In today’s episode, I’m sharing my top 10 tips for writing stronger, more impactful dialogue in your novel. Here’s a preview of what’s included:
[02:00] Tip #1: Make sure your dialogue serves a purpose in the overarching story.
[03:00] Tip #2: Think of your dialogue as action vs. exposition (or active vs. passive).
[06:09] Tip #3: Get clear on each character’s goal and motivation within a scene.
[07:43] Tip #4: Make sure your dialogue is ripe with conflict and tension.
[10:02] Tip #5: Check that your dialogue sounds right for your genre and tone.
[11:15] Tip #6: Ensure each character has a unique and rich vocabulary.
[13:13] Tip #7: Curate your dialogue to show readers only what they need to see.
[14:30] Tip #8: Keep your dialogue short and to the point.
[16:16] Tip #9: Aim to have your dialogue do more than one thing—and include subtext.
[18:19] Tip #10: Use dialogue to help you control your story’s pacing.
[20:17] Final thoughts and episode recap.
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Subtext is built on characterization, which is the key to great dialogue. So, again, this is why developing your characters is super important before writing or editing your dialogue. But essentially, you'll want to consider things like a character's backstory, their fears, their worries, their hopes and their dreams, any current or past relationships that might be at play in the present moment, and things like that. All of this will help you write subtext into your dialogue. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, I'm sharing 10 tips for writing better dialogue, and this episode is meant to piggyback off episode number 92, where I share the five functions of dialogue in your story. So if you haven't listened to that episode, it's a great companion piece to what we're going to cover today. I'm going to put the link to that episode in the show notes for you for easy access. Now, if you've ever heard me talk about dialogue before, then you've probably heard me say that, other than learning things like how to craft well-structured scenes or how to deliver what readers are expecting from a story in your genre, or developing compelling and relatable characters or fleshing out three-dimensional worlds, dialogue is the next thing on the list that you can tackle to take your story from good to great. But writing great dialogue is not always the easiest thing to do, especially in your early drafts. So, as I go through these 10 tips, I definitely want you to keep them in mind as you write your first, second or even third draft, and then I want you to especially keep these tips in mind as you edit your draft, because that's really where you're going to be able to make a difference with your dialogue. So, without being said, let's go ahead and dive in to my top 10 tips for writing better dialogue and thus taking your story from good to great. The first tip I have for you is to make sure your dialogue serves a purpose in the story, and really your dialogue should do one of these five things. It should either reveal character, establish context, highlight your theme, set the tone or advance the plot. And like I mentioned in the intro, I did a whole episode about the five functions of dialogue, so I won't go too deep into them here, but I do highly recommend checking out episode 92 that goes over those five functions of dialogue in a little more detail and remember, I've linked to that episode in the show notes for you for easy access. But essentially you just want to make sure your dialogue is serving a bigger purpose in the story because otherwise it's just there taking up space. So as an example, I'm going to read you just a small snippet from the book Fable by Adrian Young and I want you to consider what the purpose of the dialogue in this little moment is. So here we go. Where are the others? I ask, flicking a copper into the air and throwing my belt into the skiff. He caught it, dropping it into the purse, hanging from the mast, still working. The traders what are you going to do with all that copper? Fable? Koi asked tying off the line. I watched the rope pull around the callus skin that covered his hand. What copper? He looked amused, a sliver of teeth showing between his lips. I know you're trading all that pyre you're finding, but I can't figure out what you're planning to do with the coin. Buy a boat, start an operation with the traders. I haven't been finding much pyre. I shrugged, toiling a piece of my hair around my finger. The strands were the color of tarnished copper in the sunlight, no more than usual. So this snippet is doing two main things it's establishing the context of the scene and it's revealing something about Koi's character. So from this we can already gather that Fable doesn't really like being alone with Koi and she's not happy that he's asking her about her copper. It also hints at the central conflict of the story that has to do with Fable making her way and holding her own in the gem trade. So very purposeful dialogue, even though on first glance it might not seem that important. And that's tip number one make sure your dialogue serves a bigger purpose in the scene and in your story so it's not just sitting there taking up space. The second