are a few examples from this FREE download of ways writers intrude in their stories and hurt the end product, making it more difficult to get published:
Like right out of sitcoms, movies, or even the day’s news. Using them is like putting a stick-on note in the margin of your manuscript: Hi, I’m the author, and I watch too much TV. Hell-OH-o, don’t go there, I don’t think so as in any sitcom or teen conversation.
Goofy Gimmicks and Grammatical Gadgets.
This includes alliteration—writing with words that begin with the same letter—and odd punctuation like multiple exclamation points.
Cute Quote Marks
She had never met an author so tall—seven feet, an authentic “literary giant.” Do you see the quotes? That’s the author. He’s winking at you from behind the narrative, telling you he’s made a funny, wanting you to notice it. Take off the quotes, and the irony works just as well.
Preaching From the Mouth of a Character
When I hear a novel’s heroine use a tired expression like, “male chauvinist pig,” whether the language comes in quotes or not, I know the writer couldn’t find a more artful, less preachy way to say the same thing.
Are you ready for more? Get help with writing a book and avoid writing mistakes with this free download!
There are more ways a writer can intrude in a story, and more than a dozen common mistakes in writing are included in this FREE download. So sign up for our FREE newsletter and download How to Avoid Amateur Mistakes today! This is one of the most valuable free resources you’ll own.
Learn five common mistakes to avoid when writing a fictional dialogue. And how to fix clunky, bad dialogue and create conversations that drive your story!
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Dialogue, on its face, should be easy. I mean, it’s just talking, right? We all talk, every day. Shouldn’t crafting impeccable dialogue come naturally? If only it were that simple…
The truth is that dialogue, like all aspects of writing, is an art form unto itself. Writing it effectively can take years to master. Lucky for you, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my writing, and the least I can do is warn you of them. That said, here’s a list of five common dialogue pitfalls.
With that said, let’s talk about mistake numero uno-
You’ll always have details to add for your story to make sense. This is what we call exposition (duh, right?). What you don’t want to do is write a bunch of “info-dumping” narration that will bore the hell out of your reader.
So, what do you do? No fear! Dialogue to the rescue!
Dialogue can be a creative and effective way to deliver exposition. Be careful though, dialogue is a double-edged sword. It can cut both ways! Wield it sloppily and you’ll only hurt your writing. Take this poorly written passage:
“Did you bring the spear?” Dan asked.
“You mean the Spear of Destiny used to pierce Jesus’s side as he died on the cross, blessed by his holy blood, the only weapon forged that can vanquish the spawn of Satan?” Bob replied.
Dan nodded. “Yes, will need it in our forthcoming battle with the antichrist.”
So, that’s an extreme example, but you get the point. The problem here is that Dan and Bob are saying things for the benefit of the reader rather than interacting in a natural way. Your characters should reveal important details casually, like this:
In this clip, from Aliens , screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was presented with a problem. How to inform the audience of Ellen Ripley’s fate after the events of the previous movie. He also needed to clue us in on a time-jump of almost sixty years between the plots of the two films.
This information could be presented in an opening title card, but that would be boring and lazy. Instead, O’Bannon found a way to insert the needed exposition through dialogue.
He does this through the character Carter Burke as he explains everything to Ripley moments after she’s awoken from hypersleep. It’s a plausible scene that sets up the premise for the entire movie. All in a quick conversation between two characters!
But be careful not to be too prosaic. You might run into mistake number two.
Dialogue that Mirrors Reality
Stories and reality are not the same. If they were, we would all be either insanely bored at the movies, or constantly having to deal with time-travel or vampires in our daily lives.
Your dialogue shouldn’t conform too closely with real-world conversation, either. Think about it conversations you have with co-workers. Mostly just boring small talk, right? But in a story, the dialogue can never be boring!
Your dialogue should only sound real. Meaning, you shouldn’t have two characters talking about the weather unless that weather is a hurricane that’s a threat to both their lives. Which brings us to our next mistake…
Dialogue that Serves No Purpose
Have you ever had a conversation that was overly nice? One day a friend spots you in the mall, wearing your gym clothes. They wave you down and say something like this:
“Debra! Look at you! I love those sneakers you’re wearing! And that white v-neck! So daring! I wish I had your eye for fashion!”
At this point, you’re probably pretty flattered. And then they hit you with it- the ask:
“By the way, can I get a favor? My car was towed. Do you mind if I borrow your phone to call an Uber… on your account? Sorry! Funds are a little tight this month.”
Suddenly, you realize that your friend’s gregarious nature was hiding an ulterior motive. Their dialogue wasn’t just small-talk. It had a purpose. So to should your character’s dialogue.
In a story, words are meant to progress the character’s agenda. And all characters should have an agenda. Sometimes that agenda is small. A character may want to strike up a conversation with the cute girl/guy, in the office.
Other Times, their motives could be life-changing. Your character might be a doctor who has to deliver the news to their patient that he only has months to live.
