How to Write Believable Dialogue

For readers (and editors), nothing’s scarier than pages full of long paragraphs of text with no dialogue in sight. Dialogue helps break up paragraphs. It pushes the story faster. It helps show characters’ personalities. (And honestly, long paragraphs of text belong in textbooks, and I didn’t read mine when I was in college).

But despite how much readers love dialogue, many aspiring writers struggle to write it effectively. I have mentioned dialogue before in previous posts, so now it’s finally time to talk about it, but before we can talk about how to write great dialogue, we need to discuss what bad dialogue is first.

 

What is Bad Dialogue?

Bad dialogue makes readers cringe, and once you know what it is, you can easily spot it. I’ve found there are four types of bad dialogue.

1. Characters Sounding the Same:

One very common problem new writers struggle with is giving their characters their own voice. Happy-to-go Lucy should not sound the same as hot-headed George, and the elderly professor should not speak the same as his high school students.

I feel this problem occurs when writers don’t know their characters on a deep personal level or struggle to get inside their heads. The more developed your characters and the more you can immerse with them, the easier it is to write dialogue for all of your characters.

 

2. Exposition Dialogue:

Usually, I find exposition dialogue in fantasy and sci-fi manuscripts, but it can turn up in any genre. Exposition dialogue is when the characters’ dialogue is full of info dumping, explaining only background information and plot.

The problem with exposition dialogue is that it lacks emotions and personality. I’m not saying that you can NEVER have exposition in your dialogue. Sometimes you need it, but when your characters are only info dumping and explaining plot, they’re acting as plot tools, not characters with feelings, emotions, and personalities.

But the bigger problem with exposition dialogue is that it’s not natural and realistic most of the time. You can spot exposition dialogue if your characters are telling each other information they should already know.

So example, let’s say best friends Jamie and Kerry are chatting, and their conversation goes like this:

“Did I tell you that my older sister, Mary, just got engaged?” Kerry asked. “She and her fiancé, Jerry King, have been dating for three years when she moved to Baltimore and met him when she began her job at International Banking.”

Now, if I were Jamie, I would be wondering, “Why are you telling me all of this? I know already!” If Jamie and Kerry were best friends, Jamie would already know that Kerry has an older sister, her name is Mary, who her fiancé is, where she lives, and probably where she works. Except for the engagement, all of this information shouldn’t be new to her, and therefore, this dialogue is not realistic.

 

3. Stilted Dialogue:

Some writers seem to have the idea that they have to be formal in their writing, especially in dialogue.

It usually sounds like this:

“Lisa, would you please walk the dogs because, even though I wish I could give them the exercise, I am coming down with a cold and do not have the energy to walk,” Bob said.

Stilted speech is usually when the dialogue is too formal, as you can see in the example. It sounds too much like from the olden days or people in the Bible. This problem also occurs when writers don’t use contractions, slang, curse words, or informal words.

If we take the example up above, natural sounding dialogue would go like this:

“Lisa, please walk the dogs. I’m not feeling well,” Bob said.

 

4. Clichés and Stereotypes:

We all know that we should avoid clichés. Clichéd dialogue doesn’t develop character. It doesn’t give your characters personality. There are plenty of websites that list clichéd expressions to avoid.

 

What is Good Dialogue?

Now that I’ve explained what bad dialogue is, now it’s time to talk about good dialogue. There are three components to good dialogue.

1.) Personality:

As I said up above, bad dialogue doesn’t reflect the character’s personality, and each character doesn’t have his or her own voice. If you have read my Show, Don’t Tell series, then you know that I believe that dialogue is a great way to show personality.

Here are some things to consider when giving dialogue personality:

Outlook:

What is the character’s outlook on life? Is he optimistic and pessimistic? Hopeful or depressed? An optimistic character who had his date canceled will most likely say, “That’s alright. We can go out another night!” versus the pessimistic person who would say, “I bet that %@#@ canceled on me to see some other guy. Whatever. I don’t need her.”