tip I have for you is to think of your dialogue as action rather than exposition or anything else. This tip is going to prevent you from writing soggy, inert dialogue that doesn't serve a bigger purpose in your story. So if you think of your dialogue as action, this is going to make you get in your character's head and it's going to remind you that your characters are speaking because they want to further their own agenda, whatever that is. And this is why it's so, so important to do character work before you start writing, because if you don't know your character's goals, motivations and that inner obstacle that they need to overcome, then it's going to be really hard to write meaningful dialogue right. So as an example, I pulled out a snippet from the Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros and I'm just going to read this to you. You're sending her to die. A familiar voice thunders through the general's thick wooden door and I gasp. There's only one woman on the continent foolish enough to raise her voice to the general, but she's supposed to be on the border with the Eastern Wing, mira. There's a muffled response from the office and I reach for the door handle. She doesn't stand a chance. Mira shouts as I force the heavy door open and the weight of my pack shifts forward, nearly taking me down. So in this snippet it's clear that the character Mira does not want her sister Violet to join the writer's quadrant. She's not passive at all in this dialogue. She's actively trying to get her mom, who is the general, to change her mind and let her sister Violet enter the scribe's quadrant instead. Now you might be wondering okay, well, what if my character likes to make small talk? Or what if my character is really just killing time in a scene? Doesn't that mean that my character can be more passive? I get asked questions like this a lot, and it makes sense, because there will be scenes where your character needs to engage in small talk or kill time, right, but in this scenario, you always want to know why they're doing it. So why is your character killing time or why are they engaging in small talk? If your character is nervous or hiding something or avoiding someone, then the small talk they're engaging in is helping them further their agenda of mitigating that discomfort they feel. So just let me keep in mind, if you are writing a scene like this and with that being said, that wraps up tip number two I want you to think of your dialogue as action versus exposition or anything else, or to think of your dialogue as needing to be active rather than passive. The third tip I have for you is to really understand each character's goal and motivation within each one of your scenes and within your overarching story. Of course, great dialogue or really impactful dialogue will add to the sense of movement within each of your scenes because it helps take your characters closer to or farther from accomplishing their goals. So I'm going to read you an example from Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldry and see if you can figure out what each character in this little snippet of dialogue wants. I hear you on the old livery on Redstone. That true, asked Viv. Ansem allowed that. He did. I'm looking to buy, she said, and have a feeling you might be looking to sell. Ansem seemed surprised, but only briefly. His gaze sharpened and while he might not have had a head for business, viv was pretty sure he had one for haggling. Maybe he rumbled, but that's some prime, real estate Prime. I've had offers before, but most of them don't see past the place to really appreciate the value of the location. That is to say they underbid At this point the tavern keep swapped his tankard for a fresh one and Ansem visibly warmed to his subject. Oh yes, so many embarrassing offers. I have to warn you, I know what a lot is worth and I can't see myself selling to anyone but a serious businessman or businesswoman, he amended. So in this excerpt it's super clear what each character wants, right? Viv wants to buy the building that Ansem owns, and Ansem wants to get as much money as he can from Viv for the sale. And because they have goals that kind of oppose each other, we see some really nice organic conflict developing in their dialogue too. So that's tip number three. You'll really want to understand your character's goals and motivations within each one of your scenes as well as within your overarching story. Tip number four is to make sure your dialogue is rich with conflict and tension. This is actually one of the fastest ways to improve dialogue. In any given scene, you'll want to look for opportunities to amp up the internal and or external conflict within the dialogue, because, think about it this way, the dullest exchanges are between two people who are on the same wavelength with nothing gripping to talk about, and I see this in the drafts I edit all the time. There will be characters sitting down to eat or drink coffee, and when I ask the author what their intention for the scene is, they'll say something like well, I just wanted to show what a normal evening with the character's family is like. I want to show their normal world and although that might be well intended, if