Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tips for Improving Your Dialogue

A writer asked me about writing exercises you can do to improve your dialogue. Really, the best exercises for learning to write better dialogue are:
1. Write more stories.
2. Read more great books with great dialogue.
3. Watch more movies and TV shows with great dialogue.
A myth I often hear about dialogue is that it should sound like real life. No, it shouldn't. Great dialogue sounds like the way we wish we all talked. The way we would talk if we could edit real life. Expose yourself to great movies and great books, keep plugging away at your own manuscripts, and dialogue will start to work better.

But sometimes even after you become an agented, published, well-received author, there can be conversations in your book that just aren't working. They're flat, predictable, trite, whatever. I hit a wall like this while writing Out with the In Crowd.

I was on my first draft and Skylar, my main character, had just had a wonderful show down with her former best friend, Jodi. Because that plot line had really heated up, I knew it was time to hit her from another angle - to bring back the mother who had left back in chapter 3.

I got to my computer that morning, rubbed my hands together, and poised my fingers over the keyboard.

And then...


I mean, nothing good. It was all what you would expect - What are you doing here, Mom? I came back for Abbie. You want to go with her? Yada, yada, yada.

When I finished writing the conversation, I knew it was flat. That despite all the emotions that should  be going on in the family's conversation, they weren't there on the page.

I re-read my work, and then found one little blip of dialogue that intrigued me:

Abbie's chair grated across the tile as she stood. "Do you know what it's like to be plain and boring while your sister's some exotic beauty?"

It intrigued me because until then I had always been seeing Abbie through Skylar's eyes - the long copper hair, the cinnamon eyes. But I had never before thought about how Abbie felt about Skylar's unique beauty.

And if I haven't thought about that, what else have I not considered from Abbie's perspective?

I prefer to write in first person and from only one point of view character, but I rewrote the conversation from Abbie's point of view, just as an experiment. And then from the mom's. When I did that, I was able to tap into the other emotions going on in the scene. Previously all I'd been able to capture was Skylar's shock. But Abbie and their mom had been planning, manipulating, waiting. Much more interesting.

Then I took what I learned, and I rewrote the scene from Skylar's point of view. It worked much better that time, and I'm proud of the finished product. It would be madness to attempt this exercise for every conversation. But for those high-emotion, high-impact scenes, it's worth the effort.

If you own a copy of Out with the In Crowd and want to read the scene in its entirety, it starts on page 135. If you don't own a copy of Out with the In Crowd, but you would like to, leave a comment below, and I'll get you entered to win a copy. And be sure either check back for the winner or leave an email address so I can get a hold of you. (Due to the realities of international shipping fees, this giveaway is limited to US Residents only.)

Speaking of giveaways, Melanie Dickerson will be here tomorrow - yay! - giving away a copy of The Merchant's Daughter. 

Also, if you have anything you'd like included in this week's news day - finishing a first draft, getting an article published, committing to a writing schedule - send me an email at Stephanie(at)GoTeenWriters.com, and I'll get you on the schedule.

What book or movie or TV show do you think is an example of great dialogue?


  1. I'd like a copy of your book! :D and...I watched Far and Away starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman! :D I was writing a Victorian novel and I was struggling with my Irish character and her spirited ways xD I sat down and watched Far and Away and kept pausing and playing things back.

  2. I enjoy reading about your writing process! I think a great TV show for dialogue is "Psych" (this is because I've been doing a Psych marathon w/my husband for several months now). I like the way the characters stay TRUE to character, including making obscure 80s references and other stuff I like!

    1. Psych is wonderful! :D I used that show to help with the dialogue for one of my other books :) I love how they have their little sayings that are individual to them. Gus- "What?" "You know that's right..." Shawn- "Gus don't be a:___" "Wait for iiiiitttt." It inspired me to get my own characters some little phrases.

  3. "Casablanca" has good dialogue, I think, as does "The Magnificent Seven."

  4. I love how say you had to write from different POVs just to get a handle on all the emotions going on. I think that's a good way to do it but I always get wrapped up in "Oh, I should be writing my REAL manuscript right now." I'll work on that.

