Dialogue Writing: Strategies to Keep it Tight and Avoid Unnecessary Words
Dialogue writing is an art. In this blog post I’ll discuss the basics of dialogue, how to keep it tight, how to communicate by what the characters don’t say, how to reveal a wealth of information with a few spoken lines, and more.
What is dialogue writing?
Dialogue writing is the expression of speech between two or more characters in a book. The dialogue is written in regular prose and occurs within the text, although it’s clearly defined by quotation marks and usually separated from the general narrative by its own paragraphs.
Dialogue is a powerful tool that can help readers understand the story better. In our real lives we gain insights into the minds of others by listening to their spoken words, and in the same way we can learn more about fictional characters by what they choose to reveal (or not) in their speech.
Basics of Dialogue
In English, dialogue is very easy to spot on the page because it’s always contained within quotation marks. Additionally, every time a new person starts talking, a new paragraph begins.
As a writer you have the choice of whether to start the paragraph with the dialogue itself or with any accompanying narrative attached to the dialogue, but as a general rule the dialogue should come first.
Here’s an example of how to present dialogue:
“I’ve got that report, John,” Sally said as she entered the office. “You might want to look at it right away.”
“Is it bad news?” John asked.
Sally hesitated, then handed him the folder. “I think you better just look.”
“Thanks.” He opened the folder and flicked through the papers.
You can see how each line of dialogue gets its own paragraph, with quotation marks clearly separating the spoken words from the narrative description of the action.
In three of the four instances the dialogue comes first in the paragraph, but in paragraph three the narrative comes first: Sally’s action logically must precede her words, but the two are closely linked. This third paragraph could have been split into two, like this:
Sally hesitated, then handed him the folder.
“I think you better just look.”
But doing so brings extra focus on her words. If they’re a pivotal moment in the scene, separate them out. But if they’re just a companion statement to her action, keep them together.
Using dialogue to “show, don’t tell”
We’re taught the rule of “show, don’t tell” when creating fiction, and dialogue is one of the major tools used to accomplish this. Instead of writing a full narrative that describes the emotions of a character, a quick snippet of dialogue can convey meaning while still leaving enough unsaid to create suspense or add intrigue.
For example, if your character is upset, you could simply write it this way:
John was upset by what he saw.
This gets the point across efficiently, but it doesn’t draw the reader into the drama. Consider this example:
John slammed the report down on his desk.
“I can’t believe it!”
Now we have both a dramatic action to illustrate John’s feelings, and a line of dialogue to strike the point home.
How to identify unnecessary words in your dialogue
Dialogue should sound like natural speech. In fact, it’s not a bad idea, when you’re reviewing a scene you’ve written, to do exactly that – if you have trouble saying your dialogue in a natural way, it probably needs work.
A common error in dialogue writing is having too many words. Excess words will make dialogue sound contrived, and even dull, and it can make it difficult to understand. Sometimes a character might speak in a convoluted way because of who they are (or what they’re trying to accomplish) but it’s hard for a reader to follow a long stream of wordy dialogue.
If your character is specifically trying to obfuscate, consider just presenting the first sentence and then switching to narrative, like this:
“Well, we need to consider the implications of the recent paradigm shift in the strategic vision of the corporate leadership and how that affects not only our day-to-day operations but the multiple knock-on effects of our various subsidiaries…”
Sally knew she was blathering, but she had to buy time for Hong to get here and show John what they’d discovered. So she reached way back to her MBA days and kept on spewing corporate buzzwords.
In real speech we do tend to go off-topic, switch ideas mid-sentence and talk too long. But in fiction, the speech needs to be tight. Every line of dialogue serves a purpose – be it to reveal or set up critical information, to develop character or to advance the plot.
It shouldn’t include anything that isn’t important to the story. Good dialogue will propel a scene forward, but bad dialogue will actually slow it down. The key is to ensure that everything your characters say moves the scene forward in some way.