there's no conflict it's probably not going to be that interesting of a scene for readers. So within each scene, just make sure you understand each character's agenda and then look for areas of conflict to dig into. And here's the thing Great dialogue starts to develop before you even start writing. It starts all the way back when you create a cast of characters who differ from each other. So there's always the possibility of conflict or tension. So make sure you do the work to flesh out your characters beforehand. Now, as an example, I want to read you a little snippet from the Invisible Life of Adi LaRue by VE Schwab. So here we go All things have names, she says. Names have purpose, names have power. She tips her glass his way. You know that, or else you wouldn't have stolen mine. A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth, wolfish, amused. If it is true he says that names have powers, then why would I hand you mine? Because I must call you something to your face and in my head, and right now I only have curses. Darkness does not seem to care. Call me whatever you like, it makes no difference. What did you call the stranger in your journals? The man after whom you fashioned me? You fashioned yourself to mock me and I would rather you take any other form. You see violence in every gesture. He muses running a thumb over his glass. I fashioned myself to suit you, to put you at ease. Anger rises in her chest. You have ruined the one thing I still had. How sad that you had only dreams. So in this excerpt there's definitely conflict and tension, right? If you're familiar with this story, this is probably one of the most memorable scenes and I'd argue it's super memorable because of the conflict and tension between these two characters, and it's a great example of how you can make a scene where two characters are sitting down for a meal really impactful. So that's tip number four make sure your dialogue is rich with conflict and tension. Tip number five is to make sure your dialogue sounds right for your genre, age range, mood and tone. Dialogue should evoke the overall tone or mood of your story and it should also help you highlight your genre and speak to your target age range when possible. So, for example, a horror novel will probably have tighter and darker dialogue than a contemporary romance novel. That just makes sense right Now. I pulled an example and I want you to see if you can guess what the genre is just based on this little snippet of dialogue. So here we go. A look of amusement cross Simon's features. I take it then that during my time abroad you've become something of an eligible gentleman. Not out of any aspirations to the role on my part, I assure you, if it were up to me I'd avoid society functions like the plague, but my sister made her bow last year and I'm forced to escort her from time to time. So if you guessed romance, you are correct. If you guessed historical romance, you're even more correct. This is an example from the Duke and I, by Julia Quinn, and we can tell just by the dialogue that this is romance for sure, and possibly even historical romance, by this very short snippet. So it's a great example of how to evoke a tone and how to hint at your genre and your dialogue. So that's tip number five Make sure your dialogue reflects your genre and age range as well as the tone and mood that you're going for. Tip number six is to make each character's voice and vocabulary unique, and this is important because readers can learn a lot about your characters through how they speak to others. So when crafting your dialogue, you'll want to consider things like each of your character's worldviews, what they hope for, what they fear, what kind of misguided beliefs they have or what kind of internal baggage impacts their day to day life. You want to think about their educational background and what words someone from that background would use or would not use. You'll also want to think about where they're from and if there are any words specific to that region. If you have a character who doesn't speak English as their first language, you'll want to think about the syntax or the order they put the words in, because that's the best way to show that English isn't their first language or insert any other language here as their first language. You'll want to consider their peer groups, so groups that band together around a specialty or a hobby, have phrases that they use that other people wouldn't. So think about surgeons or athletes, things like that. This is something that can really help you add authenticity to your characters and your story. So, basically, just think about what makes this person them, where did they grow up, people kind of believe so they hold, and things like that, and figure out how that can start to color your dialogue. So my favorite example of this is from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling, and it's, of course, hagrid. So I'm just going to read you this Hagrid looked as if he was about to explode Dursley, he boomed. Uncle Vernon, who had gone very pale, whispered something that sounded like memblewimble. Hagrid stared widely at Harry. But you must know about your mom and dad, he said. I mean, they're