Writing Effective Dialogue

Have you ever begun reading a book, which appeared from the cover and description to be a really good one, only to be disappointed by dialogue that was stiff, stilted, and unrealistic.  Such is often the case with self-published fiction.  Too many authors spend hours and hours on plot and scene description, while failing to comprehend the importance of good dialogue.

Here is an example of what I am talking about.  The opening of this book starts out like a classic, filled with metaphors and similes galore:

The house stood like a wooden sentinel, perched on the top of the hill, with its oversized windows peering into the distance for the approach of strangers.  When Tom pulled his car up the long driveway, he felt as though his every move was being observed.  He turned off the ignition, stepped down on the parking brake, and exited the vehicle.  A short, brick encrusted walkway led him to the front door.  With no button in evidence for a bell, Tom used the heavy metal door knocker to announce his arrival.

(So far, so good, right?)

 After a few moments, the door was opened slowly with a creak by a man in formal butler’s attire, who greeted him with a smile.
“May I be of some help to you, sir?” said the man.  “I do not recognize your automobile, so I must assume that you are attempting to sell some merchandise.  I am sorry to say that we have no interest in any products that you might be selling.”

(Ugh! It gets worse)

Tom stifled a laugh, then replied, “No, no. I am not trying to sell any products.  I am an old acquaintance of the man who formerly lived in this house.  I am trying to determine his present location.  Can you possibly assist me?”

Okay, had enough?  Well, by now, so have your readers.  You get the picture.  Now, here’s the same dialogue, but written in a more authentic and interesting manner:

“Can I help you, sir?” said the man. “I’ve never seen your car before, so I’m guessing you’re a salesman.  I’m sorry, but we’re just not interested.”
Tom stifled a laugh, then replied, “No, no, I’m not a salesman.  Actually, I’m an old friend of the previous owner.  We’ve lost touch with one another, and I’m trying to track him down.  Would you have any idea where I can find him?”

See the difference?  When you write dialogue, try to get inside the skin of the character.  Think of his age, his station in life, his demeanor.  Where is he from?  Does he have an accent?  Is it an accent that is easy to replicate?  Always read your dialogue aloud to see if it sounds natural―the way people really speak.  Another mistake that many writers make is trying to have a character speak with an accent.  Most of the time it fails miserably.  Instead, why not say something like this: Gino spoke with a heavy Italian accent.  Then, have the character speak in normal, everyday English, leaving the accent to the imagination of the reader.  Or have the character speak with an accent for a line or two, and then continue on in everyday speech.

Another problem is attribution.  You know―who said what.  It’s always imperative that a reader know who is speaking.  That does NOT mean that you must always use “said Bob,” or “Bob said.”  Once you have established who is speaking in a two-person scene, it is often possible to maintain the conversation without any attribution at all.  Try this: write a piece of dialogue between two people, using what you would consider “normal” attribution.  Now, remove the attribution (he said, she said, etc.) and see if you can still tell who is talking.  If not, put back the attribution, one bit at a time.  Each time, read it aloud and see if you can determine who is speaking.  Here is an example:

“Fred, do you think Shirley will let you go to the movies with me tonight?” asked Harry.
“I’m not sure,” replied Fred.  “She always likes for me to be home on Monday nights.”
“Well,” said Harry, “why don’t you just tell her you’re going?”
Fred replied, “You know what, Harry, I think I will!  I’m sick to death of her telling me what to do.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Harry.  “Tell her to stick it where the sun…”

Now, here the same piece of dialogue without all the attribution:

“Fred, do you think Shirley will let you go to the movies with me tonight?” asked Harry.
“I’m not sure.  She’s always likes for me to be home on Monday nights”
“Well, why don’t you just tell her you’re going?”
“You know what?  I think I will!  I’m sick to death of her telling me what to do.”
“Now you’re talking.  Tell her to stick it where the sun…”

All that was necessary to know who was speaking was the initial attribution in the first sentence.  This example might be a bit extreme, but you get the point.  So, what have we learned?  Here are four basic rules to writing effective dialogue:

  1. Think about who is speaking.  Have a clear picture of their age, gender, ethnicity, social standing, etc.  Girls should speak as girls, boys as boys.  College graduates should not speak the same way as an inner city person, etc.
  2. Read the dialogue you’ve written aloud to be sure it sounds natural, the way “real” people speak in every day life.
  3. Keep attribution to a minimum, only using it when absolutely necessary to avoid confusion.
  4. Don’t attempt to depict an accent, unless it’s easily done AND repeatable, and be consistent.

I think that if you follow these guidelines, before long you’ll begin to write better dialogue, and soon you will become a “dialogue” guru.

Got a writing tip you’d like to pass along?  Enter it in the comments section below.  Or, perhaps you’d like to write a guest post to help new writers with their work.  If so, just email me at joetheauthor@joeperronejr.com with your query.

NOTE:  Joe Perrone Jr is the author of the Matt Davis Mystery Series: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day (a 2012 Indie B.R.A.G. medallion winner), Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises (also a B.R.A.G. medallion honoree).  All four mysteries are available in paperback and E-book from Amazon.com.  As the Twig is Bent and Opening Day are now in audiobook from Audible.com, with Twice Bitten and Broken Promises currently in production.  If humor is your cup of tea, consider Joe’s rip-roaring, coming-of-age novel, Escaping Innocence: A Story of Awakening, set in the tumultuous Sixties, or A “Real” Man’s Guide to Divorce (First, you bend over and . . . ).  Both are available in print, E-book, and audio book editions.

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About AuthorJoePerroneJr

I am a former professional fly-fishing guide, and I write the Matt Davis Mystery Series, which presently consists of four books: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day, Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises. The series is set in the real town of Roscoe, NY, in the Catskill Mountains, where I guided for ten years. I love fly fishing, movies, cooking (and eating), and music. To learn more about me and my writing, please visit my website at: http://www.joeperronejr.com.
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7 Responses to Writing Effective Dialogue

  1. The words selected for use are obviously key to getting the story told. If the writer has to look up the definition of a word he plans to use, that word may not be the best choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. April Wood says:

    Excellent advice, Joe. This is something I need to work on.

    Like

  3. Gerry Simpkins says:

    Good one, Joe.

    Have corrected all 3 of my books some time ago regarding this. Early on you advised me that at best I was a ‘B’ on dialog and I have concentrated on it ever since. Shared this on FB

    Gerry

    Like

  4. Thanks, Al. I always enjoyed writers who could make you feel as though you were listening to a conversation taking place at the table next to you at a restaurant. William G. Tapply was (1940-2009) one of my favorites. He wrote, among others, the Bardy Coyne series. I think you’d enjoy his work. http://goo.gl/66HIh4

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  5. Al Mosier says:

    Great advice, Joe! Dialog sells the book. Robert B. Parker was the best, hands down, at writing dialog ever.

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