Author Resources

Five Areas for Improving Your Story’s Dialogue

The Golden Rule of dialogue is to show rather than tell. In this article, AuthorHouse identifies five areas you should concentrate on in order to help you write riveting dialogue.

Before we look at how to improve our dialogue, let’s remind ourselves what our dialogue should be doing for our story. It’s essential that we keep these functions in mind when we read through and edit our manuscript.

The Six Functions of Dialogue

The dialogue in your story should:

1. Reveal character (in what is and isn’t said)

2. Provide pertinent information

3. Drive the plot by building tension and drama

4. Reveal the chemistry and relationships between characters

5. Provide an emotional outlet for the story’s characters

6. Create white space on the page to avoid blocking and break the story up for the reader

So now that you have finished the first draft of your manuscript, it’s time to edit. AuthorHouse suggests you conduct a dialogue-specific edit once you have completed your first general edit. Here are five areas for you to look out for.

1. Make Sure You Are Using the Appropriate Vocabulary
There are two groups of people to consider when selecting the style of language your characters will use. The first group is your readers, and the second is the characters themselves. Here are some questions you can ask yourself about each group to make sure you are using the appropriate vocabulary.

How Old Are They?
Characters: A teenager will speak differently from a senior citizen.
Readers: Think about movie ratings in terms of explicit language. Also gear the level of sophistication of your vocabulary to your audience in terms of using long words and technical jargon.

What Gender Are They?
Characters: Male and female characters will use different vocabularies.
Readers: Male and female readers will respond differently to the vocabulary you have decided to use.

What Is Their Social Background?
Characters: Are your characters trailer trash, or were they born with a plum in their mouth?
Readers: Different socioeconomic classes will view different subject matter from their own points of view. Think about how they would be affected personally if what was happening in your story was really true and what their reaction might be.

What Level of Education Have They Attained?
Characters: How varied or limited will their vocabulary be? Will they use technical jargon and speak knowledgeably about a wide variety of topics?
Readers: How much of your technical jargon will they likely be able to comprehend, and how many topics will they be familiar with?

Where Do They Live, and Where Are They From?
Characters: Does their geographical location and background dictate that they use particular slang or catchphrases?
Readers: Will your readers understand the slang and catchphrases your characters use? (We will talk about dialect and slang later in this article)

2. Conversations Should Captivate Readers
Your dialogue should not be an exact copy of how people really speak, but it should be realistic enough to be believable while holding your reader’s attention. Here are the elements you need to consider when editing your dialogue in line with your story.

Location: The situation in which your characters are speaking in will dictate the words they use, the manner in which they communicate, and the flow of their conversation. If they are in the middle of a battle, with gunfire and explosions going on around them, their manner of speech should reflect this. They are likely to be shouting over the noise and even be interrupted by nearby explosions. Physical gestures may also be incorporated into the conversation to make it easier to get their message across.

Words: DO NOT let the words your characters speak repeat what has already been said in your narration. AVOID exposition so that you are not wasting the reader’s time by having your characters talk about something they should logically already know. DO use contractions as most people use these when they are talking in normal conversation.

Dialogue Tags: Remember the KISS principle—Keep It Short and Simple. Stick with the word “said” as much as possible. “He said,” “she said.” Add a sprinkling of “shouteds” or “whispereds” for variety, but do not get too fancy. Too many tags will start to sound contrived and will draw your reader’s attention to them rather than the dialogue.

Actions: Your characters’ gestures can be used to emphasise what they are saying, or to break up a long passage of speech. The listener might nod or sigh while the speaker continues. Commenting on this will break up conversation a bit.

Emotions: The relationship between two characters will certainly dictate the manner in which they speak to one another and the flow of their conversation. They may use clipped, short sentences if theirs is a tense relationship or long flowing sentences if they are comfortable with one another. This manner of speech will also help build tension, etc. Punctuate the conversation again with some physical gestures to portray fear or to reveal a lie, etc.

Verbosity: Some people talk a lot, while others are the strong, silent types. Don’t allow characters to go on and on, and also remember that your reader will be able to glean as much from what has not been said as what is being said.

3. Be Discerning with Dialect and Slang
The general rule of thumb regarding dialect and slang is “less is more.” Scotsmen do not have to talk as though they are reciting a Rabbie Burns poem, Frenchmen do not have to sound like Inspector Clouseau, and not every Cockney talks as though they were born hugger mugger to the sound of Bow Bells. Instead, you can modify your character’s speech to give a suggestion of dialect so that your readers can imagine how they sound but still understand what they are saying.

4. Punctuate for Professionalism
In order to produce the most professional manuscript you can, your dialogue needs to be punctuated correctly. Make sure your dialogue:

  • Begins on a new line whenever there is a new speaker.

  • Has quotation marks around the words. US standard is to have double quotation marks and UK standard is single. Just make sure you are consistent once you have chosen which to use.

  • Has punctuation inside the quotation marks.

  • Ends with a comma before a dialogue tag or with a full stop before an action.

5. What Can You Improve Upon?

Make sure you read your dialogue aloud when you are editing it. If it doesn’t flow or sound authentic when you are saying it, it will not come across as such to your readers. Look out for tired clichés, and register the rhythm and pacing of your story. Also ensure that your dialogue is contributing to your story by making sure it is performing at least one of its six functions, as outlined above.

Eavesdropping is a fun pastime. Here is a justification for indulging in it without feeling guilty! Visit a local public place, such as coffee shop or the local park, and sit unobtrusively near to where people sit and talk. Pick up the various idiosyncrasies people have in the words they use and repeat and in their speech patterns. Now go back and see if you can add any of these common traits into your story’s dialogue and see if it results in any improvement.