“Add Life to Your Dialogue” by Joan Y. Edwards
Dialogue is a great way for fiction writers to engage readers. You are a fiction writer. Great! Do you want to add life to your dialogue? Of course, you do.
Take a look at the dialogue in a favorite part of your latest manuscript. If your dialogue follows the six ideas below, it will keep your readers glued to the pages of your book from beginning to end. You will have the reader hooked. Your dialogue will exhibit great life.
Choose words to invigorate your dialogue.
Simple dialog tags that ensure readers know who is talking. The simple tags keep the readers dwelling on the story. That’s where you want them.
John said, “Don’t be kidding me!”
“I kid you not. The man held me at gun point!” said Jane.
Avoid complicated dialog tags. Complicated dialog tags take the reader out of the story. This may keep them out so long that they never finish reading your book.
John articulated, “Don’t be kidding me!”
“I kid you not. The man held me at gun point!” spoke up Jane.
2. If there are only two people talking, weave the information about who is talking into the paragraph before the dialogue begins so that you don’t need any dialogue tags. Mark Twain often does this in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Let the readers know who is talking in the introductory paragraph or in the response and go back and forth with the conversation:
Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain About midnight Tom arrived with a boiled ham and a few trifles, and stopped in a dense undergrowth on a small bluff overlooking the meeting-place. It was starlight, and very still. The mighty river lay like an ocean at rest. Tom listened a moment, but no sound disturbed the quiet. Then he gave a low, distinct whistle. It was answered from under the bluff. Tom whistled twice more; these signals were answered in the same way. Then a guarded voice said: “Who goes there?” “Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main. Name your names.” “Huck Finn the Red-Handed, and Joe Harper the Terror of the Seas.” Tom had furnished these titles, from his favorite literature. “’Tis well. Give the countersign.” Two hoarse whispers delivered the same awful word simultaneously to the brooding night: “Blood!” Then Tom tumbled his ham over the bluff and let himself down after it, tearing both skin and clothes to some extent in the effort. There was an easy, comfortable path along the shore under the bluff, but it lacked the advantages of difficulty and danger so valued by a pirate.
2. Instead of using the dialog tags (he said, she said) after the first two lines of dialogue, be creative. Between pieces of dialogue, add plot action, events, decisions, or discoveries that influence how your protagonist pursues his goal. Add actions and reactions that express each character’s emotions. According to Wikipedia, Emotion is often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, and motivation.
John said, “Don’t be kidding me!” “I kid you not.” Jane took off her eyeglasses and stared him nose to nose. “The man held me at gun point!” …Joan Y. Edwards
Here’s an excerpt from Best Seller Beneath the Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan with added information about each character.
Beneath the Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan Pino watched him but heard the older woman say, “Which one, Albert? “Go with your heart,” said the man waiting on her behind he counter. Big, barrel-chested, and mustached, he wore a beautiful mouse-gray suit, starched white shirt, and a jaunty polka-dot bow tie. “But, I love them both,” his customer complained. Stroking his mustache and chuckling, he said, “Then, buy them both!” She hesitated, giggled. “Maybe I will, then!”
3. Show tension and disagreement – conflict – between the characters who are talking. Show characters with different goals.
In real life, not all conversations show conflict. In a novel, every conversation has to make a difference and carry part of the plot with it. I wrote the following passage to help show tension and disagreement.
Ted looked out the window. The impending blizzard set his mind in a mode of fear. Would he be able to get Bella to the hospital if the baby came now?
Ted said, “Bella, are you feeling okay? Any contractions?”
Rubbing her belly, Bella said, “I’m fine. No contractions.”
Ted ran his fingers through his hair. “What if the blizzard traps us?”
“We’ll do fine. We’ve watched a million babies born in Westerns. How hard can it be?”
“Hard. I flunked birthing 101.”
“You flunked because you passed out. When it’s your own baby, you won’t pass out. Trust me. I know you, Ted. You won’t let me down.”
Ted fell to the floor. Bella shook his head from side to side.
“Ted, Ted. Speak to me, Ted.” Ted opened his eyes. “I love you, Bella. I can’t do this.”
Bella bent over. Her face etched in pain. “You’ll have to. The baby’s coming now.” … Joan Y. Edwards
4. If the dialogue is not essential, delete it. All dialogue should do one of these three things: move the story forward, provide essential information to understand the story, or to explain character motivation through actions, thoughts, and emotions. I wrote the following passage. See if you can find the words or sentences that would make the dialogue better if you eliminated it.
Oscar’s father, Fred, took one look at the bashed in fenders and doors on the left side of his 2018 blazing red Ferrari. He stomped his feet and threw the 30 gallon trash can against the garage wall.
Oscar was totally sure that his father was really angry with him.
Fred came behind the car. “Son, I told you to be careful.”
“I was. The driver of the other car ran the red light.”
“What color was the other car? How old was the driver? Did the police give him a ticket?”
