Dialogue is not easy to write, and it can take practice to make it feel natural, especially if the characters are not clearly in your head, talking. So how do you go about making your dialogue less stilted? Your characters feel more real? Below you will find a few of the pitfalls that I have observed, as both a reader and a writer, and practical advice on how to make the dialogue clearer, and feel more real.
Remember, these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Your story is your own, and how you choose to write it is entirely up to you.
The best advice on how to write better dialogue: Practice, read it aloud, then practice some more!
Note: All extracts are taken from my current WIP, Tail of Two Scions.
He said/She said
Dialogue tags are important to establish who says what but, so saying, when two characters are having a conversation, it is not necessary to establish this every line. Generally, you need to indicate it the first time either character speaks, and then can manage several back-and-forth exchanges before having to remind the reader again.
Note: it may be appropriate in your story to leave in the “he said/she said” for every line, especially if you are writing for younger readers, who may not be fully aware of the common conventions and thus become confused. Do not feel obliged to remove them.
“Care to make your report, ranger?” Riana teased.
“Trees,” Aurelia replied. “Lots of trees. A few crows.”
“Care to try again?”
“Give me a moment.” Aurelia scooped up the water flask, downing the contents in great gulps. She stiffened, drawing herself fully upright, as Simone sauntered over to them.
When more than two characters are involved, this becomes somewhat impractical to easily manage, and attribution tags will be required.
“As you know, Jim” (aka Maid and Butler)
Yes, it is a great idea to push the plot along and supply backstory or deliver clues via dialogue. However, you have to do this very carefully. Characters should NEVER have to straight out explain to each other what both characters already know.
“Remember how we met?” Riana asked. “In the hopitaly.”
Aurelia nodded. “Oh yes,” she replied. “You’d given yourself a concussion, flying on that funny glider thing. And I’d cut my hand, trying to climb the tsingy.”
“Why were you doing that again? Weren’t you showing off or something?”
“No,” Aurelia protested. “Not showing off. I was watching for Lanitra.”
Fixing this from stilted and awkward can be as simple as rearranging it to fit into context (in this case, Aurelia’s just tried one of Riana’s flying devices, with unfortunate results).
“Maybe I need to go back to the glider skeleton.” Riana sighed. “But we both remember what happened last time I tried that.”
Aurelia nodded. “A concussion,” she replied. “But if you hadn’t concussed yourself, then we’d never have met.”
“True, true,” Riana agreed. “And if you’d never gone all bravado, tried to climb the tsingy and cut your hand to pieces, we wouldn’t have been in the hopitaly together.”
“It wasn’t bravado,” Aurelia replied. “I was watching for Lanitra…”
In the latter instance, it’s still the characters telling each other what they already know, but it is integrated in a manner that feels more like gentle teasing/banter than a general info-dump. Other ways to avoid this can be: have only one character know and be training the other (teacher/student); use a mix of action and dialogue (ie: if you need to show how a machine works, have the characters fix it and discuss the process); have the two arguing about it.
Using Adverbs Excessively
Adverbs should, generally, be avoided, although there are times when they are necessary to establish the emotions of the characters via their tone of voice. They are a classic example of “tell, not show”. It is better to use an alternate verb if one is available.
But BE AWARE: overuse of said-alternates can also be extremely distracting in a story. Generally speaking, readers often overlook the word “said” and, whilst “raged” is far more concise than “said angrily”, one doesn’t want every dialogue tag to be a different verb. Also, sometimes the meanings will be different: “Raged” suggests a far more dramatic response than a simple “said angrily”, for example.
To test whether adverbs, or even verbs, are truly necessary, I remove them from the text and read the sentence asking myself: is the character’s mood/voice clear from context? Or do I need to keep it in? Does it matter if the reader interprets it differently?
There are some insane adverbs out there—J.K. Rowling is guilty of using some really extravagant ones. Generally speaking, the more syllables they contain, the more likely they are to annoy/distract the reader.
Use of non speech verbs as dialogue tags
“Smiled”, “yawned”, “sighed”, etc are not dialogue tags. Yes, you can smile as you say something, but the smiling is not what is causing the speech
Confusion about who is speaking
Describing action instead of using dialogue tags is a useful technique that can go wrong: You can avoid dialogue tags on occasion by having the character doing something instead. If this action follows on from dialogue, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the named character. Be aware of this, and always use a new line if a different character is physically (rather than verbally) reacting to the previous speaker.
Roland stepped forward, head bowed submissively. “Forgive her, Royal Advisor.” He rose his head to meet Mephistopheles’s eyes. “She is young and headstrong, filled with fire and rage. We were just surprised to find you here, in this dark, dank and desolate place.”
Mephistopheles snorted. “I am entitled to wander where and how I choose.”
In the above passage, the reader should automatically attribute the speech to Roland, even though it contains no dialogue tags. When Mephistopheles reacts, it begins a new line. If it did not, the reader might become confused about who is talking.
Hiding dialogue in prose
Try to avoid burying dialogue in the middle of a paragraph of non-verbal prose. You can precede it with a sentence, or even two, if they’re short and concise, but if it is too well hidden, or there is any confusion over who might be speaking, start it on a new line, and dialogue or action tag it appropriately:
A gasp, then her eyes narrowed. Simone let her hand fall slack to her side and Aurelia turned her gaze back at the ground. “So, you are the one then.” Rancid slime dripped and oozed from Simone’s scent. “Heir to the royal dynasty.” Her lip twisted back as though she had smelled something foul.
As you can see in the above paragraph, it is unclear who is speaking. The new paragraph should begin at “So, you…”
For more useful tips and tricks on punctuating dialogue, see Shelley’s post here from 2013: