Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing Effective Dialogue by Jodie Renner

Dialogue is one of the first things agents and editors look at when they receive a manuscript for consideration. If the dialogue is wooden, stilted, and artificial, most agents will assume that the rest of the writing is amateurish, and the manuscript will be quickly rejected. Here are some concrete ways to make your dialogue more compelling and natural-sounding.

Dialogue needs tension, conflict and emotion

This one is huge. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story."

  • Leave out the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “Nice day,” stuff, and cut to the chase. Skip past introductions and all that empty blah-blah small talk.
  • Avoid any kind of long monologue or dialogue that just imparts information, with no tension or emotion.
  • Don’t use dialogue as “filler” – if it doesn’t advance the plot, heighten the conflict, or deepen the characterization, take it out.
  • Include lots of emotional or sexual tension and subtext in your dialogue. Silence, interrupting, or abruptly changing the subject can be effective, too.

Loosen up the dialogue

The most common problem with dialogue for new writers is that it often sounds too stiff and formal. Here are some easy, quick tips for loosening up the dialogue to make it sound more natural:

  • Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Can you cut some words out, or use more common, everyday conversational words, rather than more “correct” words? In conversation, use “bought” rather than “purchased,” “use” rather than “utilize,” “but” instead of “however,” etc.
  • Use contractions. Change “I am” to “I’m”, “we will” to “we’ll”, “do not” to “don’t”, “they will” to “they’ll,” etc.
  • Break up those long, grammatically correct complete sentences. Nobody talks in complete sentences in informal conversations with friends (or enemies) and family, especially in stressful situations. Frequently, use some short sentence fragments, and one-word answers.
  • Don’t have one person go on and on about a subject. Fiction is not the place for a lecture on a topic, or somebody speaking at length about himself. It’s not natural, and your readers aren’t interested in long monologues! Have the other person interrupt to ask a question, give their opinion, seek clarification, change the subject, etc.

Keep it real

Avoid unnatural dialogue caused by having the characters say things they would never say, just to impart some information to the readers. An extreme example of this would be a character saying to his sister: “As you know, our parents died in a car crash five years ago.” Using dialogue this way to get some information across to the reader is artificial and a sure sign of an amateur writer. Work the information in subtly, without having one character say something that the other would obviously already know.

Give each character his or her own voice and style

Make sure all your characters don’t sound the same (like the author).

First, pay attention to differences in gender, age, social status, education, geographical location, historical era, etc. Some characters, especially professionals, will use more correct English and longer sentences, while a cowboy or blue-collar worker will probably use rougher language, with a lot of one- or two-word questions or answers, sprinkled liberally with expletives.

Then, think about individual personality differences within that social group, and the situation. Is your character: Shy or outgoing? Talkative or quiet? Formal or casual? Modern or old-fashioned? Confident or nervous? Tactful or blunt? Serious or lighthearted? Relaxed or stressed? And give each character their own little quirks and slang expressions, but exercise caution when using slang or expletives. (More on that in another article.)

Gender differences

Bear in mind that men and women tend to express themselves differently.

In general, men are terser and more direct; they usually prefer to talk about things rather than people or feelings; and they often use brief or one-word answers.

Women, on the other hand, like to talk about people and relationships; often hint at or talk around a subject, tend to express themselves in more complete sentences; and often want to discuss their feelings.

These differences are especially important to keep in mind if you’re a female author writing dialogue for male characters, and vice-versa.So to keep your dialogue natural-sounding, keep it loose and casual (unless it’s a formal situation), add lots of tension, and give each character his or her own distinctive voice and style.

© Jodie Renner, March 2011

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog at

Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).

Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Jodie,

Thank you for joining us at TTB! As a historical writer, I tend to switch off between using contractions and not. Sometimes I need the feel of formality. Any thoughts on how to do this effectively?


Al Leverone said...

"I love writing dialogue."

"I don't know why, you suck at it."

"That's not true, Jodie said it was good."

"She said SOME of it was good, dummy."

"Well, yeah, but what she liked she liked a lot."

"What about all the stuff she said you should take out?"

"Ssh. No one has to know about that..."

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, Al, for the humor! For the record, Al Leverone does NOT suck at dialogue at all! In fact, he's an all-round excellent writer.

Tracey, I think the dialogue in historical fiction needs to be more formal, to reflect the times. I was mainly thinking about contemporary fiction when I wrote the article. My guidelines are tips on how to reflect current speech patterns in North America.

L.J. Sellers said...

Great post! I've bookmarked it for future reference. Making each character's dialogue unique is the most challenging aspect for me.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Jodie,

I love this post. I cannot agree enough with saying that you need to read your dialogue out loud. Actually, that is a rule that can be used for your entire manuscript. When reading silently, a lot of people read what they *think* is on the page instead of what really is there.

I also think you should do two other posts - tips on writing women for male writers and tips for writing men for women writers. I'm lucky (or not depending on your point of view) to have my husband read all my work. He is always quick to point out when "No guy would ever say this". It is a real trick to get effective speech patterns for the opposite sex.

Thanks for visiting!

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, LJ and Joelle. Joelle, I think I'll do some research and thinking about your suggestion about how to write dialogue for the opposite sex. What comes to mind immediately is that men speak in more direct, shorter sentences and emphasize action; whereas women generally use more words and emphasize feelings and possibilities. There are always exceptions, of course.

Tracy March said...

Hi Jodie,

Thanks for the post. I can always use refreshers on any aspect of writing craft. The more I read about certain techniques, the more they saturate my psyche and become part of my writing and editing processes.

I'm sure a psychiatrist would have something to say about this, but I write male POVs and dialogue much more easily than I do female ones, even though I am female. Perhaps growing up with three brothers gave me years of insight. Who knew that all my misery would pay off someday!

Enjoy your travels!

Mike Faricy said...

Jodie, Thanks, great points to keep in my already crowded little mind. It is so easy to slip out of the all important character voice and style or have it morph into someone else over the course of 300 pages. It's always an interesting exercise to record and then type out a conversation. Many thanks,

Tracey Devlyn said...

Jodie and everyone--

Thanks for the great conversation!


Jodie Renner said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Tracy, I'd say that growing up with three brothers would definitely do it! And, Mike, speaking of character voice and style, in a month I'll be talking here about Creating Compelling Characters. And thanks so much, Tracey Devlyn for an excellent blog! I'm honored to post here!

Unknown said...

Tracey - excellent topic about effective dialogue. This has been my weakness, since I have written more non-fiction than fiction. I'm taking copious notes!

Jodie - I'm looking forward to your topic next month - woohoo!!

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, M.E. Me, too!