Oscar put the knife back in his pocket. He was just making sure he had it. “Oh my goodness! You’re bleeding.” “The paramedic bandaged it. I must have bumped it again. “Let’s get a new bandage on that arm. Later on, the insurance agent is coming over.
Passage after deleting unnecessary sentences and words.
Fred, Oscar’s father, took one look at the bashed in fenders and doors on the left side of his 2018 blazing red Ferrari. He stomped his feet and threw the 30 gallon trash can against the garage wall. He came behind the car.
“Son, I told you to be careful.”
“I was. The driver of the other car ran the red light.”
“Oh my goodness! You’re bleeding.”
“The paramedic bandaged it. I must have bumped it again.”
“Let’s get a new bandage on that arm. Later on, the insurance agent is coming over. byJoan Y. Edwards
5. Vary the length of the lines of dialogue.
The following dialogue is from Moby Dick. To study other great public domain books free, go to Gutenberg Project at
Moby Dick by Herman Melville “My boy,” said the landlord, “you’ll have the nightmare to a dead sartainty.”
“Landlord,” I whispered, “that aint the harpooneer is it?”
“Oh, no,” said he, looking a sort of diabolically funny, “the harpooneer is a dark complexioned chap. He never eats dumplings, he don’t—he eats nothing but steaks, and he likes ’em rare.”
“The devil he does,” says I.
“Where is that harpooneer? Is he here?”
“He’ll be here afore long,” was the answer. I could not help it, but I began to feel suspicious of this “dark complexioned” harpooneer. At any rate, I made up my mind that if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did.
6. Use dialogue that flows easily. Read your dialogue aloud. If it sounds stuffy, it’s stuffy. I like the dialogue here. It’s humorous and states usefulness of a Time Machine.
The Time Machine: An Invention by H. G. Wells
“But I have experimental verification,” said the Time Traveller.
“It would be remarkably convenient for the historian,” the Psychologist suggested.
“One might travel back and verify the accepted account of the Battle of Hastings, for instance!”
“Don’t you think you would attract attention?” said the Medical Man.
“Our ancestors had no great tolerance for anachronisms.”
“One might get one’s Greek from the very lips of Homer and Plato,” the Very Young Man thought.
“In which case they would certainly plough you for the Little-go. The German scholars have improved Greek so much.”
“Then there is the future,” said the Very Young Man. “Just think! One might invest all one’s money, leave it to accumulate at interest, and hurry on ahead!”
I hope these ideas help you add life to your dialogue. I listed 25 resources below my signature to give you additional ways to invigorate your dialogue.
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The World Needs to Read What You Write
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2018-2022 Joan Y. Edwards
1. A.J. Humpage. “Sentences and Dialogue:” http://allwritefictionadvice.blogspot.com/2011/04/part-3-sentences-and-dialogue.html
2. Beth Hill. “Bad Dialogue: Bad, Bad Dialogue.” http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/11/03/bad-dialogue-bad-bad-dialogue/
3. Bridget. Now Novel. “Writing Dialogue: 7 Examples of Dialogues That Work: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-dialogue-examples/
4. Campus Times Pune. “15 Hollywood Movie Dialogues That Will Just Knock You Over:”
5. Changing Minds.org. “Basic Emotions:
6. Diana Urban. “Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately:” https://dianaurban.com/words-you-should-cut-from-your-writing-immediately
7. Ekman, P. (1972). Universals and Cultural Differences in Facial Expression of Emotion. In J. Cole ed. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 207-283.
8. Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., & Ellsworth, P. (1982). What emotion categories or dimensions can observers judge from facial behavior? In P. Ekman (Ed.), Emotion in the human face (pp. 39-55). New York: Cambridge University Press.
9. Frederic Raphael. “Frederic Raphael’s Top 10 Talkative Novels:”
11. Jeff Elkins. “How to Write Dialogue without Using Adverbs:” https://thewritepractice.com/dialogue-adverbs/
12. Joanna Penn. 9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue:” https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2012/10/04/dialogue-mistakes/
13. Juan Orellana “The 20 Best Dialogue Scenes in Cinema History:” http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2016/the-20-best-dialogue-scenes-in-cinema-history/
14. Judy Cullins. “How to Spice Up Your Writing with Dialogue:” https://thatactionguy.wordpress.com/2008/09/13/how-to-spice-up-your-writing-with-dialogue/
15. Monica. “What, Technically, is a “Beat” in a Screenplay?”
16. Public Domain Books. Gutenberg Project. “Moby Dick:” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm#link2HCH0001
17. Quora forum. “Which Is the Most Inspirational Hollywood Movie Dialogue Ever?”https://www.quora.com/Which-is-the-most-Inspirational-Hollywood-Movie-dialogue-ever
18. Scott Francis. Writer’s Digest. “The 5 Best Ways to Make Your Characters Conversations Seem Real:”
19. Wikihow. “How to Format Dialogue in a Story:” https://www.wikihow.com/Format-Dialogue-in-a-Story
20. Wikipedia. “List of Emotions:” https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emotions
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards, Author
Copyright © 2009-2022 Joan Y. Edwards
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