How To Write Dialogue The Write Way


Yes, I misspelled that on purpose. See what I did there?


Ah, Dialogue. One of my favorite parts of the writing process. But if we are going to do this correctly, we need to follow four simple rules.


#1 - Grammar Doesn't Matter (Usually)

I think this why I love dialogue so much. Because I SUCK at grammar. My editors routinely rake me over the coals when they issue corrections. I send out my chapter, they reply with a sheet of red. It's really sad, to be perfectly honest. But here is where you are given permission to butcher the English language in whatever way you see fit. It's totally fine. Why? Because that's how most people talk. Unless, of course, the characters are well educated, or a part of high-brow society. But if they're not, go ahead and use all the contractions you want. End that sentence with a preposition. Totally cool, yall. Have at it.


What is important here, is that you really get into the head of your character. It's the only thing that really matters when it comes to being grammatically correct. Talk like your character, and you have provided depth to them. It rounds out the character and makes them more real. Make it authentic, and you are off to a great start.


Just a final note on contractions. Do you speak all day, every day, without using contractions? Of course not. So make your dialogue fit real-life situations. I will give you an even better reason to speak with contractions. One day, you are going to have the desire to turn your masterpiece into an audiobook. Imagine how that's going to sound when spoken out loud if entire conversations don't have a single contraction. Trust me on this one. The more the merrier when it comes to dialogue.


#2 - It MUST Further The Plot

This is mandatory. If it doesn't further the plot, your reader will become glassy-eyed as they read. They start to wonder what's on Netflix. Don't doubt me on this. If it doesn't advance the plot, then it is unnecessary. All you are doing is boring the reader. They will end up scanning ahead and looking for something interesting. Since your job as a writer is to have your reader fully engaged, do you really want them scanning through parts of your book? If they do, you will have then wasted a lot of effort in its creation. Additionally, you will have unnecessarily added more content to your book that never needed to be there to begin with. Strip out those parts that aren't required and give them the stuff that is.


Simply summarize the parts that don't advance the plot. Let me give you an example of what that looks like from a recent rough draft I just wrote.


The CIA was divided into multiple divisions. The one where DJ and his team got their contracts from was called the National Clandestine Service, or NCS. The person who ran this division was Deputy Director Sharlette Hartly. She was a career veteran of the CIA, serving for over thirty years. DJ had never met the woman but had heard stories. Supposedly, being a woman, a black woman, a gay black woman, who had fought through stereotypes and misogyny by her peers for nearly three decades, yet still managed to acquire such a high ranking level despite those adversities, had conditioned the woman to be a real punch in the gut to work for. But as he stood next to the still unconscious form of Brett Foster lying in a hospital room, talking to her on the phone, DJ found her to be quite charming. Since she worked for an entity whose entire existence focused on keeping secrets, stealing secrets, and killing people because of those secrets, DJ was certain it was all an act. She was very good at it.


Her apology at what had happened to his team sounded sincere and heartfelt. She assured DJ anything required to get Brett and Argo back on their feet would be done. She promised a burial at Arlington with full military honors for Latricia. She even pointed out that a new treatment and technique for Brett’s back injury had been developed. As soon as the man was better, and as soon as he felt up to it, she would arrange for Brett to be placed on the list. With a little bit of luck and a lot of physical therapy, he might regain the full use of his legs.


DJ thanked her, telling her that he did not blame her or her department for what had happened. He knew that Agent Seymour going rogue had come as a complete surprise to everyone. DJ did, however, expect full cooperation from her when it came to sharing any intelligence she discovered on Seymour and Sam Kenny’s whereabouts. He all but demanded it be shared with him. DJ had a score to settle. He would appreciate it if they just passed any information along and then stepped out of his way. He would clean up their little mess, free of charge.


As we begin this new chapter, we learned a lot about the woman our protagonist is having a conversation with. We know who she is, how she got to where she is, what color she is, and her sexual orientation. All of that feeds into the character of the woman and how she thinks and acts considering her position in the CIA. Since this is a new character introduction, getting a little background is good. Not too much. Just a little. More can be revealed later if necessary.


We talked about what was said, but there was no dialogue on the apology or how the offer to help them out transpired. We summarized because hearing the dialogue was irrelevant. We just needed the bullet points. Imagine how boring all of that would have been if I hadn't done that. None of it would have advanced the plot, the reader would have scanned ahead, and I would have wasted all of that effort.


The bottom line is this: If it does not advance the plot in some way, it probably doesn't belong.


#3 - It MUST Include Humor And/Or Conflict

You can have just one or both of those. But if you do this, your dialogue will be far more interesting. I'll prove I am right. Think about any TV show that has been on for more than 3 seasons. Almost every one of them uses this dynamic in their dialogue. My favorite example is The Big Bang Theory. I have seen every episode multiple times. It ran for 12 seasons and could have continued if the actor playing Sheldon had not said he needed to say goodbye to the character and become something else for a while.


Every single episode involved humor. Of course, you would argue. It was a sitcom, a situation comedy. Humor is mandatory. But also consider this: every single dialogue exchange involved conflict with the characters as well. They were constantly being sarcastic with each other, cutting each other down, or making fun of one another. Yet, they all loved each other and were the best of friends. My wife loves watching reruns of Friends. Same dynamic. Even though they cared deeply for each other, they were always arguing and fighting with each other, cutting each other down. Even look at hour-long dramas on TV. I love watching Blue Bloods. Here is a family dynamic where they are constantly arguing with each other, even around the Sunday dinner table when they are supposed to be setting everything aside, we still see humorous sarcasm and riffing come up between the characters.