    P.S. I have read up through "Out with the In Crowd" and would LOVE to win a copy.

  5. A TV show that I think has good dialogue is "Castle" on ABC. It's funny, quirky, clever. Very entertaining.

    This was an awesome post for me to read right now because I'm in the midst of writing a big breaking point in my WIP, where my FMC gets into her first big fight with my MMC. I wanted this scene to be pretty explosive, with their emotions running high. But yesterday, I sat down to write it... and hated every word I wrote. I felt like I was fighting with my characters and my story. Not a good feeling. :P I definitely need to try writing it from multiple POV's. Thanks for the idea! :)

    By the way, I would love to be entered into the "Out with the In Crowd" giveaway! I've been wanting to get that book for quite some time now. :)

    1. Glad the timing worked out so well, Clarebear!

  6. I agree with you Clarebear- Castle is a great example of creative, clever dialogue! Nathan Fillion is also my favorite actor ever so that is a plus :)
    I was also going to say the TV show "Parenthood" on NBC. The dialogue is so natural, so real. You feel like you are peeking in on the lives of the REAL Braverman family, not just actors reading off lines.
    The movie "Blue Valentine" that came out last year is also a movie with natural, real sounding dialogue. And Wes Anderson's movies (Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums) have WONDERFUL quirky writing. Go watch Rushmore! You will agree :)!
    I admire Nick Hornby's style of writing so very much, and all his books have smart, funny, witty dialogue. It's not just he said, she said. There's thoughts going through different charachter's heads, multiple dialogues going on at once, all tied together beautifully.

  7. My to-watch, to-read list is growing!

  8. What a great way to tap into what's happening in the scene. Conversations are so hard to write, and I'm really enjoying this series on dialogue. Thank you so much!
    I would love to be entered for Out with the In Crowd.

    crazi.swans at gmail dot com


    1. You're the winner, Faye! I'll be emailing you.

  9. Ooo, I want to win! My email's newyorksnowflake@gmail.com :)

  10. I would LOVE to be entered for a copy of Out with the In Crowd! I believe you already know my email address...

  11. It's a bit cliché, but I've always admired the dialogue of Pride and Prejudice, especially the way it's delivered in the 6 hour BBC version!

  12. Catherine Elizabeth, that's a good example! :) As soon as I read that question, Stephanie, I thought of the movie Penelope! I originally watched it at your recommendation (you mentioned it one time on here or on your other blog ~ how you especially liked that the hero ran *toward* her when there was a misunderstanding) and I just loved every word they spoke. :) And the story of course.

    (Please don't enter me in the giveaway. I already have Out with the In Crowd and love it.)

  13. I've been wanting to read Pride and Prejudice for a while now. I just haven't done it yet!!
    I did just finish reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and I love the book. I think that there is a lot of great dialogue in there.
    Thanks Mrs. Morrill

  14. I really love the dialogue in Doctor Who - it's quirky, funny, and full of technobabble that the audience is actually supposed to understand :D But then again, I love everything about Doctor Who...
    I wish I could enter for a copy of your book! I really do! But I live in Canada :/

    1. I ADORE Doctor Who! I never get tired of re-watching episodes because there are always new jewels to discover in the dialogue and character expression :D

    2. I totally agree! There's ALWAYS something in a re-watched episode, dialogue or just plain plot point, that I didn't catch the first time 'round. :)

  15. I was just going through all these wonderful posts (I got a new book idea!) and I came across this one once again! It was very helpful and I just wanted to add something that I've found-

    My new story involves an Irish boy, a British boy, an Australian boy AND a girl of Indian heritage along with the MC being American. They aren't all going to say things quite like an American would. I have no idea how Indians, Irish people, Brits and Australians say certain things. I know some words but not how to use them. A tool that I have found helpful is TWITTER! I made a list of some famous actors, singers...ect. from those countries and I hunted them down on twitter. By doing so I've gotten to learn that some Irish people do say, "Cracka lackin!" It just gives me some context of what to say and if I have trouble with a word, I'll look it up.

    Anywho. It's just helpful so I thought I'd share it! ^_^
    Have a nice day! <3