From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Thursday, January 19, 2012

3 Keys to Brilliant Dialog

Dialog has always been one of my favorite things to write. It's easy for me, compared to other things (like plot). In my years of getting critiqued, dialog is the one thing on which I consistently receive positive feedback (sometimes the only positive thing, but we take what we can get, right?). Anyway, I'm just saying this so that when I explain how this dialog thing and all the advice about dialog fits and works in my head, you can take that head at least somewhat seriously.

1. Read your dialog aloud. You've heard this one before, I'm sure. But what are they really getting at here? It's all about sounding natural, but what does that even mean? To me, thinking "I must write Great Dialog" can be really intimidating, as opposed to "Its just me, yo." In everyday conversation you just talk, easily, almost reflexively, with little to no analytical thinking. When you read your dialog aloud it should feel as close to that as you can get it. If you can write it in that conversational way to begin with, all the better. (Don't believe anyone who says literary dialog can't be conversational. Just write. There are always edits.)

2. Get in Character Mode. In my experience the worst thing a person can do for their dialog (both in writing and acting, actually) is to think 'How would this character say this?' Right there you've lost all your naturality, and made your dialog stiff and contrived. You can't know how someone else would say or even perceive something, you can only know how you would say or perceive it. But Sarah, you say, my forty year old zookeeper musn't sound like his sixteen year old niece or people will figure out I'm a hack and throw one-star reviews at me.

So we bring out our inner thesbians. You know you have one. If you didn't you wouldn't be trying to tell a story. If you're going to write believable dialog for this character, you need to be that character. And that's not so hard, because they all came from you to begin with. They're all part of you, all in your head. So it's less thinking "How would a teenager say this" and more "I'm a teenager saying this." It's not some generic "A Teenager", it's you. As a teenager. Or a trucker, or a pirate or a seventy-year old retired FBI agent living in a rest-home. If you get rid of any self-conciousness and just write, the nuances between characters will be seem incredibly subtle to you, but will make all the difference. The key is to not think of what they say as separate from what you say.

3. Hear brilliant dialog. This is the fun part. This is when watching genius television (*ahem* Sherlock) counts as research. It's like learning any other skill, the best way is to watch someone who knows how to do it. Or for that matter, someone who doesn't and you can learn from their mistakes. Reading great dialog is good too, but I particularly like the idea of hearing it because dialog should flow from your pen as naturally and realistically as great dialog flows from a great actors tongue, which is to say, as naturally as it flows when you're telling your roommate the weird dream you had last night. I think its perhaps harder to get that same experience when you just have words on a page and didn't experience the way they flowed from the writers mind to that page. Does that make sense? But once you've experienced the ease and flow of good dialog it is of course a great idea to see how that translates to ink and paper.

Is dialog one of the hard bits for you, or easy? What have you done to make your dialog the most effective?

Sarah Allen


  1. I absolutely love writing dialogue. I agree, reading it aloud does help but sometimes I just read it aloud because I enjoy hearing it. Maybe there is a reason I was so chatty as a child. :)

  2. I find reading scripts from good films that you haven't seen helps. Hearing actors sell dialogue make it harder to see the mechanics. Being able to see how something can sound just on the page is really a good way to learn.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  3. I second the advice to read your dialogue aloud. That really helps me, and it's fun to act it out (in private, of course...ha).

  4. Great post! I find dialogue easiest to write. That being said, I have too much talking and not enough action, but still. ;) And now I can justify my television watching!

  5. I also have a preference for dialog, both when reading and writing a book. Great advice by the way. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I usually try to write dialogue from my character's point of view, and it usually works out for the better.

    I also find it incredibly easy to write. So much in fact that it becomes a detriment to a scene or a story from time to time.

  7. Thanks guys! I like the script idea a lot.


  8. Reading out loud makes such an incredible difference, doesn't it? I love it! And yay for using Sherlock as research! :)

  9. Dialogue is indeed a tricky beast. I find the actual words used to be fairly easy to come up with. It's formatting the dialogue that I find to be a bit of a challenge sometimes.

    You can go overboard like Stephenie Meyer and have so many synonyms for the word "said" that every character seems to have a mild form of turrets with all of the snorts, whispers, laughs, groans, chokes, hisses and snarls.

    Others like Michael Stackpole has so much dialogue without so much as a he/she said that I have found myself at times having to stop and go back to find out who is even talking anymore.

  10. I started my writing life in the world of theatre. Dialogue is always my favorite thing to write. I love the way character pop into 3D when they speak.

  11. thanks for sharing dialogue tips. can be tricky to write sometimes.


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