You may have never thought about it, but trust me, every time you watch something now, you will see the conflict and humor come up in the dialogue between characters. When it's not there, you will see how boring most of it is - unless, of course - it revealed some major plot point. In which case, I point you to rule 2 above.


Let's try an example without humor or conflict...


Dan walked through the front door of his apartment, dropping his satchel on the floor. "Honey, I'm home. What's for dinner?"

Mary stepped around the corner, obviously weary from her long day. "I have no idea. To be honest, I don't know about you, but I'm too tired to cook. We have that leftover chili your mom dropped off."

Dan shook his head. "We had that last night. How about I just order us a pizza. We can sit on the couch and binge-watch something."

Mary smiled. "Best plan I 've heard all day."


BOOOOORRRRRRIIIIIIING! Your reader would scan right past all of that, looking for the good stuff. Too much of it in a row, and they just might close the book altogether. But let's add some humor and conflict in and watch how the dialogue becomes far more interesting...


Dan walked through the front door of his apartment, dropping his satchel on the floor. "Honey, I'm home. What's for dinner?"

Mary stepped around the corner. "Hey, I have a job, too, you know! What are -you- making for dinner?" She crossed her arms, waiting.

Dan sighed, leaning back on the front door, thinking. "Well, we still have that leftover chili my mom dropped off."

Mary offered an obviously fake smile, stepped forward, and gently patted him on the cheek with one hand. "Sweetheart, I love your mother, I really do, but you can't eat any more of your mom's chili. We ran out of air freshener. Let's be honest here, you can be rather stinky after a bowl of that stuff."

Dan stood straight and his eyebrows knitted. "Hey! Rainbows and sunshine don't exactly fly out of your butt, either!"

She sighed. "Fine, how about we order pizza and binge-watch something on the couch? But I'm warning you right now, if you order anchovies again, I'm filing for divorce."


WAAAAAY BETTER! Just by inserting conflict or humor, or in this case, both of them, we have much better dialogue the reader will stay engaged with. I should note: you don't need both. You can have just one of them. But if you do both, do you see how much more fun that is?


#4 - Lead Them In (Audiobook Consideration)

This last one has to do with someone listening to your work rather than reading it. When we convert our masterpieces into audiobooks, we usually don't have the funds to hire multiple voice actors for each character. Instead, almost every book listened to will have a single narrator reading for multiple parts.


When we read dialogue, we see something formatted as follows...


"Blah blah blah blah blah," Dan said.

"Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah," she replied. "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah."

"Blah Blah," he agreed.


With every indention, we know the perspective has changed to the other character. It is a very visual experience. I don't need to be told there is a perspective or character change. I can see it because the paragraph has been indented.


BUT...


When we listen to a book with a single narrator, it is easy for the listener to get confused sometimes. All it takes for them is to get off track just once and the entire exchange becomes confusing in the listener's mind. We can't hear a paragraph indention, right? So how do we combat that?


Give them a lead-in. Use your massive quantity of creativity to lead them into the change. We can look at the Dan and Mary exchange above for a great example of that...


Dan walked through the front door of his apartment, dropping his satchel on the floor. "Honey, I'm home. What's for dinner?"

Mary stepped around the corner. "Hey, I have a job, too, you know! What are -you- making for dinner?" She crossed her arms, waiting.

Dan sighed, leaning back on the front door, thinking. "Well, we still have that leftover chili my mom dropped off."

Mary offered an obviously fake smile, stepped forward, and gently patted him on the cheek with one hand. "Sweetheart, I love your mother, I really do, but you can't eat any more of your mom's chili. We ran out of air freshener. Let's be honest here, you can be rather stinky after a bowl of her chili."

Dan stood straight and his eyebrows knitted. "Hey! Rainbows and sunshine don't exactly fly out of your butt, either!"

She sighed. "Fine, how about we order pizza and binge-watch something on the couch? But I'm warning you right now, if you order anchovies again, I'm filing for divorce."


Every character change is noted by a lead-in of some kind, indicating that a different character is about to speak. (Dan sighed, leaning against the front door) (Mary stepped around the corner) (Dan stood straight and his eyebrows knitted). All of those lead-ins tell the listener there is a character change.


Trust me, here. I have been down this road ahead of you. I know what I'm talking about. Making this one change drastically improved my reviews on my audiobooks. True, the narrator can provide a slight pause for each exchange, but if it is too long, the narration really drags. Imagine the scenarios by which most people listen to books. They are driving to work, washing the dishes, or catching up on chores. Seldom does the listener isolate themselves, close their eyes, and concentrate on every word. Make it easier for them and your reviews will improve. You're a writer. You can do this. Your creativity knows no bounds.


In conclusion, if you follow those four simple rules, your dialogue will be better, your readers will be more engaged, and your sales should improve over time.


#1 - Grammar Doesn't Matter (Usually)

#2 - It MUST Further The Plot

#3 - It MUST Include Humor And/Or Conflict

#4 - Lead Them In (Audiobook Consideration)

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