Emotions:

Emotions reflect our personalities, especially the way we channel them in our words. How does your character express his or her emotions? Someone who is normally happy can easily channel her happy emotions. Someone who easily gets angry will have no problem expressing anger.

Characteristic Traits:

How do you describe your character? Is she smart? Is she happy-to-go? A character who is intelligent will most likely use big words and complex sentences while a very happy, peppy person will use happy, bubbly language.

Upbringing:

Our upbringing shapes our personality. If a character grew up where yelling and cursing was common, it’s likely that she yells and curses at others, while a character who grew up in a quiet family might be shy and doesn’t like to talk.

Interests:

What are your characters’ interests? A character who love athletics might use language found in sports while someone who love her religious youth group might likely to quote her bible or pastor.

 

Each character ought to have his or her own voice. Here are some things to consider to help you make your characters sound different from each other:

Age/Generation:

A five year old will speak differently from a forty-five year old. Every age uses different phrases and words. The time period when your characters grew up also impacts dialogue. Slang from the 80s is very much different from slang in the 2000s.

Nationality/Culture:

Our culture affects how we choose our words and who/when to speak with others. Women who live in an oppressive country that prohibits them from working and attending schools will use different language than women who live in a free country. Think how your story’s setting and culture affects your characters’ speech. Even in the United States, someone from Texas speaks differently from someone from New York.

Career/Occupation:

Our careers and fields impact our language choice, and we pick up words and phrases from our jobs. A doctor speaks differently from an elementary school teacher. Even in the same field, different positions can affect dialogue. In a factory, a machine operator will not sound the same as a manager.

Education:

Many learn to read and write in school, and some people are in school longer than others. Someone who earned a P.H.D will speak differently from someone who only finished high school.

 

2. Advancing Plot:

While we want dialogue to sound natural and be realistic, there is some real-life dialogue that does not belong in your story. Every line of dialogue ought to contribute to the plot and conflict.

Look at each line of dialogue. If you take it out, do you lose vital information for the plot? If not, then it’s best to take it out. Anything that is small talk, chitchat, conversational, or lacks anything to do with plot is a waste of space. Pointless dialogue that is just filler is boring, and readers will only skim it.

 

3. Sounding Natural and Realistic:

The best characters sound like real people; their dialogue is believable. The best way to see if your dialogue is natural is reading it out loud. That’s the best way to catch chunky, awkward lines. If you’re tripping over your dialogue a lot, that is a sign that it needs work.

As crazy as it sounds, one of the best ways to learn how to develop natural dialogue is people watching and eavesdropping. Listen to how people talk and interact with each other, and use what you’ve observed for your writing.

Learning to write good dialogue takes time and practice, but once you master it, dialogue will flow onto the pages.

Why Agents Are Not Connecting With Your Characters

If you have queried a project before, you may have received rejections with the following feedback: “I didn’t connect with the characters.”

It’s disheartening for writers to hear that agents didn’t connect with their characters. Why is that? You, the writer, love your characters, so shouldn’t agents love them too?

There are several reasons why an agent isn’t connecting with your characters. Here we go.

1. Your Characters Are Not Fully Developed (AKA, They Don’t Feel Like Real People)
Most of the time, agents reject manuscripts because the characters are not fully developed, hence they cannot connect with them. The best books have well developed characters who feel like real people. Learning to develop characters takes time and practice.

Here are signs that your characters are underdeveloped:

a. Your Characters Lack Personality
Everyone has a personality. It should be clear from the start what your character is like. If we can’t grasp who your character is, the agent is not going to want to keep reading.

Examine your character and identify his/her personality. If you can, great! If you can’t, there’s a problem. Ask beta readers to identify your characters’ personalities. If they are giving you different answers, then something isn’t transitioning right in your novel.