famous, you're famous what your mom and dad weren't famous, were they? So in this excerpt there's no mistaking who's speaking when right. The way Hagrid speaks is super memorable and it shows readers a lot about where he came from, what he values, his educational background and things like that. So that's tip number six. Make sure each character's voice and vocabulary is unique and make sense, given their background, their goals, their fears, their worldview, etc. Tip number seven is to curate your dialogue, and what I mean by this is that your dialogue should not reflect real-life speech. Instead, it should suggest real-life speech. But everything you include must be purposeful. So curate your dialogue and show readers only what they need to know in any given scene. Now the example I pulled for this one is from Shadow and Bone by Lee Bardugo and I'm just going to read it to you. What is wrong with you? I whisper furiously. Nothing, he said, surprised. I feel great. But how can you be so? So jaunty, jaunty. I've never been jaunty. I hope to never be jaunty. Well then, what's all this? I asked, waving a hand at him you look like you're on your way to a really good dinner, instead of a possible death and dismemberment. Mal laughed you worry too much? The King sent a whole group of Grisha pyros to cover the skiffs and even a few of those creepy heart renders. We have our rifles, he said. Patting the one on his back will be fine. A rifle won't make much difference if there's a bad attack. So in this example there's a lot that could be included if the author was indulgent with their dialogue, but instead it's just a very quick conversation between two friends that helps establish the stakes and shows the difference between these two characters and how they're interpreting what's about to happen. So that's tip number seven. You'll want to make sure to curate your dialogue and to only show what's relevant and necessary in any given scene. Tip number eight is to keep your dialogue short and to the point. So, unless there's a reason for a character to be running off at the mouth. Dialogue is usually best when compressed, so you'll want to keep it nice and lean, and I'm going to read you two different examples from a discovery of witches by Deborah Harkness to kind of illustrate this. So here goes the first one Finished. Sean asked when I reached the call desk Not quite. I'd like to reserve the top three for Monday and the fourth I'm done with it. I blurted, pushing the manuscripts toward him. You can send it back to the stacks. So in this example you'll notice the dialogue is nice and tight and to the point. But every now and then you will need to include a longer piece of dialogue. Right, and in a scenario like that, where you have a longer piece of dialogue, you'll just want to make sure to break it up with action or interiority or role building or things like that. So now I'm going to read you the second example from the same book. Here goes I found your article on the color symbolism of alchemical transformation fascinating and your work on Robert Boyle's approach to the problems of expansion and contraction quite persuasive. Claremont continued smoothly as if he were used to being the only active participant in a conversation. I've not yet finished your latest book on alchemical apprenticeship and education, but I'm enjoying it a great deal. So in this example the author has broken up Matthew Claremont's dialogue with some of Diana's interiority or her subjective interpretations of Matthew's behavior. And if you were to read the dialogue without that little interruption it would just be a lot and it might be one of those times where readers kind of glaze over and just keep on going. So when you have a big chunk of text like that, you'll want to make sure to break it up. But overall, that's tip number eight Keep your dialogue short, to the point, and if you do need to include a longer piece of dialogue, break it up with something like action or interiority or world building or anything like that. Tip number nine is to try to get your dialogue to do more than one thing. So remember earlier I talked about the five functions of dialogue. Right, I said that ideally your dialogue should either reveal character, establish context, highlight your theme, set the tone or advance the plot, and if you can do more than one of these things at once, your dialogue and your story will be stronger for it. But this is also where subtext comes in. So subtext is built on characterization, which is the key to great dialogue. So, again, this is why developing your characters is super important before writing or editing your dialogue. But essentially you'll want to consider things like a character's backstory, their fears, their worries, their hopes and their dreams, any current or past relationships that might be at play in the present moment, and things like that. All of this will help you write subtext into your dialogue. So for this example, I pulled out another snippet from the Invisible Life of Adi LaRue by VE Schwab, and I'll just go ahead and read that to you. And who will be blamed, I wonder, for the missing chocolates in the lady's room or the blue silk robe? Do you think no one suffers when