Either way, a character’s words should have a motive behind them. A reason for your character to say what they are saying. If dialogue doesn’t have a purpose then cut it. It’s worthless!
Speaking of things that are worthless, that brings us to our third mistake.
Extraneous Dialogue Tags
Here’s an easy one. When a character makes a statement it’s ‘said.’ Not exclaimed , not mumbled , not uttered , not whispered , not yelled , not chattered , not any of those things!
Listen, I know your high school English teacher told you that word variety was the spice of life, but dialogue tags are the exception to that rule. If your character is angry then make it known, but show it through their tone, their deeds, their decisions.
Dialogue tags are meant to clarify which character is speaking. They are not meant to convey actions nor sell an emotion.
Speaking of selling something, let’s talk about one last dialogue mistake.
Maybe you’re writing fiction to send a message. You believe that antibiotic overuse is the biggest threat facing humanity, and you need to get the word out. So, you’ve done the most sensible thing… You’ve written a screenplay.
That’s fine and dandy, but for the love of your reader, don’t make your protagonist spend five minutes monologuing about the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. You’re writing a story, not a sermon. If you have a theme, reveal it through the action and subtext, and get your characters off the damn soapbox!
So, there are five dialogue pitfalls to avoid. Now all you have to do is give your characters something interesting to say! Easy, right?
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Unless you’re writing an experimental, edgy book that has zero direct dialogue, your book will probably heavily rely on having characters speaking to each other. It can be easy to take dialogue in a book for granted, especially because when it’s well done, we often don’t even notice it. Unlike a brilliant plot or a beautiful description that stand out when they’re perfection, dialogue is amazing when it feels so natural that we almost forget to admire it.
But a crucial piece of improving your writing is learning to write dialogue well. It’s tricky, because dialogue in books, although it needs to feel natural, is actual very different than how people talk in real life. When talking off the cuff, people repeat themselves, use the wrong word, use filler words, use hand gestures to explain vague concepts, and more. So much of our everyday speech is mundane. In a book, however, if you write like that, readers will get bored, annoyed, or frustrated—or a combination of all three. But if you write using huge words and eloquent sentences and no contractions, in most cases it will come across as stiff and awkward. Finding this balance is key, and I’ve got three exercises you can do to improve your dialogue writing skills, as well as two common mistakes to avoid.
Exercise #1: Transcribe and edit conversations
This begins with finding a real-life conversation between people, and writing it down word-for-word (or pretty close to it). Eavesdropping on people in public is great, but if that’s unavailable, then find a conversation or interview on a podcast or YouTube. Write down the conversation as it stands, then notice all the ways that, if you just put that straight into a book, it would probably be annoying. Maybe it’s too long, or too wandering, or the speakers talk over each other a lot.
Next, edit the conversation into something that would work in a book. Think about what the purpose of the conversation is, and how you can hone down the current words to serve that purpose and move the “plot” forward. Don’t just rely on the words—add in dialogue tags, action beats, and movements to make meanings clear and adjust pacing (if you don’t know what those are, more on them later).
Purpose: This will help you improve your ability to translate the “purpose” of a conversation into a tight, evocative conversation that moves your book forward and keeps people interested.
Exercise #2: Write down pieces of dialogue you love
As I said before, it’s easy to take good dialogue for granted. But in order to grow your skill, it’s important to keep an eye (or ear) out for good dialogue in books, or even movies, video games, and anything else scripted. When you notice a particularly good phrase, or even full conversation, write it down. You can handwrite it in a journal, or just keep a Google doc of favorite phrases. Wherever you keep your dialogue collection, return to it periodically and study these pieces—why did they work so well? What about them caught your attention? How can you incorporate these methods into your writing?
Purpose: This ongoing practice trains your ear to be listening for good dialogue, an important first step toward improving. Then, when you re-write these conversations, your brain is absorbing them, giving you further material to work with. Finally, studying them to see what works helps you analyze the tools good writers use to create dialogue, so that you can use them yourself.
Exercise #3: Study screenwriting
Confession time: Dialogue used to be one of the things I struggled most with in writing. Then in college, I took a playwriting class. The things we read and wrote were overwhelmingly focused on dialogue, and after a semester of this crash course in characters talking, my ability to write dialogue had improved drastically. It’s now something in my writing that I regularly get compliments on.
I’m not saying that to brag, but to show that even if you don’t write scripts, it can still be a seriously helpful tool. You don’t need to take a college course (though, if you’re able to, go for it!). Instead, you can buy scripts for plays and movies, or even find many freely available online. Study them, and figure out how the screenwriter moves the scene forward with dialogue—and when they allow silence or action to speak instead. Practice writing short scripts of scenes, relying more heavily on dialogue than on description or action. While this typically won’t be a good writing style for fiction, it’s a helpful exercise to give your dialogue skills a boost. Read along with the script as you watch the movie, and see what purpose the dialogue serves. If you were going to capture not only the words, but the way the actor said them, how would you describe that in your book?
