3 Tips for Writing Fictional Dialogue
  • 3-minute read
  • 3rd April 2019

3 Tips for Writing Fictional Dialogue

‘Fancy seeing you here,’ the proofreader says, raising an eyebrow. ‘Word is you’re writing a novel and need some help. Well, you’ve come to the right place.’ The proofreader takes your hand, gently but firmly leading you to a mysterious door in the corner of the room.

‘Come with me,’ he says as he turns the handle, ‘and I’ll teach you all about writing great dialogue.’ And as the door opens, you are dazzled by a bright light and feel the following tips fill your mind…

1. Listen to People

To sound real, dialogue should mimic the feeling of real conversation. A good way to get a sense of this is to listen to other people speak. Take note of the expressions people use, the way conversations flow and change, and how speech differs from written language.

Don’t worry about making your dialogue too realistic, though. Human conversation is full of ‘umms’ an ‘urrrs’, and including these in your writing may make it feel stilted. You can, however, add a verbal pause of this kind in written dialogue to show that someone is hesitating.

Fictional Dialogue
People also interrupt and speak over one another in real life. And that’s why books are better than conversations.

2. He Said, She Said

You may find yourself using ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ a lot in your dialogue. This is fine. In fact, it is better to use these terms consistently than to vary your dialogue tags too much.

It is okay to use a descriptive term such as ‘shouted’ or ‘whispered’ now and then, but using too many can be distracting. The main thing is to ensure your readers know who is speaking at any given moment, so you can even leave dialogue tags out as long as this is clear from the context.

3. Show, Don’t Tell

It can be tempting to tell your readers how a character feels while they speak. Typically, this will involve using adverbs such as ‘happily’ or ‘sadly’, or even having the character say how they feel:

‘I got the job! I’m so happy!’ she said.

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‘That’s nice,’ he replied uninterestedly.

This tells us how the characters feel. But it is usually more interesting to show the reader how they feel by describing what they are doing. For example, we could change the above to say:

‘I got the job!’ she said, grinning from ear to ear.

He looked up from his desk. ‘That’s nice,’ he said, catching hey eye for a brief moment before turning straight back to his work.

Here, we can still tell that she is happy and that he is uninterested. But we get this from the extra description rather than by being told directly.

Summary: 3 Tips for Writing Dialogue in Fiction

Keep these tips in mind when writing dialogue in a novel:

  1. Listen to other people’s conversations to get a sense of how they flow and the expressions used. This will help your dialogue sound natural.
  2. Stick to ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ as dialogue markers. Using too many terms such as ‘exclaimed’ or ‘whispered’ can be distracting.
  3. Describe what your characters are doing while they speak. Most of the time, you can use actions to show how a character feels.

And once you have a draft of your novel written up, don’t forget to have it professionally proofread before you send it to publishers.

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