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Let’s talk about dialogue. In long form fiction, dialogue is your bread and butter and good dialogue is the difference between meh characterization and great characterization. So what can you do to write better dialogue? Let’s begin by breaking it up into two parts: Around the Dialogue and Within the Dialogue.

When talking about what’s happening around your dialogue, I’m mainly addressing tags, names/epithets, and movement.

Tags are what you’d use to note who says what–the “he said” or “John muttered” bits that tell the reader who’s talking. Now, something you’ve maybe heard from past English teachers is to avoid using the same word over and over, or that “said” shouldn’t be overused. Ignore that. Dialogue should speak for itself and that means avoiding distracting from it with unnecessary synonyms. There is a time and place for words like “roared” or “hissed” or “mumbled” but having them all in a row detracts from the actual dialogue.

Which brings us to our second point: names vs epithets. I’m sure that most of you have seen “the brunette…” or “the green-eyed woman…” in books and other written works and sometimes those are okay. However, a majority of the time, they’re distracting and unnecessary, especially if the character has already been named. Think of it this way: if the narrator and audience already knows his name, why would they call him anything else? Do you refer to your sister as “the blonde?” If John says something it's easier to write “John says.” Leave the character’s appearance up to the audience’s imagination. As I’ve said before, books are a very internal form of entertainment. Above all else, characterization is the most important thing to consider when writing.

The last thing we’re going to talk about in the Around the Dialogue section is incorporating movement. People like to move around and gesture when they talk. They fidget and look around and tap and sway and jingle the keys in their pockets. Depending on the individual, one might do all of the above in a single conversation. Use this. This is a fantastic time to work in your subtext and background characterization! If you’re writing about a nervous character, allow them to fiddle with their clothing or chew on the string or their hoodie or even something as simple as shake. These give your audience some background beyond what’s explicitly said.

Which leads us to our jumping off point for Within the Dialogue. I’m not going to lie. This is where things get tough. This will take the most practice and work because unlike my previous notes this is more than just mechanics. How your characters speak and what they say will have a huge impact on how your readers see them. Depending on what point of view you’re writing from, it may be the only way they see inside the character’s head. Good, in-character dialogue is the difference between charisma and arrogance. So how do you get good at dialogue?

Well one of the first things you can do is force grammar into the back of your mind. A lot of the time, people don’t speak with perfect grammar. They use slang or filler words, cut themselves off, stutter, mumble, or even stumble over their words. People kind of suck at speaking (and those who don’t stand out) so use this to make realistic dialogue. Incorporate filler words, stumbles, and mixed up grammar, and have fun with it. Go crazy and if it goes too far, you can always come back and fix it.

My final suggestion is to read your works out loud (and maybe even in character.) I know, it can feel a little funny to read aloud by yourself, and I’m not suggesting you just start reading full-voice in the library, but the best way to tell if it sounds good is to hear it out loud. This can help with comma placement, grammar changes and prevent you from accidentally giving your terrifying villain goofy little one-liners.

Like always, these are only suggestions, and they don’t always work for every type of work. If something feels good, keep it. Writing doesn’t have hard-set lines so push the envelope and experiment. Good luck and happy writing!

  • Megan Zimmer

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