Engaging Dialogue

Engaging Dialogue
While it’s not difficult to describe your characters, a paragraph (or more) of exposition is really boring. The best way to present your characters is to show their personalities through engaging dialogue.

A quick search yields many tips for writing better dialogue. The ‘rules’ of dialogue are fairly simple (if not always simple to follow) and can be broken down quickly into 5 key ideas.

  1. Keep it simple. People don’t speak in full, grammatically correct sentences, so neither should your characters. Your characters are not likely to give a lot of background exposition during conversation, either.
  2. Avoid on-the-nose or true to life dialogue. In real life, we fill conversation with nonsense sounds, switch between topics at odd moments, and fill the air with niceties – none of which add to a story.
  3. Show, not tell. People move and do things while holding conversations. Adding action to the dialogue is more realistic, and breaks up the back and forth of conversation.
  4. Watch dialogue tags. Your characters say things, so use ‘said’ if you need a tag. You can vary a little with replied, answered, asked, whispered and a few other simple tags, but do so sparingly. Avoid adverbs and odd sounds (like screeched, barked, coughed, etc.)
  5. Show your character’s personalities through speech patterns and individual vocabulary.

Let’s start with what NOT to do:

“I just ran home from the store,” she wheezed.
“Why did you do that?” Frank queried from his favorite chair.
“I told you I could get back in time.”
“I didn’t promise to pay you,” he said, without looking at her.
“Just give me the money!” she insisted.
Instead of arguing, she took the money out of his wallet herself. As she walked into the kitchen, she thought, That will make him listen.

While there isn’t anything technically wrong, it’s not engaging. You can’t visualize it as a scene, and you don’t get a feel for the characters. Not only do we have a little ping-pong dialogue, but I’d have to include a lot more exposition to show what I envision.

Word count isn’t as critical as it used to be, but our time is more precious. Most people read in short bursts as they have a few minutes to spare, often while waiting in lines and distracted. A page of exposition might set the scene well, but if your readers get bored or can’t get to the action quickly, they might not read on.

Following the rules, the same scene might look like this:

“I ran…” she dropped on the couch, panting hard, “..the whole way.”
Frank was still sunk in the chair, absorbed in another reality show re-run . He barely glanced at the clock on the wall, “One minute late.”
“Nope,” she held up her phone. “9 minutes, 42 seconds. Pay up.”
“Didn’t bet.”
“Implied agreement,” she grabbed the wallet sitting on the table.
Pocketing the wrinkled bill, she headed for the kitchen, knowing he’d follow.

You’ll notice both snippets have the same word count, so take about the same amount of time to read. I didn’t use any dialogue tags in the second version, yet you can visualize the scene and follow the conversation. You know a little more about the characters, how they interact, and her thoughts, so are more invested to continue.

Before you write a line of dialogue, you need to get in the head of each character.

Most writing guides recommend creating a character profile. While profiles will rarely see the light of day on a published page, I find them indispensable for character and story continuity. Think about people you know and look at their various traits. Everyone has good and bad qualities, fears and faults, and odd personality quirks. Make sure your characters do as well.

Until you are used to creating dynamic characters, try using free psychological personality tests to help create characters. These test don’t work well for real people since they have mutually exclusive scales, but they can help pinpoint traits for characters. Here’s a very good detailed explanation on how to use The Myers Briggs Type Indicator to create characters.

I have a slightly more immersive method for developing personalities: I write a short autobiographical piece from each main character’s point of view. Not only does this cement in my mind who my characters are, I have actually learned things about them which helped me determine their vocabulary, word usage, and understand better how they will react in different situations. It’s a great tool for character development, and aids with story continuity.

Don’t forget to add slang, accents, and dialects when appropriate to the character. Just don’t go crazy phonetically replicating your character’s speech mannerisms. It slows the dialogue and can be difficult for people not familiar with the dialect to follow.

If you have a tendency to write stereotypical characters or even characters that feel flat, no matter how dynamic they seem in your head, try using these tips to develop your own character creation technique.


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