Writing dialogue can be tricky. Here are nine rules that can help you craft believable and natural-sounding dialogue that will propel your narrative forward:
The first letter of the first word needs to be capitalized all of the time, and there must always be ending punctuation. If the dialogue tag is a lead-in, it must always have a comma such as: She said, “Yes.” Stick to “said” for at least 90% of your tags. You can also use “asked.” Avoid tags like “stated” and “replied” as they mean nothing more than “said.” “Said” eventually blends into the background and disappears (like “the” and “and”), but if you repeatedly pick alternate words, those stand out and pull attention away from the dialogue itself and to the dialogue tag instead. Words like “grinned” and “shrugged” are not verbs that indicate speaking. You can’t “grin” a sentence, so be sure you’re not using it as a dialogue tag.
- Mix action in so we know what the characters are doing while talking.
You need to add stage directions, to help your readers envision the scene. Think of it like a movie or play—tell readers what your character is physically doing, not just what she is saying and feeling.
- Don’t let your characters say each other’s names too often.
Real people don’t speak that way. In fact, they almost never say each other’s names unless they’re calling to someone in another room.
- Consistently format your interior dialogue.
It doesn’t matter if you use italics or quotation marks, but be consistent. If you do neither and just set interior dialogue off with commas, it can be confusing, particularly if the book is in third person and the thoughts are in first person.
- The dialogue should be particular to the characters.
Well-written dialogue cannot be exchanged between characters because it’s too unique to each character. Do your men sound like men and women like women and children like children? Do they use language appropriate to their generation? Their education? Their region?
- Absolutely do not tart up exposition as poor dialogue.
This is the kiss of death for most readers. You can never have two characters tell each other things they already know as a way to introduce backstory. You may have heard that introducing backstory through dialogue is preferable than through exposition, but if it’s done badly, it’s worse. Effective ways to do it are for two characters to argue about what happened, to ask each other if they remember a particular thing, and to acknowledge that the other character probably already knows this. But…. you still want to keep this to a minimum.
- Don’t bury the lede.
People don’t wait to tell each other something important or exciting. They lead off with that. If they are waiting for some reason (for when the time is right, to mentally prepare, for one person to leave the room), tell readers that reason.
- No long lectures.
Break up (and shorten) really large lectures. That’s not how actual conversations work—especially between women who give a lot of feedback to each other—instead, have characters ask questions and say things like “Yeah,” “I hear you,” and “That sucks.”
- Be careful if you’re using dialect or an accent.
Accents can be confusing, they are very difficult to keep consistent, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of sounding like a caricature or like you’re making fun of people from a particular region.