Tuesday, November 15, 2011

5 Insights on Dialogue, From a Bird's-Eye View

"The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us." --Nathan Bransford

Man, the birds were noisy on my walk the other day. A flock soared overhead, fluttered, and en masse swooped onto one lone tree already bare of leaves--squawking, chattering, talking all at once. I found myself imagining one tiny little guy on an outermost twig, notebook and pen in hand, taking notes. If my imaginary writer-bird were to try to pull good dialogue out of all the confusion, what guidelines would he seek?

Consider the following:

1. The Purpose of Dialogue. Dialogue's purpose is twofold. It: a) reveals character and motivation, and b) moves the plot forward. No aimless chatter here, unless it serves to further the story. Dialogue also helps to establish tone or mood, creates/adds to conflict, and helps control pace. "Dialogue," it's been said, "is all about action and reaction."

2. The Effectiveness of Dialogue. Effective dialogue seeks to achieve a number of goals. It should drive the story forward, add to the reader's understanding of characters, and/or demonstrate the relationship between different characters. According to The Writer's Book of Wisdom, 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft (Steven Taylor Goldsberry), dialogue should heighten drama, speed the process of discovery, and create tension. Filter out aimless squawking. Zero in on characters and plot, story and conflict--and dialogue will improve.

3. On Writing Good Dialogue. Struggling to make dialogue believable? Feel like you're out on a limb and nothing works? Try this: Listen to how people speak. Keep a journal of overheard dialogue. Read with an ear to how other authors handle dialogue. Also remind yourself to show, not tell...keep dialogue concise... make it flow...use slang sparingly...be true to the era but not stilted. Oh, and a biggie--avoid information dump!

4. On the Formating of Dialogue. Break up dialogue--through action, description, and other story elements. Use tags ("he said") correctly. Punctuate correctly. Keep those little birdies in line.

5. Test Your Dialogue. Read your work out loud. Have someone else read your work out loud. This way you'll tune in to any breakdowns in rhythm, authenticity, and characterization. What you want is for your work to sing. And surprise.

My imaginary writer-bird is sitting on my shoulder this week, reminding me of these things. In gathering the tips, I turned to the following sources and are grateful for the help:

Learn the Elements of a Novel
About.com Fiction Writing
Nathan Bransford, Author
BubbleCow Copy Editing
Change the World with Words

What are some of  your tips for writing good dialogue?

p.s. My Hundred-Up Signed Books Give-Away is still open. Check it out here, and join in the fun as I inch my way to 100 followers!

*photo courtesy of sxc.hu


  1. Like your new look. :)

    Thanks for these resources. I have to admit I do tend to stalk people and write down snippets of their conversation. I get so many ideas that way.

  2. I've always found reading plays and screenplays a good way to see how much you can get across in only a few words.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  3. The reading aloud tip works for me--at least in terms of highlighting especially awkward bits of dialogue. This post is great for me, because my WIP is dialogue-heavy right now, and I need to identify and ditch the not-so-good snippets of conversation. Thanks!

  4. Karen--I guess the key to listening in is to be descreet and not appear like we're eavesdropping :-)

    mooderino--reading plays, what a great tip! Thanks for sharing.

    And Jess, reading aloud has proved to be one of the best tips for me, too. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I like the bird story :) all those different bird languages, too!

    I read a snippet of a dialogue in a novel recently that started a question in the past tense without the helping verb, i.e. "Find it yet?" instead of "did you find...?" which I instantly could hear in my head, since *that's how we talk*. Maybe other authors have been doing this for (modern) ages, but I had never noticed before. I think the key to good written dialogue is to keep it as close as possible to the spoken dialogue of its time.

    Walking around stalking conversations might not be a bad idea, then. Still a little awkward, though...

  6. What a fun comparison! I **love** walks when the birds are loud!

  7. supermom, you make a good point :-) What we've had drilled in our heads as "correct" grammar isn't the way of conversational speech most of the time, and comes across stilted in writing. Thanks for the observation!

    and, thanks Carla, glad you liked the comparison. Enjoy your walks!

  8. Wow, these are great tips! I can't think of a good one, but highly agree with reading your work out loud!