Question Of The Week: Dialogue 411

13 Nov

Happy Friday, everyone! So, we received a fantastic question from Lauren, who asked us:

“I need help with dialogue. I’d love to read any advice you have!”

Hope this helps, Lauren!


I think making your dialogue realistic is possibly the most important part of dialogue. If it seems inauthentic, or stiff, people are going to pick up on that.

One of the biggest things is that people–especially teens– rarely come right out and say what they mean. People dance around their feelings, hoping the other person can figure it out. For instance, a girl isn’t going to ask her date if she looks good. But she might say her shoes are uncomfortable, hoping he says something about how great they make her legs look. Maybe a girl is annoyed because her boyfriend doesn’t spend enough time with her. She’s going to glare at him and say, “Are you really going to play with that stupid Xbox all day?” instead of saying, “Honey, I want you to spend time with me.”

Secondly, make sure the dialogue doesn’t sound too formal. Read your dialogue out loud. People naturally emphasize certain words, or pause between others, and you want to find that cadence in your writing and make sure it comes across. Adding a little slang, if apropriate, works nicely. Your choice of contractions and punctuation all affect the way the reader will read your dialogue.

The Writer With A Book Deal


As a historical romance writer I struggled a lot when it came to writing dialogue that made the characters sound like they were living in Regency England. Before, the history buffs that read my writing would comment on how my phraseology tended to be too modern. I’ve improved over the years but still have a long way to go before I can write as if I lived in the Regency Era. What I found most helpful in making my writing style a bit more historically accurate was:

1) Read lots of books written or set in the era you’re writing in.

2) Watch many period dramas with the subtitles on.

3) Borrow audio books—for example, Dickens, Bronte, Gaskell for the writers of Victorian novels; Burney, Austen, Heyer, for the writers of Regency novels; as for writers of Medieval stories, ask Lynn, she’s the expert on that–and listen to them whenever you can.

The OTHER problem some historical fiction writers might come across is that their writing style is TOO historically accurate and thus alienates the reader. Two bits of advice I can give for this issue are to: 1) read lots of contemporary novels to give your writing a balance, and 2) ask a friend who is not widely read in this genre to look over your work. If he/she responds with a “wtf!?” expression, you know you have some rewriting to do.

The Writing Getting Ready to Query


Worried about info-dumping? I’ve found that a great way to avoid it—or disguise it—is to use dialogue. Instead of spending paragraphs describing your protagonist’s past, try a conversation. Very few people want to read pages upon pages about a) the status quo, b) your hero’s twisted past, c) the history of that world or d) all of the above. Veiling facts in dialogue serves a double purpose: conveying vital information, while also building relationships between your characters. What they choose—or don’t choose—to reveal in their conversations is also a great way to hint at information. If a character is questioned and they choose NOT to answer, it still says a lot, doesn’t it?

But make sure you keep it real: think about your own conversations—how you reference current-day events/history/etc. when speaking with people. It’ll be pretty obvious that you’re info-dumping if your main character suddenly starts explaining stuff about the history of your world/past events when the person they’re speaking to should already (plausibly) know this. The last thing you want is for the reader to see YOUR hand in things. Sometimes, it’s OKAY not to explain every little detail, and just to randomly mention that king’s beheading three centuries ago and NOT go into a million details about it. But having a vague reference to that beheading in dialogue can be a great way to world-build—sometimes, a lot of those little details add up to a bigger picture, and can really flesh out your world!

The Writer Who is (Im)Patiently Waiting While Her First Novel Is On Submissions


I really think working in journalism helped my dialogue. When you spend all day interviewing people and writing down what they say, you develop an innate sense for the way they talk.  (And they don’t always use full sentences, finish thoughts, or even make sense!)  Even more importantly, I learned to take raw information I’d collected during interviews and decide when a quote sparkled enough to use in full, when an indirect quote would do, and when my subject was so dull the only way to use them was to paraphrase large chunks of what they’d said.

If you’re not lucky enough to work for a newspaper, try going out someplace where there are lots of people and just listen to them for fifteen minutes to half an hour at a time.  If you write down every snippet of conversation you hear (surreptitiously, of course—you don’t want people to know you’re spying on them!), you begin to develop that ear for spoken language.  Once you’ve got that ear, the other half of the equation is learning what dialogue moves your story forward and how to cut the rest of it out.  Writing down dialogue while you’re watching movies and TV shows also helps because (hopefully) the screenwriter has already done this second part for you.

The Writer Who is Writing Queries


Before I began writing the fantasy novel I’m working on now, I wrote lots of contemporary short stories. If you’re writing a contemporary novel, a smart idea is to study the setting. By doing this, you can understand the type of dialect and speech your characters would realistically use. If you can connect the speech with the setting, a reader from that area might recognize it. When reading, I’m always pleased to recognize something from my own daily life, whether it be a nod to the setting, or slang from the area. It adds credibility and depth.

