Written by A Guest Author August 27th, 2020

Writing Effective Dialogue: 5 Things to Keep in Mind

By Annmarie McQueen

Dialogue is an incredibly important part of storytelling, and yet one of the things many writers struggle with the most. Having characters interact with each other is a key way for information to be revealed, plots to be moved along and things to happen. Dialogue is something you need to get right for your prose to be effective. So with that said, here are five things to keep in mind to up your dialogue game.

Use dialogue to develop your characters

No one wants to read pages of small talk that isn’t going anywhere. Instead, use dialogue as a way to develop your characters and their relationships with others. In real life, we very often give away information about ourselves without even realizing it through our interactions with the outside world, and your characters should be no different.

What does your dialogue reveal to the reader about your character’s family background, their flaws, personality, emotional stability, world view, desires, and goals? Why is this character saying this particular thing at this particular moment in the story? What makes this character react in certain ways? Characters, like real people, are products of their environment, of their pasts and their unique personality traits, things which will determine how they respond to different situations. Effective dialogue utilizes this for character development and driving the plot forwards.

Your dialogue doesn’t have to be exceptionally dramatic or witty to build on character; in fact, some of the best writing gives away subtle hints and clues about characters that are hidden within seemingly mundane conversations.

Perfecting a character voice

The way we talk is just as important as what we actually say. Our speech patterns are unique to us and are very much a product of our environments, histories, and other factors.

Think about how your characters speak. Do they use slang? Is English their native language? Do they swear a lot? If your character is a teenager, using slang might make sense. If they’re a middle-aged man, probably not.

Avoiding common cliches

It’s easy to turn to cliches, especially when you don’t feel confident writing dialogue, but they can be a real mood killer in your story. If you’d like a full list of cliche phrases, a quick Google search will pull up many lists such as this one; a few of my favorites on there are: ‘this is your destiny,’ ‘did I just say that out loud?’ and ‘I was born ready.’

I find it difficult to imagine anyone saying these things in real life (at least non-ironically). If you’re thinking of including a phrase of dialogue that you’ve heard a lot in films, I would refrain from doing so. These phrases have become cliches because they’re overused, and are usually very melodramatic too. There are far better ways of creating drama and tension in your story than having your character announce it with a bit of cheesy dialogue. If you must use a cliche, I would recommend at least changing the wording of it to something that your character is more likely to say in such a situation.

Show, don’t tell

This is one bit of advice that you’ll most often hear in a screenwriting class, however, it applies to prose too. Info-dumping is not only boring to read, it’s patronizing to the reader and ruins any kind of suspense going forwards. Imagine playing a video game and having someone come by every 5 minutes and tell you exactly how to solve each puzzle and beat each monster. It would ruin the game for you, wouldn’t it? That’s what info-dumping is.

Instead of this, try using dialogue to reveal bits of exposition at a suitable pace for the story you’re telling. Whether it’s world-building, plot or character-focused, make sure it’s something the characters would really say to each other. For example, they probably wouldn’t monologue about the entire history of your fantasy kingdom’s recent war against the elves, but they might bring up someone close to them who died in the war. Later on, they might walk by some children they know who were orphaned during the war.

The point is, your readers don’t want to be told that the war was bad and many people died, they want to see how the war has affected your characters and the world around them. Through dialogue, you can drip-feed your reader with bits of crucial information and then let them make the connections themselves.

Creating suspense through dialogue

Suspense is created by uncertainty and anxiety over the unknown. Creating suspense in fiction is all down to pacing; the art of withholding and revealing important information at the right times throughout the story. You can use dialogue to heighten suspense by having your characters withhold information from each other, by having them lie and say things they don’t actually mean, break off in the middle of a sentence, or interrupt someone else. At the right moment, you can even have them blurt out a truth that perhaps they weren’t intending to admit to out loud. The conflict between the image a character projects to the outside world and their inner, authentic truths (whether or not they’ve accepted them) creates the uncertainty necessary for suspense. It also gives the character multiple dimensions and makes them more relatable and realistic.

Bio: Annmarie McQueen is a London-based digital marketer and writer. She has a YA novel self-published on Amazon and her fiction has been featured in numerous magazines and anthologies including ‘Little Book of Fairy Tales.’ You can find more of her work on Medium here: https://medium.com/@annmariemcqueen19


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