Tips for keeping your dialogues tight and engaging
Dialogue is one of your best tools as an author, but it has to be sharp. Here are 5 tips that can help you keep your dialogue tight and engaging:
1- Keep speeches short; a few sentences max.
2- Encourage a lot of back and forth chatter between characters – this makes the dialogue more dynamic.
3- Don’t cover subjects that are unnecessary for what’s happening in the scene (For example, a character should talk about what they’re going to do, not what they’re not going to do.)
4- If three or more people are speaking in a scene, be very clear about who the speaker is each time.
5- Remember that every line of dialogue serves a purpose to the story (info, character, plot). If it doesn’t, remove it.
Tips for integrating dialogue into the narrative
Dialogue is a great tool, but it works best when supported by an equally snappy narrative. Sometimes it’s okay to reduce part of a scene to nothing but dialogue – but only if the speech itself is the dramatic focus of the scene. Otherwise, use this technique sparingly.
Most of the time, dialogue and narrative work together in a dynamic dance of voice and description that draws the reader into the scene. Here are 5 tips to integrate dialogue effectively into your scenes:
1- Don’t go more than two or three paragraphs of dialogue without inserting some narrative.
2- If narrative and dialogue are going to be paired in the same paragraph, keep the narrative to a single sentence.
3- If you need a longer narrative section inside a dialogue scene, don’t go more than two narrative paragraphs without inserting some dialogue.
4- Reveal character dynamics and emotions through subtle cues in the narrative that accompanies the dialogue: small movements, facial expressions, body language, etc.
5- Avoid writing a character’s inner monologues or thoughts wherever possible. Let them say the words out loud to another character, or interchange their thoughts with spoken dialogue.
Examples of how to keep it short and sweet
The following very short passage shows some of the ways in which dialogue can be used when describing emotions and character dynamics without overdoing it or using too many words.
“Okay, enough,” John sighed, raising his hand to silence Sally’s endless speech.
“We’ve known each other too long for that garbage…” He looked up, sudden realization in his eyes. “Why are you stalling me?”
Sally suppressed a smile. There was no fooling him.
“Hong’s on her way.”
There aren’t many words spoken in this exchange, but a lot of information is presented.
First, note that John keeps his cool, giving insight into his character.
Second, neither John nor Sally feel the need to overtly state how they’re feeling. Part of this is just efficient writing that lets the reader fill in the blanks, but it could also suggest a deep understanding between them that comes from a long relationship.
Third, the suggestion of their long relationship is confirmed with John’s next statement.
Fourth, his realization and her reaction suggests that they’re both sharp and intelligent people.
Fifth, the declaration of Hong’s imminent arrival builds tension and moves the story forward.
Why you should avoid using adverbs when writing dialogue
When we were in school we were taught about adverbs, and how they can add color to our writing. This is true, and adverbs have their place in English, but they should be used sparingly in dialogue.
As we see and hear our characters in our minds, we can be tempted to add adverbs to try and bring out the emotions and actions around the words. But good dialogue doesn’t need this augmentation, and adverbs mostly slow down the action.
Here’s an example:
“Look,” John said, “just give me the straight goods.”
This is effective on its own. The word “look” is already sharp, and the efficiency of the sentence matches the efficiency of his intent.
But there are plenty of adverbs that we might be tempted to employ as additional emphasis, such as:
“Look,” John said angrily…
“Look,” John said quickly…
“Look,” John said quietly…
“Look,” John said resignedly…
“Look,” John said finally…
Every one of these usages is grammatically correct, and adds nuance to the sentence. But are any of them necessary? If your scene is written well, whichever one of these adverbs is accurate will have already been implied by the context around it.
Adding adverbs like this can be effective occasionally – but it’s the rarity of their usage that makes them effective. 90% of the time adverbs aren’t necessary to get across what you’re trying to convey. Only use them in dialogue if they’re a surprise – that is, if the character reacts against what the reader was expecting – or to hammer home a particularly important moment.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.