Four Tips for Better Dialogue

Edith Mirrieless, in Story Writing, says that successfully changing spoken conversation into written dialogue is “usually one of the latest of a beginner’s conquests.” The process can be challenging, but we do get better with practice. We can hone our ear by observing the skillful practice of screenwriters and playwrights as we view movies or theatre productions.

We also can utilize the four following tips:

1) Review the dialogue of each character in your scenes. Is the dialogue of a particular character distinct from that of others? Even without the tags that occasionally identify who the speaker is, can you tell who is speaking by the way he or she speaks? Do they have words or phrases that help to identify them?

Recently I heard a minister who tended to abbreviate many of his words. Instead of saying “denomination,” he said “denom”; he referred to his studies at “seminary” as “at the sem.” In a story scene, that habit would help to characterize him in dialogue.

Compare the respective lines of dialogue for your different speakers. They should not be interchangeable.  When you pick up your telephone receiver and hear a caller’s voice, often you can identify the person immediately. What is it about the person’s voice and manner of speech that makes this possible? Aim to replicate that sense of recognition in the dialogue of your story.

2) Generally avoid what writing teacher K. M. Weiland calls “on-the-nose dialogue,” the kind of direct give-and-take where characters say exactly what they mean. Yes, communication trainers counsel us to “say what you mean and mean what you say.” However, they would not have to offer such advice if that practice was common. Often in our conversations we talk around a problem or issue rather than tackling it directly. 

We respond to certain questions evasively or simply imply our real meaning. We may be very aware of the emotional stakes in the conversation and not wish to hurt feelings or to risk direct conflict. 

“Dialogue is merely the tip of the iceberg,” says Catherine Ann Jones, in The Way of Story. “It’s what is going on below the lines that really matters.” I appreciate Ms. Jones’ iceberg metaphor for dialogue subtext (below the text), but I have a personal one that is more memorable. Years ago, while working on a ranch in central Oklahoma, I dug up a prickly pear cactus thinking it would make a nice ornamental plant in my college dormitory room. Determined not to poke myself with any of the large thorns, I picked it up by the roots. Bad move. I discovered those roots had thousands of tiny thorns. Now I sometimes recall: Subtext…Sore hands.

3) Follow Raymond Hull’s “One speech, one idea” rule. Hull was a Canadian playwright and experienced C.B.C. dramatist. He recommended that each speech by a character convey only one idea, because the reader or listener needed to digest the information bit by bit.

4) Use the structure of your dialogue sentences to advantage. In his 1968 book Profitable Playwriting, Raymond Hull noted that the two strongest positions in a line of dialogue are the beginning and the end, with the end being the most important. 

Consider the following variations:

  • Joel, the real problem is that we’re spending too much.

In this line of dialogue, the spending is given greatest importance, but Joel’s involvement also is emphasized.

  • The real problem is that we’re spending too much, Joel.

In this line of dialogue, the placement of Joel’s name at the end suggests that he deserves most of the blame for the problem.

  • The real problem, Joel, is that we’re spending too much.

In this line of dialogue, the initial emphasis is on the problem and the final one is on what that problem is.

Each of the above variations use mostly the same words, but their placement, especially at the beginning or the ending determine their importance.