7 Ways to Develop Dazzling Dialog


One of my favorite things to write is dialog.

In comparing fiction-writing techniques to the human body, I equate plot with the brain, character development to the heart, and exposition (narration, backstory, description, etc.) to the unique way physical bodies are put together.

But what about dialog? Where does it fit? And how important is it?

In my opinion, dialog is the breath that brings the story to life. At times it whispers. Other times it shouts. But ultimately it is the oxygen that makes the difference between a story that is vibrant and alive and one that needs CPR.

I don’t claim to be an expert in writing dialog. But I can share a few of the things I consciously work on while I’m writing my stories:

1. Give each character unique ways of speaking. As I plan out characters, I try to give them each varying and unique ways of talking. We can give characters a soft-spoken tone, demanding, loud, negative, humorous, snarky, complaining, etc. Our goal is for readers to be able to identify who is speaking without having to use excessive numbers of dialog tags (said, replied, etc.). (And as a side note: I rarely use anything but “said” when I need to identify who is speaking.)

2. Story dialog is always bigger and better than real life conversations. Let’s face it. The way we talk in real life is boring. We can’t tape-record what we hear and translate it verbatim onto paper. Instead, like every other aspect of fiction, dialog is well—fiction. We have to make it more colorful, alive, interesting, more heart-wrenching, or more funny than anything we’d ever really hear.

3. In writing dialog, less is more. The days of characters going on and on for lines and lines of dialog is long over. In fact, we’ve entered the day and age when readers tend to skim anything that goes longer than a few sentences. When I glance at a page of my WIP, I check for paragraphs that are too bulky and then find a way to split them up.

4. Weave in dialects and time period speech sparingly. As a historical writer, I won’t ever be able to properly portray the speech patterns of long ago. Even if I could, it would bog down the dialog for modern readers. So instead of trying to replicate dialects and historical nuances, I generally try to give a flavor of the speech by sprinkling in phrases or words that I’ve carefully selected—ones that hopefully won’t cause readers to stumble.

5. Use it to help the story unfold naturally. We can’t get lazy and toss exposition-type information into dialog that should be woven in elsewhere. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to figure out where and how to seamlessly weave in story details. But dialog should always flow naturally within the story that’s happening around it. Dialog is not a dumping ground nor should it take over the story. Instead, it’s the breath that flows through the body that’s already there.

6. Vary the rhythm. When I’m writing a fast-paced, high-energy scene, I try to make my dialog follow suit—shorter and choppier sentences, a brisker exchange between characters, and much less exposition. But when I’m writing slower scenes, I can make my dialog slightly more flowing and longer. Likewise, when I don’t have any dialog for several paragraphs, I try to have my characters say something—even if it’s just to speak a thought outloud.

7. Develop tension through what’s said AND what’s left unsaid. I always look for ways I can cause increased conflict in the things my characters say to one another or in what they don’t say, the misunderstandings, the lies, the hurt, etc.

Those are just a few of the ways I work at making my dialog dazzle!

P.S. I had no idea when I wrote this post over the past weekend that dialog would be the topic of the week! Here are two other great posts about dialog: 5 Basics About Dialog You Need to Know by Girls With Pens and Say What? Writing Believable Dialog by Megan DiMaria.

What about you? Is dialog important to you in bringing a story to life? Have you ever read a good story but the dialog fell flat? What else can authors do to improve the dialog in their stories?

Here are a couple of the mid-week blog tour stops! You can WIN my book at both places!

Wednesday 9/14:  Patricia Woodside asks me about the sensuality in my writing and what kind of feedback I'm getting about it. Check out my answer on her blog!

Thursday 9/15: I'm sharing more tips on writing realistic but readable historical dialog with Marcy Kennedy at Girls With Pens blog.

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  1. Some great tips on dialogue, particularly point 4. regarding weaving in dialects and period speech. I've just finished reading a novel that included a German speaking in accented English. It was jarring and I found myself having to read this character's dialogue over again. It spolied an otherwise fantastic book and was unnecessary as the character's nationality was well portrayed in other ways.

