Thursday, April 1, 2010

Writing killer dialogue

Mastering smart, zippy dialogue is one of the keys to catapulting your manuscript from good to great. Readers love good dialogue, and nothing slows down a book more than stiff, clunky conversations between characters.

Dialogue is something we'll revisit in depth on Go Teen Writers, but for now we'll start with a few basic tips for improvement:

1. It's been said that a story is like life without all the boring parts. Your dialogue should be the same way. Yes, in the real world we have "filler" conversations. We make small talk. In your book, you should not. Which of this is better?:

"Hey, you're back from the store early," Mary said.

"Yeah." John set the bags of groceries on the counter. "I guess I just hit the lights right or something."

Mary peeked in the closest bag. "You bought Skippy peanut butter? I thought you only liked Jif."

"Skippy was on sale. So were those cookies you like." John took a deep breath. "I ran into Paul. He told me everything."


"Hey, you're back from the store early," Mary said.

"Yeah." John set the bags of groceries on the counter, and Mary peeked in the closest one. "You bought Skippy peanut butter? I thought you only liked Jif."

John took a deep breath. "I ran into Paul. He told me everything."

The second one, right? All that other junk about the lights and what was on sale is just slowing us down from getting to the real information - HE SAW PAUL. If it's not adding to the conversation - cut it.

2. Learn the art of subtext. Basically, don't let your characters say what they mean all the time. For example, a few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend, Kelli. We were at one of our favorite restaurants, which was only about half-full and the service was SOOOOO SLOW. Like 10 minutes for a waitress to even acknowledge us. Another 10 before she came back to get our order. Then 20 minutes later my food came out, but Kelli's didn't. We sat there and waited for another 10 minutes for them to bring Kelli her sandwich, and then the waitress came over and asked me if I wanted the chef to make me a new lunch since mine had probably gotten cold while we waited. You know what I said, "No, thanks. I'm fine."

Do you think that's what I was thinking? No! I was thinking, "Yeah, right! I'm not handing you my plate of food. It'd be another 15 minutes before my new food was ready, and then Kelli's would be cold because she'd have waited on me!" So, if you're writing this scene from the waitresses POV, here's how that might look:

I tentatively made my way over to the table where the two young women sat. If only there was a way to explain to them that Britney had bailed this morning, leaving me stuck not only with her lunch shift, but also with finding a babysitter for her bratty son.

But there was no explaining tha to customers. I took a deep breath and said to the pregnant one, "Would you like me to have the chef make you a new scramble? Yours probably got cold while you waited for your friend's sandwich."

She smiled at me, but it was tight. "No, thanks. I'm fine." That's what her mouth said, but her eyes clearly said something else.

It's really fun if you have a mix of characters - like the girl who never says a mean word about anyone and the dental hygienist who shares way too much personal stuff during appointments, etc. But subtext is a fabulous way to build depth in your dialogue.

3. Last tip for this post - nobody likes a monologue. With dialogue, shorter is better. If you absolutely have to work in a long story through dialogue (I had to do this twice in So Over It and it made me CRAZY), break it up as much as you can. Make your character cry. Have her get interrupted by a ringing telephone. Whatever it takes. But no two or three page stories through dialogue.

And in conversations between your characters, don't let them prattle on too long. Here's an example from the first chapter of Me, Just Different:

Lisa linked our arms as we walked through the crowd. “Speaking of which, I hear you and a certain someone finally made it official.”

I couldn’t keep my voice from sounding panicked. “Who’d you hear that from?”

She blinked overdone eyes at me, my reaction apparently confusing her. “What do you mean? Jodi told me.”

“You heard from Jodi?” Despite the intense humidity of the July night, goose bumps raised on my arms.

“You didn’t tell her?”

“I didn’t have a chance yet.” I assumed Lisa would never point out the weakness of this excuse. I wanted to ask how Jodi sounded, but instead, I said, “Do you know who told her?”

“If it wasn’t you, I’d guess Alexis.”

“How did Alexis find out?”

Lisa shrugged. “How does Alexis ever know the things she does?”

I reached inside my purse before remembering I’d flushed my cigarettes down the toilet before leaving. “I shouldn’t have quit smoking today.”

“You quit? Why?”

“It’s so bad for you,” I said as we settled onto the metal bleachers. “Anyone who starts smoking these days is an idiot.”

Lisa didn’t answer right away, just chewed on her lower lip. “It’s awful expensive, I guess.”

From the team bench, Eli noticed us and waved, then turned his attention back to the game.

“I can’t believe you two are together,” Lisa said. “It’s great. Now John and I have another couple to do stuff with.”

“Like what stuff?”

“You know, couple stuff. Movies. Concerts. Dinner.”

“We do that stuff now.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be different.”

I frowned. That’s what I was afraid of.

“So what did it?” Lisa asked.

“Did what?”

“Why’d you finally give in? I mean, Eli’s been after you since we were freshmen, and you’ve always said there was no way. What changed?”

How could I tell her the truth? I didn’t want my behavior last night, so naive, to be privy to my friends. Yet, if I omitted the intimate details, I couldn’t think of a good explanation for my giving in to Eli.

So I gave Lisa a coy smile and said, “Well, that was before he got the Land Rover.”

Notice how neither Skylar or Lisa say more than three sentences at a time? It keeps the scene moving at a good clip for their discussion. If your dialogue is reading bulky, try shortening everyone's lines a bit and see if it reads better.

That's all for today. One quick note: Tomorrow, Friday the 2nd, author Sarah Sundin will be on my regular blog, and she'll be giving away a copy of her absolutely fabulous debut novel A Distant Melody. If you leave a comment, you'll be entered to win. If you mention you read about the interview on Go Teen Writers, you'll be entered twice.

See everyone back here on Tuesday!


  1. Movies and TV are generally a great way to get a handle on good dialogue. Pay attention to how often they interrupt each other, what goes unsaid, how often they use names, etc.

    I particularly like the dialogue between Danny and Rusty in the Ocean movies--the way they leave so much unsaid but perfectly understand each other is dynamite. =)

    On a side note, I'm reading a book right now that overstates EVERYTHING, and it is SOOOOOO annoying! The heroine just screamed at the hero--I don't then need the author to tell me "His actions infuriated her." Um, duh. The dialogue spoke for itself.

  2. I've found a few statements like that in my books, Roseanna. Definitely earns an eye roll.

    Danny and Rusty are a GREAT example of fabulous dialogue. Other movies I love for studying dialogue are A Few Good Men and As Good as It Gets.

  3. Yeah, and I need to get ENOUGH dialogue in it. It's more the character thinking to herself, and talking to the reader, than conversing to others. I really need to work more talking in!

  4. Emii, I think every writer tips toward too much dialogue or not enough dialogue. I'm a "too much dialogue" kind of girl, which means comments from my editor are usually things like, "We could use more introspection from Skylar on this..."

  5. I love this about writing, you can make a story up about anyone!
    And my absolute favorite thing to do is to write dialogue... and I even have my characters say things I wish I was smart enough to say! haha

  6. That's the way I do it too, Mary :) If only there were "rewrites" in real life...

  7. I just found your blog, and I would like to thank you SO MUCH for this. This blog is basically what every teen writer-wannabe needs, and it's been so helpful already!
    I've read your first book and REALLY loved it, and I'm going to read your second book today :)

  8. I'm so glad you're finding it helpful! Please let me know if I can answer any specific questions for you!