How to write dialogue: ideas for new fiction writers

Imagine you’re in a bookshop, choosing a book for a holiday read. How do you react when you open a novel without much dialogue? From a writer’s point of view, realistic dialogue is tricky to write; for a reader, a novel without dialogue may be hard to read. How can you make sure the dialogue you write is engaging for your reader? Here are a few ideas for writing dialogue so your reader keeps turning the pages.

Dialogue must advance the plot and create suspense

Dialogue keeps the story interesting and moving forward for the reader. You might communicate good or bad news through conversations between your characters. Conflicting aims, or a hint about conflict to come, creates the tension that keeps the reader turning the page.

You can make your dialogue intriguing when your characters answer indirectly or ignore questions, go off on tangents, change the subject, interrupt and don’t listen to each other. Here’s an extract from Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing. A lot. I’ll tell you some time.’
I dressed and called in for Sebastian, but found him still sitting as I had left him …

Dialogue provides information and reveals character

Dialogue is a good way of providing information for the reader, rather than including paragraphs of solid text. Information that might be crucial for the reader to understand the story can be introduced seamlessly in dialogue. Here’s a scene using a mix of description and dialogue from Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

‘The policeman squatted down beside me and said, ‘Would you like to tell me what’s going on here, young man?
I sat up and said, ‘The dog is dead.’
I’d got that far,’ he said.

Aim to write dialogue to suit each character’s distinctive voice, illuminating their attitudes, beliefs and motivations. Characters must sound different to reflect their backgrounds and occupations. For example, you might use slang or dialect to indicate these differences, but be careful to use nonstandard English sparingly, or it may be hard to read.

Breaking up the dialogue with action sets the conversation in context. People are usually doing something else when they’re talking – gesturing with their hand, reading a newspaper, watching television, reaching for a cup of coffee. Action and dialogue are brilliantly combined by Sally Rooney in an exchange between a mother and daughter in Conversations with Friends.

She likes Bobbi more than she likes me, she said.
But her husband likes you.
I shrugged and said I didn’t know. Then I licked my thumb and started scrubbing at a little fleck of dirt on my sneaker.

What to leave out of dialogue

Dialogue should be concise and brief. Avoid long drawn-out speeches and aim at free-flowing dialogue, to keep the reader involved. You don’t need to describe everything that’s happening, but rather let the reader use their imagination to join the dots. It’s a good idea to leave out small talk and social conventions Some may be necessary for your story, but keep this to a minimum. We don’t need to know every cup of coffee a character has, or every time they say ‘hi’ or ‘goodbye’. Watch out for dialogue that comes across as obvious and dull, and rewrite it to give it life’.

You can set aside some grammar rules when writing dialogue. If you listen to normal conversation, it’s wordy – ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, repetition and half-sentences. Don’t try to replicate normal speech in a realistic way. Instead, decide what’s important for the character to say, and your readers will fill in the gaps.

Use contractions – ‘you don’t say’ instead of ‘you do not say’ – unless this is a pedantic character who speaks that way and then their speech can be a bit verbose. This is an example of the answering machine from the movie Reality Bites: ‘At the beep please leave your name, number and a brief justification of the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma and we’ll get back to you.’ Leave out words that would not be spoken – ‘Coming for a coffee?’ not ‘Do you want to come for a coffee?’

What’s next

It’s important not to feel constrained by guidelines when writing dialogue. Remember that all rules are there to be broken when writing fiction. Your aim is to make the dialogue seem natural and not contrived. After you’ve written your dialogue, put it aside for a while and then read it aloud to check how it comes across. Take on the character and read their words as if you were an actor.

Now that you’re feeling more confident about your dialogue, don’t hesitate to send a chapter of your book to me for feedback.