Dialogue writing tips for your novel

You might move your readers with your lyrical prose and bring to life fictional cities, extra-terrestrial life, new worlds and whole landscapes, all through deft narrative description but at some point your characters have to converse. Else, admit it, it is going to be plain boring for them and most importantly for your readers. Dialogue writing is an aspect of the craft that new writers sometimes get completely wrong and bad dialogue can kill the interest in the story. Your readers shouldn’t think, “God, who talks like that?”

Dialogue in a novel is like stained glass, the surrounding prose is there to frame and support it.
– Frederic Raphael

Dialogue writing tips to think about

What is the dialogue about to do?

Dialogue is conversation between your characters. Remember that your characters are conversing for a reason (even exchanging social niceties with the friendly neighbor is a reason). The dialogue has to do something. Consider these dialogue writing samples:

Sample A: Dialogue reveals the relationship between two characters

“You are late again,” she said. He did not respond instead he went straight past her and plonked himself on the bed.
“See you’ve dirtied the floor again with your muddy shoes!”
He gave her a cold stare
“I’ll tell mom that you played football and did not go to class!”

Sample B: Dialogue provides information about an important aspect of the plot, a person or a situation that is to unfold

“Look at the blueprint. You turn here, to the left. See the red arrows? Yes, here. You will find a man here, at this point. He is closest to the alert alarms. If he senses your presence he has orders to shoot.”

Sample C: Dialogue helps to reveal more about your character – present mood, a quirk or idiosyncrasy for instance

“I don’t want the blue sheet,” he said
“Why?” she asked, “blue is your favorite colour!”
“For shirts and shoes, not sheets”
(This is an excerpt from the new novel I am writing. The character is bipolar and goes through volatile mood swings but I don’t always say it. I show it through dialogue)

Sample D: Dialogue is more effective than description when it brings out frictions and tensions between characters

Consider these lines:

She pretends to be asleep. It is past midnight. She knows he will stumble in any moment, drunk. He always had a drinking problem. As expected, she hears his footsteps. He flicks on the switch and quickly switches it off. As she watches him in the dark she realizes that she can never trust him. She begins to cry.

Let’s try that again as dialogue:
“It’s late,” she said as he stumbled into the room, knocking down the rack of shoes.
“Yessss, so what?”
“You promised you won’t…!”
“Did I? Now did I?”
“How can you forget?”
“Woooman, now don’t flood this place.”

Some Important things to consider while writing dialogue

1. Keep it real

You really need to listen more. If you think we are asking you to eavesdrop, well, that’s exactly we are asking you to do. In ‘real’ speech we say, “um” or “uh” or other non-word fillers, even as we think. If you notice there might be multiple little conversations on different topics at the same time. For instance, even as you are passed the roti (and your spouse asks you whether you want the ghee too), you are probably talking about how things were in office for both of you. So topics are not orderly, there are different ‘threads’ playing out. Try and bring those into your writing.

2. Keep the dialogues short

Would you stand in the middle of a room and talk uninterrupted for say 5 minutes? More importantly would you be allowed to? The same rule applies to your character in your novel (play writing is different!). People speak a sentence or two and the other person begins to speak (read: interrupt) almost immediately. Unless it is a political debate you can’t have a page of speech by the same character.

3. Choosing the right words

“What’s for dinner?”
“There are a multitude of options for you to choose from. Do let me know which ones work for you”

Who talks like that? You are not writing a memo or a report. You are writing speech. The answer to that would normally be, “Roti, Dal, Chawal” or if the wifey is in a horrible mood, “your intestines” (Oops)

4. Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are normally used after the character has spoken. It helps convey which of the character is speaking.
He said, she said works fine but do consider if any of these can be used as well. Do keep in mind the tone you want to convey and the context

Asked ~ Answered ~ Mumbled ~ Muttered ~Nagged ~Replied ~Reasoned ~Argued ~Questioned ~Dismissed ~Admitted ~ Remembered ~Argued ~ Barked ~ Shouted ~ Complained ~ Screamed ~ Roared ~ Cried ~ Denied ~Confessed ~ Hinted ~Warned ~Hissed ~Wailed ~ Howled ~Snarled ~ Sobbed ~ Inquired ~ Interrupted~ Laughed ~ Sang ~ Retorted ~Acknowledged ~ Pleaded ~ Promised ~Sighed ~ Whispered ~ Wondered ~ Threatened ~Lied ~ Laughed ~

5. Action and Context in the dialogue

The character in your book is going to be doing something while speaking. Your character is going to be at some place while speaking. Bring those in too. Otherwise, it might seem like they are just standing in the middle of the room and talking and that may not be the case most of the time.

“Where do you want to do now?” she asked as she paid the cab driver the exact fare and looked at the “closed” sign on the door of their favorite Italian eatery.

6. Speech, Slang and Accents

Think about your character’s background. Which part of the country is s/he from? What sort of words will they use? What sort of accent? Bring those into dialogue. You have creative license to alter spelling (only within dialogue; outside of dialogue these will be considered typos).

Think of the character Lola Kutti and how the Malayalam accent (was exaggerated) and perfected. Zimpbly Zuberb. Or Mehmood in Padosan. Ayyayo! Don’t go overboard. If the context is serious you don’t want your readers to be laughing at that point.

7. Punctuate Correctly

Look up the use of quotation marks, placement of exclamation and question marks, difference between single quotation marks and double quotation marks etc. Spend time reading about punctuating dialogue. There are plenty of free resources on the internet.
If punctuated incorrectly, the meaning can change.

“Let’s eat John”
“Let’s eat, John”

As you can see, sometimes, commas prevent cannibalism.

Are there other elements that influence dialogue writing? Please do write to us. We’ll be happy to hear from you.

2 thoughts on “Dialogue writing tips for your novel”

  1. Shivaji Nayak

    Thanks madam!!!
    your every post is a treasure for me!!
    your every post seems to be of immense help for me, just the right path to guide me along my path!
    I just couldn’t help myself congratulating you for your fabulous work and motive to direct others to their dreams….. a dream where only if one desire to achieve, can; for there is no one to insist you to follow this dream of yours but only your heart….and you are helping it to beat…!

  2. Neelabh Pratap Singh

    Hi Lavanya- Finally got an article for dialogues. Dialogues, I believe, are the weakest in my writing. I always tend to write what sounds better rather what sounds natural which should not be the case. Another thing is the Dialogue tag. It is sometimes so difficult to find the appropriate Dialogue tag. Sometimes, the tone of a conversation remains almost same throughout and it becomes very difficult to find any other dialogue tag. For instance, if a question-answer conversation is going on between 2 characters, using asked-answered every time just looks too plain. How to deal with such cases ?

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