  2. Great tips, as always! Writing dialogue is my favorite too. There's so much color to bring to the page.

    Leaving what's unsaid was the hardest for me to learn. :)

  3. Dialogue is one of my two favourite parts of a book, along with well-written action scenes. I'm told it's also one of my strengths as a writer. It's so important to get dialogue right. I'll often spend more time mulling over a character's word choice than I will over a major plot point.

  4. I love great dialogue though I'm not sure I've mastered it. Yet. :-) One author who rocks at dialogue, imo, is Jenny B Jones.
    Thanks for the links!

  5. Dialog as oxygen- so true. And I love what's left unsaid, too. :)

  6. Good morning everyone! When I first started writing, I thought dialog would be the easiest part about writing. But I have to agree with you, Paul. It takes just as much work (if not more) to craft well-written dialog as other aspects of the story.

  7. I LOVE good dialogue! I tend to write much MORE dialogue than narrative in my books, and have to go back and remind myself to add the narrative:-) GREAT tips here, Jody!!!

  8. I love developing tension through what is left unsaid. That's an art for me and I love playing with it.
    ~ Wendy

  9. Dialogue can be such fun for both readers and writers. One technique I use at times that can be challenging to write but, oh, so enjoyable to read if I get it right is sub-text, where two characters think they know what the other is talking about, but in reality they are each talking about something entirely different. This can make for humorous conversations.

  10. I read The Doctor's Lady last week. In less than 24 hours--and I thank you for the loss of sleep, Jody.
    And part of what captured me was the strong dialogue in the book.
    (You say "dialog" I say "dialogue.")
    Anyway, when I flip back through the book to read scenes, so often what I'm re-reading are scenes with dialogue. Not description--although you did that well too.
    Loved the book, by the way. Loved it.
    And I love writing dialogue too. My one crit partner laughs because I brainstorm in dialogue.

  11. Love the tips.

    I think what's left unsaid is just as important. You get the most tension out of it. Great stuff.

  12. I agree with you and Gayle on #4. There's a fine line between accurate portrayal and grating on readers internal ear! I would add too, especially when it comes to accents, there's a danger of basing a character's speech on stereotypes. You want to engage the readers, not accidentally make fun of them.

    Great tips as always!

  13. Oh, great points! We definitely need to be careful and accurate of the dialects we choose to put in our dialog! That's why it's almost better NOT to try to imitate a dialect, but rather pick out certain tag words to include.

  14. And Beth! Thank you so much for your kind words about The Doctor's Lady! You're so very welcome for the lack of sleep! ;-) I'm glad you gave my dialog in the book a vote of confidence!

  15. Thanks for the link!

    Lisa and I are both super excited about hosting you on Girls With Pens tomorrow :)

  16. Great post, Jody. Something I have to be careful of is 'speeches' in dialogue. Turns out it's rare for someone to stand and deliver line after line of dialogue uninterrupted. Who knew! :-)

  17. Excellent topic, Jody. When I was starting out, I didn't find a lot of useful material on how to write dialogue. Through trial and error, I leaned the craft and eventually developed my workshop on it. One thing I like to do is to think of dialogue as a weapon. This makes sure we aren't just "spinning dialogue wheels."

    Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript, and also to sink it. So it's best to attend to it wisely. Great post.

  18. Hello Jody!

    These are wonderful dialogue tips. I love writing dialogue. I can get a bit carried away with it and forget to write anything else! Balance of course is the key. I'll be keeping these tips close at hand :D


  19. Great tips Jody and you're right - dialog is the breath of a novel and nothing is worse than a book with halitosis!

  20. I do love great dialogue. It can be used to express character, progress the plot, add descriptive colour to the scene or just be entertaining. But it's harder to do well than it looks. Eavesdrop on a conversation and about half of what you hear couldn't go in fictional dialogue, even though that's how we really speak - um's, pauses, repetitive wording and all. Thanks for the reminder about bulky paragraphs visually causing the reader to skim. That's definitely one for me to keep in mind.

  21. "What's left UNSAID..." What a great reminder, Jody. So often as writers we get so intent on imparting information and making sure it all gets in there that we can forget it can also be said by not saying it at all. That's (partly) why I love "Mad Men" so much. Finally a TV show that understands you don't have to vomit it all out onto the screen.

  22. Character development is the hardest part of writing a book!

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