Dialogue – 10 Tips and Tricks that Work

So, I recently received a reader question from Joshua asking about my thoughts on dialogue. Let me be honest first and say that dialogue doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s something that I have to work quite hard at  – mainly because I spend too much time over-thinking every line. That being said, after working my writing muscles on a regular basis, there are a few things I have learnt that might be helpful.

First off,  many screenwriters and experts would agree that dialogue has three main purposes, among others : move the story forward, reveal character, and convey emotion.

Here’s a famous example below:

JAMIE (in English): It’s my favorite time of day, driving you.

AURELIA (in Portuguese): It’s the saddest part of my day, leaving you.

‘Love Actually’, Written by Richard Curtis

Specifically the thing I have to keep reminding myself about as I write,  is ‘moving the story forward’ and that’s where we writers, have to make decisions. For my first ‘vomit’ draft, I usually start with letting it all out and not editing too much. Then, after putting it away for rewrites, I read it out loud in its entirety and sort out what flows and what doesn’t and keep repeating the process, inserting words here and there – taking out words. Depending on what type of story I am working on, I also spend a lot of time on the side reading similar types of story material so I can get a feel for things.

If you are a screenwriter and use Final Draft, for example, there’s a great feature that enables you to print out a character’s specific sides of dialogue (character reports).  But even if you aren’t a screenwriter, the goal is to convey your story and characters in the best possible way and also most importantly, reveal something about the story/characters to readers. Anyway, enough words on my end.

Without much ado, here are some quick tips:

  1. Read and watch screenplays and movies. The more familiar you get with the banter, the better you will write it.
  2. Keep it in simple words and phrases – less is more.  (because rarely, unless it’s a stodgy old professor or a period piece do characters speak in long, perfect sentences).
  3. Keep it unpredictable. I can’t emphasize this enough because it’s made a huge difference for me. Subtext! Anticipate what a reader is going to expect and surprise them by doing something different/opposite.
  4. Avoid pointless dialogue – if it has to be pointless, make it meaningful somehow. Give it double meaning (see example above – love actually has some of the best dialogue I have ever read)
  5. Write dialogue that is active – that  stays vivid in a reader’s imagination and elicits some level of emotion.
  6. Speaking of #4, avoid dull, unnecessary expository/on-the-nose dialogue,  ‘I am going to the mall. Have you seen the clown who is actually a woman in high heels after her boyfriend’s mistress with a tattoo on her left butt and a cigarette in her hair?’ Well, actually that’s not so dull…but you get the message.
  7. Keep it short. If you have long speeches, use them for the best moments…especially in a screenplay, the more you show the better place you are in.
  8. Speaking of which, write dialogue that shows/reveals something about a character rather than tells.
  9. If you are going for specific characters and what they ought to say, two guiding principles: what a character ‘wants’ and what a character ‘needs’. This will help you figure out where to go with their specific sides of dialogue.
  10. Finally, a great resource I found recently on the subject: ”Writing for Emotional Impact’ By Karl Iglesias has a lot of great stuff on dialogue you guys might want to read.

I am sure there are probably a ton more things I could say, but gotta jet back to work! Any other tricks anyone’s tried they want to share or if you want to know about anything specific, post it in comments!