July 2nd, 2021

5 More Quick Dialogue Tips: Round 2

By Julie Glover

The last time I was here, I gave five quick tips from my workshop on “Writing Dialogue That’s Real But Even Better.” But there are ten tips in that presentation, so here are the second five!

Remember, all of these are subtle changes that, over the course of a novel, add up to a smoother and better read.

6. Limit verbal graffiti.

Real dialogue is littered with verbal graffiti, which includes the ums, uhs, likes, yeah, you know, and other fairly meaningless words. My own favorite is just, with all of my characters just doing this and just doing that. Those words typically aren’t pulling their weight, so you should discard as many of them as you can. (By the way, curse words used too frequently and/or flippantly can become verbal graffiti, actually distracting from the dialogue between those words.)

Before

“What are you doing?”

My body seized up, and my eyes pinched closed. I knew that voice.

When I opened my eyes, Jet was looming over me. Looking as gorgeous as ever, ebony-black curls rippling around his face and eyes so blue I could swim laps in them. But he also held a searing stare of suspicion.

Um, nothing.” I glanced around to make sure he was the only one watching.

“You don’t look like you’re doing nothing.” He pointed with his good hand at my bag. “Like what’s that?”

Um, nothing.”

“What is it, Faye?”

Seriously, why should I tell you?” I dropped my caught-off-guard tone and moved to my he’s-still-a-liar tone. He’d hid plenty from me, so whatever I was up to was none of his business.

After

“What are you doing?”

My body seized up, and my eyes pinched closed. I knew that voice.

When I opened my eyes, Jet was looming over me. Looking as gorgeous as ever, ebony-black curls rippling around his face and eyes so blue I could swim laps in them. But he also held a searing stare of suspicion.

Um, nothing.” I glanced around to make sure he was the only one watching.

“You don’t look like you’re doing nothing.” He pointed with his good hand at my bag. “What’s that?”

Nothing.”

“What is it, Faye?”

Why should I tell you?” I dropped my caught-off-guard tone and moved to my he’s-still-a-liar tone. He’d hid plenty from me, so whatever I was up to was none of his business.

Above example from My Team's Fairy Godmother.

I kept one um, because Faye really is caught off guard doing something she isn't supposed to do (with fairy dust!). But the second one wasn't needed, and the like and seriously were unnecessary too.

7. Check beginnings of dialogue.

Writers have a tendency to begin dialogue in similar ways, no matter which character is speaking. Common sentence beginnings include so, well, and you know. Check the first words or phrases used in your dialogue, and make sure that (1) you’re not overusing certain ones, and (2) different characters don’t always use the same words and phrases.

Before

So for a moment, I thought you might be dead.” He drove slowly, more slowly than necessary, and I leaned my head against the door’s window and peered over at him. “You know, I saw your head hit that rock and then you lying still. So...I figured you cracked your cranium.”

“My cranium?” Disbelief shattered my restraint. “You’re talking about my cranium, and you’re a freakin’ bird?”

Well, hawk,” he said calmly. Like we were discussing Friday night plans, instead of supernatural transformation.

After

For a moment, I thought you might be dead.” He drove slowly, more slowly than necessary, and I leaned my head against the door’s window and peered over at him. “I saw your head hit that rock and then you lying still. I figured you cracked your cranium.”

“My cranium?” Disbelief shattered my restraint. “You’re talking about my cranium, and you’re a freakin’ bird?”

Hawk,” he said calmly. Like we were discussing Friday night plans, instead of supernatural transformation.

Above example from My Neighbor's Shapeshifter.

There's nothing wrong starter words like So, but they can become too frequent, thus distracting from the rest of the dialogue, where the real spotlight should be.

8. Get real with sentence fragments, interruptions, and trailing off.

Your junior high English teacher isn’t here to stop you from using sentence fragments. In fact, they work well in dialogue, because that’s how we talk. We also get interrupted and trail off at times, so use those tools as well when it works for your scene.

Before

“I don’t like Rebecca, but more importantly, I don’t want her to scoop me. I want to interview you myself.”

His half-smile drew into a full-mouthed laugh. “I thought you were protecting me from some heinous evil.”

I chuckled too, laughing less at his statement than the irony. Who’d expect a vampire to want protection?

“See,” I continued, “Rebecca and I are both up for newspaper editor in the spring, and if she got an exclusive with a vampire, she'd stand a better chance of becoming editor.”

Ah, but if you got an exclusive with a vampire, you'd become editor. Too bad it’s merely an interview request. I had hoped you were making romantic gestures.”

After

“I don’t like Rebecca, but more importantly, I don’t want her to scoop me. I want to interview you myself.”

His half-smile drew into a full-mouthed laugh. “And here I thought you were protecting me from some heinous evil.”

I chuckled too, laughing less at his statement than the irony. Who’d expect a vampire to want protection?

“See,” I continued, “Rebecca and I are both up for newspaper editor in the spring, and if she got an exclusive with a vampire—

Ah, but if you got an exclusive with a vampire… Too bad it’s merely an interview request. I had hoped you were making romantic gestures.”

Above example from My School's Vampire.

Fragment, interruption, and trailing off—check! But it flows fine and reads more realistically. (Despite there being a vampire. ~grin~)

9. Read dialogue aloud.

Want to know how real and impactful your dialogue is? Read it aloud. Not all the stuff around, but merely the dialogue—as if that part is a stage play. Both reading and hearing your character’s dialogue will alert you to issues you wouldn’t otherwise pick up. You can also try a text-to-speech function to have your dialogue read to you.

No example, but try it out!

Natural Readers Online

10. Have fun with it. This is your chance!

Think of your favorite book or movie, and I bet one of its strengths is the dialogue. Maybe there’s a memorable scene or line, or the distinct voice of a particular character appeals to you, or the banter heightens tension or humor.

You, too, can draw in your reader through well-written dialogue! Rather than think of it as serious business, have fun with it. Get creative. Try out various options. Give your characters their own speaking style. Say that thing you wish you’d said in the moment that you only thought of later.

Example A

She unfolds her arms and chuckles. “You should watch yourself, Courtney. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be happy if they found you misbehaving.”

“Don’t worry,” I say, finding my inner pluck. “I’d have to rob a bank or build a meth lab to tip the scales away from you.”

Example B

I pull the sable brown wood carving from my bag and clutch it briefly to my chest, praying its T-shape will do more to put this demon in its place. Holding it out in front of my body, I ask, “What’s your name, demon?”

Nickie laughs, all throaty and wicked.

“O-kay,” I mumble, “Cruella, it is.”

Above examples from My Sister's Demon.

I'd never think of those retorts on the spot! That took mulling over, but it was fun to include them—as if I'd be that witty in the moment.


As you can see from this post and the last one, most of the time the tweaks are subtle. But over the course of a full novel, or even short story, following these ten quick tips can improve the dialogue's flow and impact.

About Julie

Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn.

Her most recent release is My Sister's Demon, the first of five YA paranormal short stories coming out this year.

When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Top image credit: Christin Hume on Unsplash

2 responses to “5 More Quick Dialogue Tips: Round 2”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    I love me some good dialogue!! Thanks so much for sharing, Julie.

    p.s. I love that you call all the "ums," etc VERBAL GRAFFITI. That's just awesome.

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