Purpose: Although scripts have other elements, their main focus is the dialogue. Studying them and practicing writing your own lets you zero in on it in a way that reading through a full novel doesn’t.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
Mistake #1: Overusing dramatic dialogue tags and underutilizing action beats
I said above that I would explain these terms, and here we are. Below is a quick diagram that explains each term.
I wrote a full post about using dialogue tags, so I won’t go into much detail here, but one common mistake new writers make is using too many “fancy” dialogue tags. While it works in the example above, having a conversation full of “she whispered, he whined, she yelled,” gets old very fast. Choose your dialogue tags well: “said” becomes invisible to readers, but “fancy” dialogue tags should only be used when necessary.
Instead of saying “he yelled” to show a character is angry, use action beats to show the character’s emotion. Example: “I can’t believe you would do that!” He shoved his chair back from the table and stepped away, as if he couldn’t bear to be near her anymore. From the character’s actions, we clearly see that he’s angry, and it paints a clearer picture and is more engaging than saying “He yelled.” Again, for a deeper dive into these tips and more, check out my other post.
Mistake #2: Frequently using character names in dialogue.
I don’t know what it is, but when writing dialogue, it’s so easy to have one character use the other character’s name a lot when speaking to them. But in real life, it’s actually pretty rare to use a person’s name when speaking. Typically, unless you’re trying to get someone’s attention or you’re angry/frustrated and making a point, you don’t really do it. Pay attention to real life conversations—you’ll notice this, and then realize that when reading a conversation where the characters say each other’s names a lot, it feels awkward and overwrought. When you’re writing a first draft, don’t worry about it too much, but it’s something to keep in mind when editing.
Image by Theresa Chiechi, 2019
Nothing marks a beginning fiction writer faster than improperly punctuated dialogue. Because most academic papers do not use dialogue, many students would benefit from a fiction writing class if they intend to write in this genre.
Before taking on a fiction writing project, be sure to review punctuation and grammar rules to ensure your writing is clearly understood and well-received.
Include commas and periods within quotations
Add a period at the end of a quote before the next quote
Consistently italicize words within interior dialogue
Include commas and periods outside of quotations
Separate two quotes with a comma
Use end quotes at the end of the first paragraph if the next paragraph is also part of the quote
Punctuation Rules for Dialogue
Get ahead of the game! Learn these rules to avoid obvious mistakes:
- Use a comma between the dialogue and the tagline (the words used to identify the speaker, or “he said/she said”): “I would like to go to the beach this weekend,” she told him as they left the apartment.
- Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks in American writing (the Brits have slightly different rules); other punctuations—semicolons, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points—belong outside unless it directly pertains to the material within the quotes, as in this example from Raymond Carver’s short story “Where I’m Calling From”: “I don’t want any stupid cake,” says the guy who goes to Europe and the Middle East. “Where’s the champagne?” he says, and laughs. In the next example, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because it is not part of the material being quoted: Did he say, “We should all go to the movies”? Also note that the sentence ends with only one mark of punctuation: the question mark. In general, don’t use double punctuation marks, but go with the stronger punctuation. (Question marks and exclamation points are stronger than commas and periods. Think of it as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, if it helps.)
- When a tagline interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas. Note that the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case as in this example from Flannery O’Connor’s story “Greenleaf”: “That is,” Wesley said, “that neither you nor me is her boy.”
- To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes: “Have you read ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ yet?” he asked her.
- For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent. Do I really love her? he thought.
- If a quotation extends to more than one paragraph, do not use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph. Use them only when a character is finished speaking:
“and in the end, I didn’t even love her.
I did think of marrying her, though.”
Common Mistakes in Dialogue Punctuation
Incorrect dialogue punctuation and formatting is common among beginning fiction writers. The most common mistake is the use of quotations outside of the spoken word. Remember: Only the words that the person says should be inside the quotation. Here are two more common dialogue mistakes to avoid.
Punctuation and Spacing
In this example, the exclamation mark should be inside the quotation, as it’s part of the dialogue:
- Incorrect: “Surely she has gone mad”! she said.
- Correct: “Surely she has gone mad!” she said.
Commas Between Two Sentences of Dialogue
Another way that people incorrectly write dialogue is by putting a comma between two sentences instead of a period.
- Incorrect: “I have made up my mind,” she said nodding, “I do not want to marry him.”
- Correct: “I have made up my mind,” she said, nodding. “I do not want to marry him.”
Remember that two spoken sentences are still two separate sentences and should be separated by a period.
More Tips on Using Dialogue
Helpful sources to guide you as a fiction writer include:
- Writing Dialogue in Action Scenes
- How to Write Realistic Dialogue
- How Do People “Talk” in Fiction?
Also, review the editing checklist to make sure you have covered other aspects of grammar.