Dialogue is tricky. Some people happen to have an ear for the rhythm and cadences of human language. Some people don’t. If you want to make your dialogue stronger, though, there are techniques you can rely on to improve your written conversations. Dialogue is not only about the words within the quotation marks or the rhythm that guides them. If you’re looking for ways to make your dialogue stronger on the page, consider these five less-often discussed tips.
Make Your Dialogue Stronger Through Setting
What does dialogue have to do with setting? Well, a conversation in a work of fiction or memoir doesn’t take place in a void. It isn’t a radio play—that is, something only to be heard. A conversation is also observed, and that means establishing the specific time and place—the setting—in which it occurs.
As a book editor, I’ve read scenes where dialogue goes for pages and pages before a setting is established—and others where the setting is never established at all. Without setting, readers lack context for dialogue. They can’t see it the way you intend because you’ve omitted basic information like characters present in the scene and the nature of the room. (A conversation is very different in the close quarters of an elevator versus an open field.) No matter how pithy the dialogue may be, if readers can’t “see” your scene, it’s difficult to engage with it.
Utilize Physical Action
Another way to ensure that your dialogue is seen and not just heard is to emphasize physical activity. But the reason is not simply to provide more specific detail (although that is important). An effective and authentic conversation is built on body language as much as it is on spoken language.
Consider a simple line of dialogue: “I’m fine.” Said calmly, with a contented smile, this can be a genuine statement of a character’s wellbeing. Said with a hand on someone’s shoulder, it can convey reassurance or insistence—which may be cause for doubt. Said with arms folded, shoulders stiffened, and eyes directed toward the pavement, it may suggest frustration. It could even be an outright lie.
Notice how the words in these examples don’t change, but the body language changes everything.
People don’t always say what they mean. In fact, they often don’t. That’s why body language is such a great tool to make your dialogue stronger. It enables you to convey what words alone cannot: the subtext and emotional undercurrents of a conversation.
Consider Sentence Structure
The way dialogue is structured can have a surprisingly significant impact on how it’s read. We can see this through what one might call reversed dialogue structure:
Jason said, “This doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
Kira said, “Says you!”
The exchange would be exactly the same in words spoken and action stated if the attributions—“Jason said” and “Kira said”—followed versus preceded the dialogue. Yet reversed structure, as above, reads as less natural. It draws attention to the attribution rather than the dialogue and creates a likely unintended pause before each line. It slows the rhythm—especially with respect to dialogue intended as an immediate response, like Kira’s “Says you!”
This doesn’t mean attribution can never come first, because depending on action and the tone and flow of the scene, such adjustments may make sense. But utilizing reversed dialogue structure as the norm results in awkward writing, and therefore awkward reading.
Structure is also important with respect to the timing of your attribution—that is, if you wait too long in a monologue to identify the speaker, readers may not read your dialogue in the intended voice. If you want to make your dialogue stronger, the structure of your sentences needs to keep everything clear and flowing smoothly.
Use Rhythm to Convey Tone
We don’t want Kira’s response above to be immediate for its own sake. The timing of her dialogue also suggests her tone. It conveys frustration, perhaps, or anger, when she snaps back quickly in response to Jason.
Conversations, in general, can be provided a rhythm that conveys different tones and emotions. To make your dialogue stronger, learn to manage that rhythm more deliberately. I’ve read drafts from authors in which arguments between two characters were organized in competing monologues as you might see in a televised debate. Each character would wait for the other to finish making their detailed point before leaping into their own well-considered rebuttal.
But that’s not the rhythm of natural conversation. When people are angry at one another, you don’t see detailed, patient arguments. Typically anger leads to shorter sentences and interruptions, or your characters might talk over one another. So the length and frequency of their dialogue, and the rhythm that results, can convey tone every bit as well as the words within the quotation marks. (Body language helps here as well.)
Avoid Distracting Tendencies
A lot of novice authors utilize particular recurring tendencies that, though minor in isolation, become distracting when repeated. One of the most common is the use of names in dialogue. Let’s apply that to our dialogue above:
“This doesn’t seem like a good idea, Kira,” said Jason.
“Says you, Jason!” said Kira.
Certainly, there are times where rhythm and context make the presence of characters’ names in dialogue entirely natural. But names in dialogue are frequently overused. In one-on-one conversation especially, people don’t say one another’s names aloud all that often. They already know to whom they’re speaking.
Even more common is a concept called fear of said. This refers to overuse of synonyms for “said,” like “explained,” “voiced,” “stated,” “spoke,” etc. The concern is that “said,” when repeated, will become redundant. It’s true that any word can be overused, but readers are programmed from years of reading to ignore “said”—and that’s good because it ensures that focus remains on the dialogue, not the attribution. With these synonyms, focus instead turns to the attribution, and as with reversed dialogue structure, that’s ultimately a distraction.
Some words convey something genuinely different, like “yelled.” And middle grade and young adult fiction allow more leeway for synonyms. But more often than not, if you want to make your dialogue stronger, “said” is best.
Do you have any other tips on how to make your dialogue stronger? Share them in the comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.