Usually, the problem is in the dialogue. Our dialogue says a lot about our personality. When the dialogue is dull, dry, and gives no personality, then the agent will not feel a connection with the characters. A well developed character will have lively and believable dialogue that matches his/her personality perfectly.

b. All of Your Characters Act and Sound the Same
Not only is it important that your characters have personalities, but it’s also as important that they all have different ones.

This problem can also come from dialogue. If all of your characters sound the same, then you haven’t developed them enough yet for each character to come alive.

c. Your Dialogue is Boring, Dry, and Unnatural
Besides having characters sound the same, there are other issues that can occur in dialogue that affect character development.

Other issues include stilted speech, exposition dialogue, and clichéd dialogue. All of these will make your dialogue sound unnatural, and when you have unnatural dialogue, your characters’ personalities won’t shine through.

d. Your Characters Lack Goals and Motivations
Every book has this basic plot: your character wants something and someone/something is in his way. Your characters’ goals and motives drive the plot, and without them, there would be no story.

Wants, goals, and motives show a lot about a person, and if these are not present in your novel, your characters will be boring. Nobody likes a boring character.

2. You Are Telling Instead of Showing
If you have read my “Show, Don’t Tell” series, you’ll know showing is crucial to character development. Showing brings your characters to life; telling does not. Agents want to read about characters who come to life.

If you want to read more about show, don’t tell, click here.

3. Your Characters Are Not Believable
Agents want believable characters. What is a believable character? They are like real people. They have wants, goals, personalities, motives, hobbies, interests, loved ones, and most importantly, flaws.

Usually, unbelievable characters arise when the writer does not give them flaws. These characters are perfect. They have the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect family, and basically the perfect life that nobody has. Perfect characters are unnatural.

Nobody is perfect. Every agent and reader has flaws, and they want to connect with characters who have flaws too. Sometimes we connect more from our flaws than our strengths.

And honestly, if your characters are perfect and get everything they want easily, you’re not going to have much of a story. Perfect characters are boring, and agents do not want boring characters.

4. Your Characters Are TOO Unlikeable
There are some personality traits that nobody likes: whininess, jealousy, manipulation, etc. While books about anti-heroes and criminals get published all the time, these characters still have redeeming traits that the agent can connect with.

While I said before that characters need flaws, they should have strengths too. There needs to be something that makes the character likable or redeemable.

Whininess is one trait that agents and readers can’t stand. Most of the time, listening to someone whine is uncomfortable, so if we don’t like whining in real life, we won’t like it in our books either.

5. Your Characters Are Not Proactive
Throughout your whole book, your characters should be doing something. They need to be proactive and engaged in a conflict. If they’re not doing anything, the agent will get bored. Agents and readers do not connect with characters who just sit around drinking coffee, chit chat with friends, and just think about stuff (especially the past). If your characters are inactive, the agent will wish she were reading something else.

Well developed characters are proactive. It doesn’t matter what their personalities are. Whether they’re strong and outgoing or quiet and shy, a proactive character is doing something relating to a conflict.

6. Your Characters Are Just Not For The Agent
Sometimes, and unfortunately, an agent didn’t connect with your characters because of her own personal taste.

When that happens, just keep querying and find the best agent who will love your characters.

Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality

Let’s begin part two of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. Today, we’re going to talk about how showing and telling relate to characterization.

Characters play an important role in your book. Most of the time, the reader is more attached to the characters than anything else in the story. As a writer, one of your goals is to develop great characters so the readers will feel a connection with them. The best books have developed, fleshed out, and complex characters that readers connect with. These characters feel so real that they jump off the pages. They have needs, wants, fears, flaws, and most importantly, a personality.

So how do you show your characters’ personalities?

By showing.

In my introduction, I said showing creates mental images for the reader. When we show a character’s personality, we see images of that character and start to feel a connection. In theater, television, and film, actors never have to tell us what their characters are like. They show what they’re like by acting out the role.

