The Golden Rule of Writing Dialogue

Writing Dialogue

Observation is the writer’s greatest weapon. Sometimes, observations need a little fine-tuning before they wander into your story. Dialogue – the way people talk to each other – is a perfect example of this. Yes, character conversations should flow, but they shouldn’t always read like normal speech. Finding this balance is the first step toward convincing dialogue between characters.

Here’s the first rule of writing dialogue:

If you’re looking to write better dialogue, start with this guideline: Lose the pleasantries. Like scenes, spoken dialogue should push the story forward. Consider this conversation:

“Hello, Gary,” Elizabeth said.

“Hello.”

“How are you?”

“I’m okay,” said Gary, “I got your message. Are you upset?”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth, “I’m livid.”

This passage reads like a slowly deflating balloon. Nothing happens even though the characters are engaged in an argument. By the time Elizabeth reveals she is angry, the reader is asleep. Why? The action doesn’t start until Gary says, “I got your text,” and even then, the conversation is dull at best. The reader assumes the characters greet each other, so it’s better to eliminate these salutations.

A second draft of the same exchange:

“You seem upset,” Gary said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Elizabeth’s eyes darted downward, examining the grain in the oak table between them.

Gary tried again. “I thought -”

“No you didn’t – you never think.” She pushed her chair from the table and stamped to the door.

Without unnecessary introductions, the action starts immediately. The conversation holds a cadence, whereas the first example lacks rhythm. Leaving out unneeded elements of normal conversation – such as hello, so, um, and other filler language – gives you more freedom to describe the scene too.

Watch Out for These Filler Words:

Take this list with a grain of salt; there are exceptions to every rule. But keep an eye out for overused words and phrases in your character’s speech. These might include:

  • So
    “So, why didn’t you walk the dog today?”
  • Um
    “I, um, don’t really have an excuse.”
  • Like
    “You like, only remember things that are important to you.”
  • Very
    “I’m very sorry.”
  • Well
    “Well, don’t forget tomorrow.”
  • With all due respect
    “With all due respect, you forget things too.”
  • Literally
    “I literally can’t believe you’re turning this against me.”
  • Quite frankly
    “Quite frankly, I didn’t want a dog. You did.”

None of these lines have the makings of great literature, but eliminating the filler words improves the conversation. Even if this verbiage is closer to real-life conversation, it detracts from the movement of your character’s dialogue.

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