Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue
Dos and Don'ts of Dialogue
What to do (and not do) in your characters' conversations
by Jamie K. Schmidt
January 28, 2020
As a final check through your dialogue, a good idea is to give a scene to two friends and have them read a different character as if they were performing it as a play. Hearing your words this way serves two purposes. You can see how other people, who aren’t familiar with how you meant the dialogue to sound, interpret your word choice and sentence structure. You will also see how the words flow, and if it sounds awkward or stilted. Take notes about what works and what didn’t work and apply it to the other dialog scenes in the book—unless you’re lucky to have friends who want to act out your entire book.
While you’re listening, keep this checklist of dos and don’ts in mind.
DON’T waste your readers time with small talk. Cut to the chase.
DON’T have your characters speak in paragraphs. Keep it to a few sentences.
DON’T drop in large chunks of backstory. Hint at it or keep it to a few words.
DON’T explain things to the reader in dialogue that the other character should know.
“As you know, Bob, we’ve been trying to keep the factory going after dad’s death and profits have been steadily decreasing.”
DON’T overuse throwaway words like look, okay, oh, etc. If you can get away with deleting words like that, cut them out of the narrative. It slows down the pacing.
DON’T tell the reader emotion in dialogue. “I’m sad/I’m angry/I’m happy” does nothing. Make your readers feel the emotions your characters are feeling. You can show them the emotion by having your characters cry, clench their fist, grind their teeth, or smile. It’s the best if your words can transform the reader into your character so they feel it. In this example from the Shawshank Redemption, which was a movie based on a short story by Stephen King, the emotions we feel are excitement and hope when we hear Red say, “I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
DO listen for cadence in the back and forth exchange. Good dialogue is very much like poetry. Not in that it’s supposed to have rhyme and meter, but that there is a rhythm and structure to it.
DO confirm that your character is speaking in a consistent/appropriate manner. Your six-year-old character shouldn’t use college level words unless they’re a prodigy. Your gruff loner isn’t going to be chatty all of a sudden, unless something world-shifting happened to him.
DO make sure you layer meaning into your conversation and that the dialogue serves more than one purpose, if possible. What are they really saying to each other in the subtext? Is one character hiding something from the other? How do the characters feel about each other? All of this should be apparent in the phrases they use as well as how the lines are delivered.
DO remove unnecessary dialog tags. Not every line of dialogue has to be attributed to someone, especially if there are only two people talking.
DO make sure your characters have something unique about them so it’s obvious when they are talking. Does one character speak in gruff, one-word sentences? Is another character sarcastic and never takes anything seriously? Or is the main character always upbeat?
DO break up the dialogue with action. When a director is directing a play there is something called “blocking” which happens between the dialogue. Basically, it’s telling the actor to do something whether it’s moving upstage or picking up a prop. They do this either while they’re delivering their lines or before or after they speak. Writing a scene with dialogue uses blocking the same way. This is from my book, The Cowboy’s Daughter. Note that in between their conversation, Kelly is reacting to what’s going on.
“Remember me?” Trent whispered into her ear, as they swayed to the jukebox.
Kelly forced down a hysterical giggle. Only every time I look into your daughter’s eyes. “Yeah, I seem to recall seeing you around here a few times.” He smelled like expensive cologne and she wanted to burrow her face in his chest and lick every inch of him. She hoped that was the liquor talking, but she had a notion that she’d be feeling the same way even without the tequila.
“My name is Trent Campbell.” He held her tight against him. It was getting hard to think straight. It felt so good to be in his arms, like she could let go of every problem and he’d take care of them for her.
“I know. I was just teasing,” she said, catching her breath when he nuzzled her cheek.
When you’re done listening to your dialogue and checking off these dos and don’ts, the final thing to do is make sure it flows well with the rest of the narrative. Don’t be afraid to cut anything that sounds awkward. It will make the scene and your writing stronger.
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.
Are you ready to start writing your book? Let us help! Show the Institute for Writers a sample of your work here.