How to Write Compelling Dialogue

I’m going to try and start doing a new How-to article every other Monday, in an effort to help out other writers who advice or encouragement. Today I’m starting off with dialogueStandard Disclaimer: I am not an expert, just a professional seeking to offer some insight.

Dialogue is a tricky subject to address, mostly because it is intricately linked with character. Complex and compelling characters will result in complex and compelling dialogue. Vice versa, complex and compelling dialogue can develop complex and compelling characters. This may seem frustrating at first, but should be encouraging because it gives writer options!

Option One: Write complex and compelling characters and watch your dialogue flourish.

Option Two: Create complex and compelling characters through dialogue.

How do you do that? Remember, always remember, that dialogue is nothing more than people talking! It is not primarily a vehicle for conveying information to the reader. It does not primarily exist for the purpose of advancing the plot. It can indirectly accomplish these things, and if it does it will be interesting and relevant (which is good) but that does not make it compelling. It becomes compelling when it offers the reader a window of insight into the characters they are reading about. This is why the cliche “As you know, Bob…” info dumps are frowned upon. Who talks like that? (Aside from your boss at your day job and we all know how compelling his/her dialogue is…)

The ultimate dialogue trope.

How do you make dialogue create that window? Let the characters talk. Let them chatter. Especially in your rough draft. Let them discuss not just what’s happening, but why they think it is happening. Encourage them to ask questions, any questions, of each other. The types of questions they ask, the explanations they provide, and the manner in which they speak will reveal their backgrounds, their prejudices, and their desires. Which is a longwinded way of saying: their character. The moment the conversation begins to reveal character it becomes compelling. Don’t be afraid of wasting space, you never know when mindless chatter about someone’s grandma will reveal the alien plot to destroy life as we know it. And if it does deadend, you can cut it in your revision.

Quick tips and tricks to keep you on track:

  • Before you start a dialogue scene, take a second to write answer two questions of your own. Why are the characters talking and what do they hope to get from it?
  • Remember that your characters are talking to each other for their own benefit, even if only to alleviate loneliness, not for the benefit of the fly on the wall (i.e. the reader).
  • Do not use dialogue to force information into a story. If the info you need to convey cannot flow into the conversation, find another way of inserting it (even if it is adding an earlier event to prompt the characters to talk about it).

This is my take on it, for what it is worth. How about you? Any tips for your fellow writers on writing compelling dialogue?

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