The Writing Who Is Writing Her First Novel


Occasionally, your characters might come from a time/place where they need to speak a little differently than we speak now. The most important thing to remember is to not overdo the accents in an effort to appear ‘legitimate’. Your character should be easy to read and understand. Their accent/use of slang should NOT interrupt the flow or make the reader have to work too hard in order to decipher what you’re saying.

The exception to this rule is if you WANT your characters to be indecipherable for a purpose. For example: Brad Pitt’s character in the movie Snatch. Or the whole book of A Clockwork Orange. Or Finnegan’s Wake. Otherwise, I recommend giving it just enough of an accent so that the reader adopts that accent in their head while reading, but it doesn’t interrupt ease of reading. Use accent/slang triggers. For example, if your character has a southern accent, slip a y’all or an ain’t in there (appropriately!) to clue in your reader.

Use the internet as a tool to help you learn the cadence of speech for certain demographics. Youtube is your friend! Not quite sure how a Nigerian immigrant would say something? Youtube it! A Hungarian with a lisp? Youtube! The Chicago ‘a’ sound? Need I say it again?

The Writer Who Is Also On Submissions


Thanks for stopping by! Enjoy your weekend, and make sure to check back on Monday for Lynn Heitkamp’s article on building a readership base!

10 Responses to “Question Of The Week: Dialogue 411”

  1. svonnah November 13, 2009 at 7:42 AM #

    June, I love what you said about watching the movies with the subtitles! I never thought of that, and I’m sure it works wonders for learning speech!

    • junebugger November 13, 2009 at 8:38 PM #

      Oh it does help a lot! If you think of it, you’re basically reading a play, but have the bonus of having images and sound before you.

  2. junebugger November 13, 2009 at 8:40 PM #

    by the way:

    Oh my gosh. After reading all these advices on how to write good dialogues, or, how to use it for your benefit, I want to return to my manuscript right now and put all the suggestions into practice.

    • sarahjmaas November 15, 2009 at 12:03 PM #

      Haha, I know, right? Your suggestion about using movies/subtitles for dialogue research was SO great–I’m definitely going to keep it in mind for my next WIP!!!

  3. Trina November 15, 2009 at 9:02 AM #

    I love the format of this site. Getting this info from various sources in different times in their writing crusade is fabulous. Great advice. I didn’t think to use YouTube for dialects or movies for cadence. Awesome! Thanks!

    • sarahjmaas November 15, 2009 at 12:02 PM #

      Thanks, Trina! I’m really glad you find this site useful! And I’d never thought about using youtube/movies for dialogue stuff, either, until June mentioned it! 🙂

  4. Izza November 16, 2009 at 6:21 AM #

    Here via SJMaas’ tweet! I was hoping to get more tips on this: “The text outside the dialogue tags is important, too.” This is where I struggle mostly. I quickly run out of ways to describe how my characters are saying things. Short of the “he/she said” or “he/she asked” and a very few I others, I don’t know what I can use in normal conversation that would help the flow of the dialogue.

    I’m not sure if my problem made sense, but in case someone gets it, any input would be greatly appreciated. 🙂

    • Alexandra Shostak November 16, 2009 at 6:03 PM #

      Hey! I’ll answer that one since I’m the one who posted that response about the text outside the dialogue.

      Lol, so I can’t do this response justice in such a small space, but I’ll do my best, and feel free to leave another comment, or contact us via the contact or ask us a qotw page if you’ve got more questions!

      So, something I’ve found is that not every line of dialogue needs a tag–if the thing you’re tagging ends up just saying “he said” or “she said” then you probably don’t need that tag, unless you really need to ID whoever is talking at the time. A lot of times, unless the character is giving a one-word response or saying something really ambiguous, it can be obvious what their tone/intentions are. You’ll know when you want to clue the reader in, and when you can leave it up to them to hear the line in their head.

      Also, sometimes instead of saying “she said” or whatever, I’ll add on a line of what they did. Like, say my character just said something angrily. I’ll say “she crossed her arms” right after, instead of saying “she said.”

      As for synonyms for “said” and “asked” and all that, there are TONS of them, depending on what kind of mood the character is in and whatnot. I can propose two ways to find these: 1) google, 2) read books and every time you come across one that ISN’T “said”–write it down. That’s how I get a lot of mine. I don’t make a list or anything, but I remember stuff I’ve read that I thought was well-done.

      Sorry that was so short! I hope it at least helped a little bit!

  5. Susan November 16, 2009 at 12:06 PM #

    yay advice on dialogue! I’m always getting frustrated with my dialogue…although even more so with the intercutting of dialogue and text. But thanks all!

    • Alexandra Shostak November 16, 2009 at 6:06 PM #

      Hey! Thanks for stopping by 🙂 If you have any specific questions that didn’t get answered, you should leave us a comment on the question of the week page! We love reader questions–they are much more interesting than answering our own, lol.

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