you steal Adi bristles, heat rising to her cheeks. You gave me no choice. I gave you what you asked for, adeline Time without constraint, life without restriction. You cursed me to be forgotten. You asked for freedom, and there is no greater freedom than that. You can move through the world unhindered, untethered, unbound, not pretending. You did me a kindness instead of a cruelty. I did you a deal. So this is one of my favorite examples of a conversation doing more than one thing. There's obviously a lot of conflict here between Luke and Adeline, and there's a ton of subtext too. So because the story has been expertly set up until this point and because the characters have been so well fleshed out, we can infer the subtext or the meaning underneath the words that they're each saying. So that's tip number nine. Try to write dialogue that does more than one thing and includes subtext wherever you can. This is definitely going to be one of those things to employ in the editing phase rather than the writing phase, so I just want to point that out. Don't worry about this during your first draft, for sure. Tip number ten is to use your dialogue to help you control the pacing of your scenes in your story, and this is a really fun one. So if you want to slow down the pacing of a scene, you can increase the description between the dialogue and essentially decrease the white space on a page. If you need to speed things up within a scene, you can decrease the description and increase the white space. You can also play with pauses, so a character can pause or not speak to either draw out that tension or to help speed things up. So, as an example, I pulled a snippet from Spells for Forgetting by Adrienne Young and I'll just read this to you. We stopped coming after the fire. Of course Couldn't believe it when we heard it was all over the news for months. Same night that poor girl died, wasn't it? What was her name? Lily? When I didn't answer, the woman smiled sheepishly. Anyway, I thought it was time to bring my daughter Carrie on the tradition, you know. She patted the girl on the shoulder absently. You wouldn't know by the look of the orchard. Now everything's so beautiful. Well, it's been a long time, I said, and it had been 14 years, but it didn't matter how green the branches of the apple trees were. Now I could still feel that black scene on the earth that the fire had left behind. So in this little snippet, the protagonist does not respond to the customer who is prying about something that happened on the island a long time ago, and her silence or her non-response so what she doesn't say actually helps move the scene forward, even though she's not speaking in that moment. So she's not speaking in that moment, but her pause means something. It's saying that she doesn't want to communicate with this woman about that night. Right, and although it doesn't seem like a very big deal, probably when I read it like that. It's something that makes the reader also pause and pay attention to why or why not, a character is speaking. So just something to keep in mind. And that's tip number 10. Use dialogue to help you control the pacing of your scenes and your story. And that wraps up my 10 favorite tips for writing better dialogue. So hopefully by now you can see that dialogue is one of the fastest ways to improve your manuscript and really how quality storytelling can inspire and create quality dialogue. So before I let you go, let me just recap those 10 tips really quick. Tip number one is to make sure your dialogue serves a purpose in the story. So I talked about those five functions of dialogue. Your dialogue should either reveal character, establish context, highlight your theme, set the tone or advance the plot. Tip number two is to think of your dialogue as action versus exposition or active versus passive. Tip number three is to make sure you understand each character's goal and motivation within the scene. Tip number four is to make sure your dialogue is rich with conflict and tension. Tip number five is to make sure your dialogue sounds right for your genre and your tone. Tip number six is to make sure each character's voice and vocabulary is unique. Tip number seven is to curate your dialogue, so remember it should not reflect real life speech. It should suggest real life speech, but everything must be purposeful and curated. Tip number eight is to keep your dialogue short and to the point, so you'll want to compress your dialogue and keep it nice and lean. Tip number nine is to write dialogue that does more than one thing, so remember at least one of those five functions, and you'll also want to include subtext. And finally, tip number 10 is to use dialogue to help you control the pacing of your scenes. Now one last thing remember that crafting impactful dialogue takes time and revision. So focus on capturing the essence of your characters and your story during the writing process and then refine your dialogue as you edit. And this is one of those skills that, when mastered, can really help you take your draft from good to great. So that's it for today's episode. As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgilbocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.