Remember in my last post I said showing was like “evidence”? It’s not enough to say, “Suzy was a smart girl.” You have to prove it. You have to show if you want your characters to come alive. Telling leads to poorly written characters who are underdeveloped, flat, and forgettable.

Let’s begin with our first example:
Example 1: “Suzy was a smart girl.”

This sentence is flat and uninteresting, and I’m not feeling a connection with this character. She doesn’t feel real to me.

Example 2: “Suzy aced all of her honors and AP courses, won first place in ten science fairs and three essay contests, and led the debate team to the state championship.”

Wow, that second example is much more engaging than the first one, and it shows more of who Suzy is. I start to feel that she could be a real person. It also showed more aspects of her personality than just her intelligence. Acing her classes shows she is a hard worker. Winning science fairs and essay contests shows she is talented. Leading her debate team shows she can be a leader.

All humans are complex. When you can show your character’s main personality and the other aspects to it, you’ll have a much more interesting character.

 

How Will This Work for a Scene?
Where new writers really struggle with showing is when they’re writing scenes. Usually, I will see a new writer write something like this:

Suzy was the smartest girl in her junior class. She arrived five minutes early to her calculus honors class and sat in the front row so she wouldn’t miss any Mr. Jones’ notes. She liked to believe that she was his favorite student. Her teacher came in. Suzy pointed out a mistake in the homework. After Mr. Jones looked at it, he told her that she was right.

The telling causes distance between Suzy and the reader. I don’t have a hint of what Suzy’s personality besides the fact that she’s smart.

Showing in a scene will look something like this:

Suzy walked into her calculus honors class and took her seat in the front row. She pulled out her books and set them on one corner of her desk before digging out her homework. Now settled, she opened her textbook to next week’s lesson.

“Good morning, Suzy,” Mr. Jones said as he entered the classroom. “Early again, I see.”

“Yep, you always say the greatest people arrive early,” Suzy said.

Her teacher chuckled. “Of course. Man, I wished my students would quote me more.”

That’s why I’m your favorite, Suzy thought.

“I also wanted to show you an error in the homework.” With a finger, she turned her homework around. “If you look at question nine, you can see why you get an indefinite answer. These numbers cancel each other out, and these numbers don’t add up correctly here. I looked up the answer in the back of the book, and I tried solving the problem backwards, but it doesn’t add up to the original equation.”

Mr. Jones stared at the problem for a minute before pulling out his pen and solving the problem himself. Suzy ripped a page out of her notebook and redid the problem too.

“See, the issue starts here,” she said.

Mr. Jones raised an eyebrow. “You’re right. Nice catch there.”

In this example, there is more personality shining through. Yes, this one was longer, but it was also better. Showing requires more effort and creative juices. Here, I used a few tools to show Suzy’s personality:

1. Action
Last post, I said action verbs will help you show. In the second example, I used action to show her personality. I had her read next week’s lesson and redo the math problem. Her taking a seat in the front row also shows she is very interested in learning. These actions show that she is smart. I never had to say that she was. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

2. Interaction
Another tool to show personality is having the characters interact with each other. In real life, our personalities bounce off each other. The same is true for characters. In this example, Suzy’s interacting with her teacher and pointing out the error in the homework to him shows she’s smart.

3. Thoughts and Dialogue:
In the first example, it says that Suzy liked to believe that she was her teacher’s favorite student. In the second example, I used Suzy’s thoughts to show that’s what she believed. Characters’ thoughts reveals a lot about themselves. Dialogue is also another great tool to show personality. Just like characters’ thoughts, their own words say a lot about their personality. I’ll devote a post about dialogue later.

 

If you’re a new writer, don’t let this scare you. The more you practice, the more showing will come naturally. If you’re struggling with showing, read some books to see how other authors show. You can also watch a few movies and takes notes on how the actors act and how characters come alive on the screen.

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show