Great dialogue can make or break a novel.
This view may stem from growing up watching a lot of 1930’s screwball comedies. Zingers fly with rapid fire and everyone talks. A lot. But the importance of dialogue really sank in when I wrote A Proper Mistress. I went for a lot of dialogue in that book and it went on to be one of my best selling romances.
We all know great dialogue when we read it—and the best dialogue seems effortless. But good dialogue takes work, sometimes needing multiple edits and thinking it over and totally revising a scene. It also takes a few key ingredients.
1) Give Your Characters Unique Voices.
Can you tell who is talking without any tags to make this obvious?
You have to get your characters talking in order to find their voices. And each character needs a distinct voice.
That means some folks use contractions, some don’t. Some have specific phrases they like, some use colorful slang, some swear. Some characters show up right away, and others are shy.
In the Regency, Proper Conduct, I didn’t get the heroine’s voice until about page one hundred! Once I had it, I had to go back and revise the first hundred pages to put her voice back in as it should be. Before that, it was just putting in any old dialogue and faking it (you can do that in early drafts).
2) Make Your Dialogue Better Than Reality.
Readers do not want chit-chat. We get plenty of that in real life. Fiction has to be better—that means bigger, too.
You need to dramatize without going over the top to melodrama, or if you go over the top, pull it back. Study movies with great dialogue.
Study the dialogue of your favorite writers. Take the dialogue apart and see what it is you love—and use that in your own writing.
3) Layer Meaning.
Subtext is where we say one thing but mean another. There’s more going than is readily apparent.
A wife may say: “Darling, do you think we should paint the kitchen?”
But she really means, “I’m tired of living in a pig stye and I’m one step away from killing you with the butcher knife.”
- Let your characters avoid answering questions
- Change topics, and let them meander.
- Above all know how each character lies to themselves and to others. And trust your reader to be smart enough to pick up on the subtext.
4) Beware Accents, Ye Olde English, and Slang.
Watch these, and make sure you opt for clarity over everything else. This is where a reader can help you find out if you have just enough, or too much and need to pull back, or not enough flavor.
One to many “mayhaps” can throw me right out of a story. Same goes for cliché Scottish accents. When in doubt, go for telling the reader, “She had a lovely Scottish burr.” And leave it at that.
Do your research for local dialect and slang. A guy from Georgia will swear differently from a Jersey girl. Nail this. There are readers who know these things.
5) Overthinking Internal Dialogue.
Remember to give great lines to your characters to “say” (not just to think).
Internal dialogue can be a wonderful thing. Writers like Mary Balogh are masters at it. But a lot of thinking can slow your story’s pace, particularly if a character thinks and thinks and thinks about the same thing. Know the type of story you’re writing and what works best for your characters and your story.
6) Make your Tags Invisible.
Don’t trip a reader with awkward tags that clunk. Things like “he shouted miserably” and “she wailed” need cutting. This is a sure sign you’re trying to prop up weak dialogue with tags that hit the reader over the head.
Instead make the dialogue stronger. Or give your characters stronger actions. Show your characters expressing emotion through their words and actions.
7) Give every named character a star turn.
Too often characters are put in the story just to make the plot work. Turn this around. Think about how every character can have a wonderful moment in the story.
In A Proper Mistress the hero’s dad gets a terrific little speech to give his son after the hero has lost his girl—dad doesn’t want his son to make the same mistake he did. In Burn Baby Burn, a secondary character, Marion, gets to verbally kick the heroine’s ass to get her head straight that her working partner needs to be something more. These star turns round out the characters and make the overall story stronger.
8) Use Clean Punctuation.
Commas go inside quote marks and are used when the tag is part of the same sentence (action modifies the dialogue). He said, “I know how to use a comma.” And not: He said. “I know how to use a comma.”
Put in a period when the action is its own sentence. He gave a sigh. “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.” And not: He gave a sigh, “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.”
Cut the double punctuation!? It’s the mark of a writer who is still learning. And get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style so you know exactly how to write dialogue and internal dialogue so the reader gets into the story instead of being stopped by clumsy writing techniques.
9) Punch it!
This is more than dramatizing—this is going for great lines. Let your characters express their emotions in words. Let them pour their frustrations out, their anger, their fears, their happiness, but do it in character.
Do not just put plot exposition into a character’s mouth. If it takes all day, come up with wonderful lines for your characters. This means you want to KNOW your characters—know the type of words they would use, and how they would use them. Think of every character as being played by a favorite actor. What great line can you give that character which would make that actor come over and kiss you?
10) Never stop developing your writer’s ear.
Pay attention to conversations around you, to how people talk, to local accents, to phrases used. Read widely and watch lots of different types of movies. Look for the words that sing in dialogue, and words that clunk. All that will help you write better dialogue.
Do you like to write dialogue? What gives you the most trouble? Is there a trick you use that isn't mention here?
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."
She’s at work on her next Regency romance, a sequel to Lady Scandal, and will be bringing out the next book in the Mackenzie Solomon Demons & Warders Series, following up on Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire.