Even though I’ve read thousands of novels over the years (yes, thousands), my first-time status as a novel writer has been showing itself when it comes to writing dialogue. Dialogue seems so easy when you read skilled writers such as Georgette Heyer or Dorothy Sayers. Both of them managed to create entirely distinct characters whose conversation is natural, charming, insightful and, in Georgette Heyer’s case, often laugh-out-loud funny.

Both these authors perfectly illustrate a core principle of novel writing, which is to show it, not tell it. For example, as I noted above, Georgette Heyer can write dialog that is both charming and funny. She doesn’t have to tell you that her characters are witty. They (literally) speak for themselves.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the author who, incapable of writing either charming or witty dialog, fills her characters’ mouths with leaden commonplaces. Then, having left you feeling as if you’re at the world’s most boring office party, she tells you that “Count So-and-So was one of the cleverest people in court” or that “Our hero couldn’t get over how brilliant the object of his desire showed herself to be.” No, the Count was not clever and that desirable object was dull, not brilliant. With dialogue, you just can’t fake it ’til you make it.

I’m rather a funny person in real life (whether intentionally or not) and even have moments of wit and charm when I talk to people. That’s why, when I sat down to work on my novel, I assumed that my fairly decent conversational skills would readily transfer to my characters. Oh, how wrong I was.

In my first go-round, my characters plodded through dialog, weary donkeys yoked to my lack of conversational imagination. That grim day when I found myself writing, “Hannah thought her brother Endre was the funniest man in the village,” I knew I was in deep trouble.

Out went Draft One. In came Draft Two.

Draft two had better dialogue but I fell into what I call the Woody Allen trap. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I watch a Woody Allen movie, the only way I can tell the characters apart is to look at their faces. If I close my eyes and listen only to their words, they’re a mono-character and that mono-character is Woody Allen. He completely fails to differentiate characters. Instead, he’s a one-man multiple personality disorder playing out his personality disorder at a theater near you.

Out went Draft Two. In the interim, as I wrote here, my characters began to impress themselves on me as real people, rather than objects who move plot, so the Woody Allen problem has lessened significantly.

Still, even with the Woody Allen problem retreating, I stopped before I blundered into Draft Three.

This time I decided to do some research before I set my fingers to the keyboard. It turns out that if you go to your favorite search engine (I like DuckDuckGo) and type in “How to write dialogue in a novel” you will find that there are dozens of sites that freely share their knowledge with you. The following are five of my favorite online “dialogue coaches”:

 

1. The New York Book Editors’ Guide to Writing Better Dialogue

Funnily enough, the person who wrote this article isn’t a very good writer. There’s lots of passive voice (which I hate and therefore use sparingly) and the writer does “verbing,” which means turning nouns into verbs. I get that “verbing” brings energy to the writing, but I’m a grammar pedant, and it just irks me. But, having said that, the dialogue advice is really good, especially the very first bit of advice:

Dialogue shouldn’t go over for pages and pages. If that happens, you should probably be writing a play, and not a novel.

The best dialogue is brief. It’s a slice and not the whole pizza. You don’t need to go into lengthy exchanges to reveal an important truth about the characters, their motivations, and how they view the world.

Plus, dialogue that goes on for too long can start to feel like a tennis match with the reader switching back and forth between characters. Lengthy dialogue can be exhausting for the reader. Pair the dialogue down to the minimum that you need for the characters to say to each other.

I thought I was failing as a writer when I didn’t pile pages of dialogue into each chapter. In fact, I was on the right track because I was using dialogue to develop the characters and move the plot, rather than wasting my (eventual) readers’ time with filler chit-chat. Of course, what little dialogue I had was still boring, but at least I wasn’t flooding the zone with boredom.

 

2. Jericho Writers’ How to Write Dialogue in Fiction

This is a good site because, in addition to listing specific rules that you may find at other sites, it has lots of examples breaking down the rules so that you can see exactly how they play out. Significantly, the site shows how the reader understands both what’s being said and what’s not being said. For me, it was very helpful to see abstract rules made concrete.

 

3. WikiHow’s Getting the Punctuation Right

There’s a trend among some modern writers to ignore punctuation, not just in dialogue, but in all writing. This makes me crazy. (Remember, I did say I’m a pedant.) To me, grammar rules aren’t useless frills, akin to holding one’s pinky in the air when drinking from a china teacup. Instead, grammar generally and punctuation specifically exist to enhance clarity. As a lawyer, I’ve lost count of the breach of contract cases on which I’ve worked that revolved around ambiguous terms due to bad grammar.

When it comes to dialogue, there are specific formatting rules that help the reader along. They make sure the reader knows what is narrative and what is dialogue, what is a statement versus a question, what is a third-party quotation within a character’s speech, etc. Without those conventions, it’s just exhausting to read dialogue, especially if the writer forgets to keep the dialogue brief.

 

4. Daily Writing Tips’ How To Write Dialogue

if you don’t want a whole writing seminar, but just want some short, sweet, easy-to-understand rules for good dialogue, this is the post for you. In straightforward prose, you get rules of thumb, excellent examples, and formatting information. It’s a perfect refresher course for any novel writer. (This site also offers a quick refresher course on core rules for writing good dialogue.)

 

5. Novel Writing Help’s 9 Rules For Writing Dialogue Like a Pro

This site opens by reminding the would-be writer that dialogue in a book does not exist to replicate real speech:

Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating a real-life conversation. It’s about giving an impression of it. And, yes, improving on it.

If fiction is like real life with the dull bits taken out, the same thing is true of fictional conversations. So the role of the writer is to select what’s important and then distil it down to its very essence.

[snip]

Just as a scene about two young lovers spending a perfect day out at the zoo doesn’t constitute a plot (not unless the girl falls in the lion enclosure), so two people chatting about nothing much at all – and not disagreeing, either – doesn’t constitute gripping dialogue.

Pleasant conversations are great in real life. Even if nothing especially interesting gets said, who doesn’t like chewing the fat with a neighbor over the fence or a friend over coffee?

Trouble is, listening in on those conversations would be as exciting as watching laundry dry. So make sure you don’t subject your readers to tedious, yawn-inducing dialogue in your novel.

How do you ramp up the excitement?

Easy. Give the two characters conflicting goals. One of them wants one thing, the other something else. Even if it doesn’t end in a shouting match here and now, the underlying tension will keep the readers turning those pages.

Good stuff, clearly written, and very helpful.

 

6. TCK Publishing’s Crafting Better Dialog Tags.

This one probably will be a bit controversial but…. Oh, wait. You don’t know what a “dialog tag” is? Let me explain.

A dialogue tag is the bit immediately before or after the dialogue.

“Hey, that’s my chainsaw,” Bill shouted.

Jane said, “Don’t worry, I know how to handle one of these things.”

“No, no, you don’t! That chainsaw is different. Unlike others, if you push that green button too hard…. Wait! Oh. My. God. Stop,” Bill yelled, but even his raised voice couldn’t drown out the horrifying sound of Jane’s scream.

Each of the bolded terms is a dialogue tag. A rule of thumb is not too use too many tags. For example, I could have written the above a little differently:

“Hey, Jane, that’s my chainsaw,” Bill shouted.

“Don’t worry, I know how to handle one of these things.”

“No, no, you don’t! That chainsaw is different. Unlike others, if you push that green button too hard…. Wait! Oh. My. God. Stop!” Even Bill’s raised voice couldn’t drown out the horrifying sound of Jane’s scream.

Even without two missing tags, I bet you still knew who was talking. The writing is leaner, and keeps the reader with the story.

It gets boring and almost hypnotic to read “Jane said,” “Bill said,” “Jane said,” and “Bill said,” over and over and over and over…. Still, there is a school of thought that eschewing the he said/she said tags in favor of creative tags (e.g, “she sighed,” “he yelled,” “Bill murmured”) are just too twee.

I don’t agree with the school of thought. I think good tags, used sparingly, help drive the story forward and TCK Publishing post agrees with me. Better than that, it helps you formulate good tags that aren’t cute, irritating, intrusive, or any other negative thing that squelches the reader’s desire to turn the page.

You’ll find many more helpful sites if you look. To be honest, most say the same thing, but what’s important is that they all say it in a slightly different way. Because each of us takes in information differently, one site may bore or confuse you while another site drills right into your brain and changes the way you think.

Just remember: If you’re a novelist, the voices in your head are a good thing. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself as I’ve been jazzing up the dialogue in Draft Three. It’s sparing, punchy, distinct, and well-tagged. Time will tell if someone actually wants to read it.

A note: I’m a reader, and I read fast, so if I’m looking for help I head for the written word. If you’re a writer who nevertheless likes learning through videos, YouTube is a great resource. Here are two enjoyable videos to help you write dialogue:

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Photo by geralt (Pixabay)