How to Write Compelling Dialogue
Writing compelling dialogue seems to be one of the hardest nuts to crack in the writing world. Many writers struggle with how to make the conversations not only feel real, but also propel the story forward.
The good news is, you can learn how to write compelling dialogue in the following steps …
1) Determine the mood of your story
What would you like your readers to feel overall when they read your novel or watch your screenplay? This plays an important part in how you write your dialogue. Is it a funny, heartwarming story? Are you writing a suspenseful thriller where you want to scare your audience? Learn more about mood in this article.
2) Imitate real-life speech as much as you can, minus the small talk
If you pay attention to people speaking in real life, you will notice that they don’t always speak in grammatically perfect sentences—in fact, sometimes they don’t even speak in full sentences!
Inserting these “imperfect” lines into your dialogue will make for more realistic conversations in your stories. (TV writer Sally Abbott said the same in the last B2W blog!)
Take note of this catch, though: in real life, people tend to start with small talk. However, small talk in a novel or screenplay flattens the story. Be sure to cut to the chase and move right into the juicy stuff.
3) Only write conversations that move your story forward
That said, small talk isn’t the only thing you need to cut out of your dialogue. Make sure you only write conversations that propel your story forward.
Readers and moviegoers tend to read into the lines of everything the characters say. If you put in a conversation that does not have any connection to anything else in the story, they may derive meaning from it. If there is none, then this leaves them confused or even irritated.
For example, if a conversation about a favourite pet dying does not have any bearing on your story, leave it out! Otherwise your audience will keep wondering what that detail was about and end up disappointed when it doesn’t get explained in the end.
4) Learn to use colloquial dialogue
One of the best ways to distinguish characters from one another in a novel or screenplay is to give them individual cultures. For example, one of them may have Irish roots or a Scottish brogue, while another may speak with an obvious Southern drawl.
Their background will determine much of the kinds of words they will use. You can plan this out in detail by creating a character profile of your main characters.
5) Practice using indirect answers
In real life, people don’t always talk in a straightforward question-and-answer format. Sometimes we evade answering questions by changing the subject or a myriad of other tactics.
Don’t be afraid to use these kinds of answers in the conversations that your characters have. It will make them seem more life-like that way.
6) Use simple dialogue tags or descriptions
Amateur writers are often tempted to make their dialogue fancy by using a wide variety of dialogue tags. For example, take a look at this exchange …
“I can’t believe you did that,” she pouted.
“What’s the matter? It’s my life,” he retorted.
“Yes, but what will my mother say?” she whined.
“I don’t care what your mother says!” he yelled.
A better way might be to stick to the plain ‘he said, she said,’ like veteran author Elmore Leonard suggests. Alternatively, you could use descriptions to indicate who is speaking. This might be …
“I can’t believe you did that,” she said, shaking her head.
He crossed his arms defiantly. “What’s the matter? It’s my life.”
She put her arms on her hips and faced him squarely. “Yes, but what will my mother say?”
“I don’t care what your mother says!” he said, slamming his fist onto the table.
Be careful of this though … Make sure your dialogue tags do not slow down a scene or make them static. This is especially important in screenplays, where you obviously don’t use ‘said’ at all AND action is what grabs the viewers’ attention.
To learn more about using dialogue tags effectively, check out this article.
Writing Compelling Dialogue Takes Practice
With these six tips, you will improve your dialogue writing, but remember to practice, practice, practice! Don’t be afraid to edit and refine your dialogue. Finally, read your dialogue out loud … That’s the best way to tell if the conversations are compelling or not.
BIO: Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer at TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.