Jul 3, 2012

7 Tips to Fix Dialogue Suck

It's time again for Insecure Writer's Support Group hosted by Alex Cavanaugh. You share any insecurities you have about writing and offer support and advice to help other emerging writers. I like the idea of sharing weaknesses, if we drop the pressure of measuring ourselves against others, we can have a lot of fun, even with the stuff we suck at. 

It's okay to suck sometimes, because if you keep trying, you'll suck a whole lot less. Eventually you won't suck at all! Or at least that's what I hope.

If I look at my strengths and weaknesses in writing I would say my descriptive language needs a lot of work, but that I capture the voice of my character well. This reflection came as a surprise to me, because when I started blogging in 2009, I admitted I sucked most at dialogue. So, I set about to learn what I could about writing dialogue, here's some tips I picked up:

1. Watch out for 'Talking Heads'...
If your conversation runs too long, you'll have endless he said/she saids, and the reader loses a sense place - all the reader sees is floating heads rambling on. The solution? To break it up, insert a few actions and descriptions to remind the reader where the characters are. 
These are the sort of lines you can insert.
"He makes me feel like a woman."
Max slammed his fist on the pine table, causing the china cups to shake. He pushed his chair out and it fell - he didn't pick it up, instead he stormed out of the room.
Susan followed him."We need to finish this."
Swinging around to face her, Max's profile filled the doorway to their bedroom.....
Get your character to move around, pick something up, stare at the sky... anything to put your reader in a physical place.

2. Said is fine...
When writers start out, they often worry about their limited vocabulary and can abuse thesauruses in an attempt to find more loquacious ways of speaking. You can have characters yell, declare, admit or whisper, but if they are truly just 'saying' something, then use 'said'. It's simple and does not distract from the voice. Said is one of the magic words that disappear as we read, so it's a lot less intrusive than other tags.

3. Where to begin...
Don't feel like you have to start at the beginning of the conversation. Does the reader really have to hear: 
"Excuse me Mike, can we talk for a moment?"
"Sure Lacey, what it is it?" blah blah blah.
You can start halfway through conversation, or create impact by starting after one character has dropped a bombshell to the other. Jump straight into tension and drama. 

4. Language... 
Have fun with your characters, slip a joke in or highlight their personality in the way they speak. In any room full of people you will find a mix of personalities, funny people, rude people, boring people, shy people, etc etc etc. Make sure there's variety in your characters when they speak, don't have them all sound like one generic character voice.
Speaking out loud when you write the dialogue can help you create individual voices for your characters. 

5. Name calling...
Don't overuse names. When you speak to someone you know, you don't use their name in every line. It's okay occasionally when you want to make it clear who's speaking, and Mum's often do it when they're mad at you (in fact then they usually use your whole name - no abreviations!). 

6. Accents... 
I loved Wuthering Heights and the gothic but romantic language used. There was however, one character, a gamekeeper or some such thing, and I could not understand a word he said. Thick accent? Consider either not making it extreme, or making it extreme only occasionally. When this character has something important to say, make sure your reader can understand it. If necessary, include a translator.

7. Quality versus quantity...
There's no one formula for the quantity of dialogue you should use. Stream of consciousness text may have almost no dialogue and others quite a lot. Think about your audience. Teens tend to talk a lot, so if you are writing about them or for them you may want to have lots of dialogue. If your descriptions seem to drag on, you may need more dialogue, or if your narrative looks like a script, perhaps you need less (or insert more movement between lines).

Have fun writing dialogue, make it as different, quirky or dramatic as you can! As with all writing techniques, if it doesn't move the story along, cut it out. (I know I promised something on narrative structure, but soon, really)


  1. These are great tips. Thanks for sharing

  2. Excellent list.

    I love lists.

    They provoke.

  3. Yes. I agree. Great and excellent suggestions.

    Anyway, I hear the voices in my head. Each character has a distinct accent. They're so real.


  4. In nearly every first draft of a manuscript, I tend to overuse names. You don't realize it while it's happening, but once you become aware, it's like being socked in the eyes!

  5. I love writing dialogue but have the concern of #1. Great tip to add more action in with the dialogue. I also read it aloud to see if it sounds like conversation or just like one person speaks and the other speaks.

  6. Thank you Charmaine. This is really helpful. Appreciate what you say about writing even if you suck. I hope to get better, so thanks.

  7. Those are great tips! I am definitely bookmarking them for help with editing dialogue scenes. :) Thanks!

  8. great dialog advice! thanks!
    i esp liked the talking heads part, never heard that one!

  9. I love playing with dialogue, though I've never received any guidance on it. Your advice is very helpful. It's relieving, for example, to know I need not shy away from "said." Thank you!


  10. What an awesome post! You really need to follow all of these to have great dialogue.

  11. Wow, what a great list! This is something everyone should copy and paste on the desktop! Thank you for sharing. Now, that's a way to lift someone's courage~

  12. My descriptive language definitely needs a lot of work as well. Le sigh.

  13. Hi :)

    Just popping in from the IWSG and just wanted to say that I LOVE the way that you identified exactly what it was that needed improving in your writing then set about learning as much as you could about it :)

    Very inspirational, go you! :)


  14. Excellent tips as I've come to expect from you, fellow groupie. Yeah, the dialects can be confusing.

    Hope the group went well today. Be looking forward to hearing all.

    Having a great time writing ATM. Going to hit the road after another day just writing...


  15. I think I'm going to print out your post and keep it next to my computer as a reminder of all the things I should and shouldn't do when writing dialogue! I find dialogue so difficult to do. Especially when you have lots of characters that needs to be distinct. I guess practice makes perfect and one day I might be able to say that dialogue is my strongest skill too!

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  17. These are some great tips on dialogue. Thanks for sharing them=)
    I've always had a problem with understanding written accents. I don't do accents in my own writing because of this. I do make sure their voice is unique and original though.

  18. Great tips thank you for sharing. Visiting from IWSG!

  19. This is such a great help! I've never really written anything that I want other people to see..other than my blog..but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time..
    "Thanks for the excellent tips", she said.
    Have a great day!

  20. I love these tips! The tip about overusing the Thesaurus made me smile - I've done that once or twice (or many, many, times). Almost always, I find myself reverting back to something more natural in my edits.

  21. Great tips. I'm having a blast writing a particular scene in my story - it's where the 2 MCs meet and there are a lot of moments that make me smile. :)

  22. Grat tips!! I like your last tip most of all :)

  23. GREAT!! Great tips... sigh. Wish I could type.

  24. Excellent tips! I find dialogue distinction between characters difficult. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  25. Excellent tips! Dialogue is one thing I don't do well the first try. Probably one of the many things!

  26. Great tips...loving my IWSG writing friends!

  27. I love your tips! They're awesome and so true. Thanks! I loved Wuthering Heights, too but that inn's keeper could have been speaking a foreign language for all I cared. Truly impossible to decipher.

    Good luck with your endeavors. I'll be back for more!

    From Diary of a Writer in Progress

  28. Great tips! Accents and dialects are something I have yet to nail. I think it's all about striking a balance. My first book was set in Scotland, and my wife said I didn't have the manner of speech right at all, and I live here! Now I play it safe, and most of my characters are English.

  29. Helpful tips. Thanks. I find that when I'm stuck, if I drum up some dialogue it helps me move forward...even if I end up deleting it later.

  30. All really good tips! Now all I have to do is follow em!! Great post!

  31. Love your tips... so easy to fall prey to these sometimes.

  32. I used to avoid "said," but the tags I used sounded so contrived. Said is fine.

    Great tips. Very helpful.

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  34. This is GREAT (good reminders for me)!!!