Character Building

She Said What?: Writing Great Dialogue


So you’ve built your novel’s world, come up with a great character and are in the midst of writing your first chapter. When it comes time to write an interaction between two separate characters, you’re now faced with a new challenge: they both sound like the same person! There are no nuances or any sort of personality that differentiates between the two. To make matters worse, they sound an awful lot like you.

This is an extremely common issue that plagues new writers. Dialogue is a tricky task that not many people think about because writing two people speaking doesn’t really seem like it needs a whole lot of instruction. Many people, however, find issues with it; it either sounds like the same character no matter who is speaking, it sounds forced or it sounds formal. No matter how easy it seems, it’s one of the things your reader will notice immediately, and bad dialogue will ruin an otherwise amazing book very quickly.

So how do you avoid the big pitfall of cringe-y communications? Below are some tips for writing dialogue that engages your reader and pulls them even further into your world.

Talk to Yourself

As a society, we tend to be wary of people who speak aloud to nobody. As a writer, however, this is going to be a valuable trick that makes your character sound real.

Let’s look at one example. First read it silently, then read it out loud.

Katie rushed downstairs, looking for her mother. “Mom, what time is it? Am I late for the bus already? I overslept.”

“If you hurry and get ready, you won’t be late,” her mother said while reading the newspaper. “Please go get dressed for school, you’re still in your pajamas.”

It may seem okay at first, but when you read it out loud, as though these are people you’re speaking to, it sounds robotic and forced.

Now consider the following:

“Mom, I overslept!” Katie yelled, rushing past her mother to frantically gather her things. “Did the bus come yet?”

“Nope,” her mother said calmly, not bothering to look up from her newspaper. “But you may want to hustle. Perhaps start by changing out of your pajamas?”

In this example, the conversation is both more realistic and augmented by the description of actions. It flows much more like a natural conversation between two people in a casual setting.

Speaking the dialogue out loud goes hand-in-hand with developing your character’s personality. Take a look at the following examples:

“Whereabouts are you comin’ from?”

“That mutt’s as big as an ox and twice as mean, I’d swear to it.”

“Your witless insults and crude gesture merely suggests that you have no faith in your abilities to communicate effectively with another person, and I find that tragic.”

All three are simply lone sentences, but all three have their own tone that suggests three completely different people. Knowing your character is important to peg down great dialogue, and that sometimes requires speaking out your character’s lines.

Read Blogs

Incidentally, one of the best ways to understand how to write in various voices is to read various voices. Follow various blogs that offer information on things you enjoy, so as to keep your attention. Also, follow blogs that may be run by people with similar backgrounds to your character, if their background is established in our modern world.

It’s also a great idea to find videos on subjects that you like in order to hear the dialect or language spoken. Remember, when trying to learn to write in a new voice, you really are trying to learn a language that is very different from the one that you use, even if it’s technically the same language itself. I grew up in southwestern Ohio. My dialect, accent and language use has a lot of similarities to the Midwest region but is still very different from somebody that may have grown up in Minnesota, and even different from somebody that grew up in the northeastern region of Ohio. I lived in northeast Florida for 7 years, and it took nearly all of those years to finally get comfortable with understanding locals, who had something close to a south Georgia accent. I now live in Washington, D.C., and even the locals here can speak too quickly or too slowly for me to understand right away. Language evolves insularly, and every region can be drastically different even within the same country. Immersing yourself in any different language will help shape your characters own voices. Soon, it will become second nature.

  Tags Aren’t Everything

Depending on the book, the author either uses tags religiously or can do without them. Having to add “he said,” or, “she said,” to every spoken sentence tends to feel repetitive to me. My preference is to go without them when there are only two characters speaking and I want the reader to focus on the conversation and not the extra words.

In an example from a project that I’m working on with a group of writers, West Oak, the two characters, Rosalia and Circe, are arguing about a video capturing a new species of beings (werewolves, in this case) while being supernatural entities themselves. In this exchange, Rosalia finds out that Circe was responsible for a bad bout of stomach flu that went around the college campus they live on:

“No, I’m not talking about the . . . wait, the stomach flu?” Rosalia asked, scrunching her nose, her eyes dimming to their natural dark brown. “Seriously, you’re the dullest person out of all of the Dark World, do you know that?”

Circe shrugged. “County commissioner needed a favor for his worthless son to sit out on the test because he didn’t study like the lazy tool he is, and I have this guy in line with a guy in the senator’s office to work a deal with Nombeko down in Stock and Inventory in the Dark World later. Nothing really major, I’m sure the professor is recovering nicely, but classes got canceled.”

“He’s just going to have to take the test later,” Rosalia pointed out.

“Somebody may or may not have got him a copy of the test so he can be a little better prepared.”

“You’re awful.”

“I thought I was dull?”

Both,” Rosalia said. “What do you know about this video?”

“About as much as you, I think. Zilch.”

It’s always advised to use tagless dialogue with two characters only, as it’s easier to follow. Without the tags, the dialogue flows easier, allowing the reader to get lost in the conversation, as though they were witnessing it in person.

It’s also advised that using ‘said’ is better than trying to avoid it by using things such as ‘exclaimed’ or ‘mumbled’. People try the latter to avoid sounding repetitive. For this, I suggest not using these words unless they really apply, as using them for the sake of avoiding ‘said’ will just end up drawing more attention to the tag and making it sound forced and out of place.

For example, if somebody mumbles something, you’re probably not going to hear every word of the sentence. If somebody exclaims something, it’s very loud. It’s great to use these once in a while, just make certain that they’re being used in a situation that calls for it. With that said, using the word ‘said’ frequently tends to become background noise to readers. It never really seems repetitive, so you shouldn’t worry about it being used so often.

  Closing Challenge

Two characters from two completely different places are on a train together. One is reading the local paper and decides to make small talk, commenting on a recent event. What is the reaction of the other? Are they equally conversive? Are they more personal, and try to drop hints that they don’t want to speak? Is there any confusion between the words the first person uses that differ from how the second person speaks? Write the interaction between them, making them two very different people without giving a lot of narratives. Post your examples in the comments below.

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