Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dialogue, Part II

In my last post we began a discussion on dialogue, and specifically some technical details that could tighten the dialogue in your writing. Now that we’ve gone over some technical aspects of dialogue, I want to turn my attention to the content aspect of dialogue. When does dialogue sound phony? When is it boring? How can I make it better? Today’s discussion seeks to answer these questions and more.

Common Mistakes when Writing Dialogue

Unnatural Dialogue
Often I see unnatural dialogue in early drafts and/or new writers. This type of dialogue jumps out at readers because it appears unrealistic or confusing. It’s those exchanges that have you reading and rereading sections of text, trying to decode a joke that the characters seem to get but you don’t. Or it might be that a clueless character is told a vague line, and suddenly that character understands the situation perfectly. As a result, these unnatural exchanges leave the reader scratching or shaking their heads. 

My best guess as to why this happens is that writers are trying to emulate a writing style they admire or they are trying too hard to be clever. The problem is that it often just doesn’t work, and the result is a confusing exchange that baffles readers. 

Too-Natural Dialogue
On the opposite side of the spectrum is dialogue that is too natural. Here’s an example:

“Hi Cindy, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m good. How about yourself?”
“I’m good. How are things?”
“Oh, you know, same old, same old.”
“Ha, I do know. Well it was great seeing you. Have a good day!”
“You too!”


My cell phone buzzed. I pulled it out of my pocket. “Hello?”
“Hey Matt, it’s Steve.”
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Not much. Listen, things are getting hectic back at the club. Can you meet me there in ten?”

*Yawn* This is the literary equivalent of Lunesta, and it will do more to put your readers to sleep than it will to engage them. What you want are high-tension interactions that cut to the chase. As it now stands, the first example should not even be in a book. The only exception is if this exchange is necessary to the premise or the plot. Otherwise, it’s filler and your book would do better without it.

The second example has promise, but readers have to sift through a few lines of boring exchanges before they get to the conflict. Look at the second example after removing some of the mundane pleasantries:

My cell phone buzzed. I pulled it out of my pocket. “Hel—”
“Matt, it’s Steve. Listen to me, things are getting hectic back at the club. Can you meet me there in ten?”

This example picks up the pace, increases the tension, and doesn’t waste any lines with the usual pleasantries. This is not to say that pleasantries have no place in writing, or that you must always cut out dialogue that is too natural, but keep in mind that if you do this repeatedly, readers are going to skim or lose interest in these sections of text.

Ways to Improve Dialogue

Snappy Dialogue
I illustrated above an example of what I call snappy dialogue. It quickly gets to the point. As a writer, your job is to tell an awesome story and keep readers on their toes. Snappy dialogue does this by distilling down the conversation to what’s most relevant. It’s easy to insert longwinded explanations, and it’s easy to insert natural reactions—this is how dialogue in the real world often sounds. But characters live in the world of fiction, where dialogue is better, more relevant, and more exciting than the real world, so mirror your dialogue to reflect this.

Answering the Indirect Questions and Underlying Statements
A great way to improve dialogue is to have your characters answer the unspoken question or reply to the underlying statement.


“How was the dance?”
Dad, Seth was a perfect gentleman,” Carly said.


“We’re going to need to swing by the travel agency.”
“No need. I have a map in my car’s glove compartment.”

In the first example, the question is not really how the dance went, but how Carly’s date treated her. And in the second example, the first speaker states that s/he needs to go to the travel agency, but what this character is really saying is that s/he needs a map.

If this is at all confusing or disorienting, it’s because these exchanges are taken out of context. And the context is exactly why answering the indirect questions and the underlying statements is so powerful. The context should make these types of exchanges both clear and snappy.

Dialogue Shows Rather than Tells
A few posts ago, I wrote about showing rather than telling. A great way to incorporate information that you need to tell the reader is through dialogue. This is a great way to tell the reader some bit of information without actually telling them. However, my parting caveat is that, if done wrong, it can look gimmicky.

How to Improve Dialogue
This has a simple answer: edit. And then edit some more. And then pass your novel onto a critique partner or editor and have them edit it. Listen to their feedback and honestly consider it. If they tell you some aspect of your novel was unbelievable, chances are dialogue was involved. And if you can tighten your dialogue, you can increase your book’s momentum and believability.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. This is wonderfully helpful. The whole concept of having characters answer the underlying question or prompt is completely valid. I never even considered it before, but as I Creative Writing graduate I can see that's what I was always working on throughout my degree. I wish my teachers had been as blunt as this. Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad this post was helpful! Thanks for commenting!