Let's Talk About Dialogue

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Vanessa Westermann

· 3 min read

What writer doesn’t enjoy a little recreational eavesdropping, every now and then? I don’t know about you, but I love conversations. Confabulations—you gotta love a term for dialogue that includes the word ‘fab’ in it.

So, how do you write dialogue well? I’d say this comes back to eavesdropping.
I herby grant you license to listen.

After you’ve listened, read those authors who have mastered the art of dialogue and learned how to craft it. Because dialogue in fiction is a construct. A carefully, artfully created construct.

Below you’ll find my top five favourite tips on how to write dialogue that I picked up by listening, reading and learning.

1. He Said, She Said

I can really only quote Stephen King here: “While to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”

We all strive to make the mechanics of fiction invisible to the reader. To draw the reader into our world like virtual reality with surround sound, and God forbid anything breaks that illusion. ‘Said’ becomes invisible. Adverbs, especially too many of them, stand out like a boom mic in the frame or a Starbucks cup left on set.

If you get tired of using ‘said’ to attribute dialogue, use action and reap the augmented reality rewards of indirect characterization.

2. Yes-No Friction

Mm, my favourite. We all know conflict keeps readers turning the pages. Why not add some to your dialogue? The idea is that one character is saying yes, while the other character is saying no. Not literally, but in a mild I’m-not-on-board-with-this sort of way. Well, you get the idea. Even friends don’t always agree. They tease, accidentally hurt each other. Lie. Try it. It’s fun. Adding conflict to dialogue, not lying, that is.

3. Huh? Misunderstandings

Elmore Leonord did this very, very well. In real life, people say things that others don’t catch or misunderstand, which can lead to some interesting revelations or situations. I think we’ve all been there. Adding a couple of misunderstandings to your fiction can take the artificial edge off dialogue.

She straightened her spine, squared her shoulders and faced him head-on. “Grace wouldn’t operate if her hands were shaking.”
“When was the last time you updated your resumé?”
The question blindsided her. “I don’t—”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but the last time I checked, your profession was actor.” Strong, clear diction. His voice carried well, echoed. “Not writer. Or maybe I missed your medical degree?”
All those spotlights trained on her, burning with heat. Her cheeks flushed. She raised her chin. “Without me, Grace wouldn’t exist.”
“Sweetheart, she just wouldn’t have your smile.

From “Medicine”, published in A Grave Diagnosis: 35 Stories of Murder and Malaise

4. Reading Between the Lines

People don’t always say what they mean. They hint. Speak with subtext, hoping the other person will pick up on it. And, no, this is not gender dependent. Show your characters trying to read between the lines in a conversation, and maybe even have them misinterpret it. Why? Again, because it’s fun.

5. A Game of Cat and Mouse

A classic in mysteries, especially cozies. The detective or amateur sleuth tries to trap the killer into a confession via banter. Or catch them in a lie. If you add some emotional stakes, this game can get really interesting, fast.

My final piece of hard-won wisdom: Dialogue should always serve the greater narrative good. If your characters chat about the weather, please let it further the plot.

Check out these books for more advice on writing dialogue:

If you liked this post, share it on social media! Tag me in your Tweet @VanessasPicks. Comment with your own tips. Let’s get some dialogue going about… well, dialogue.

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About Vanessa Westermann

Vanessa is a Canadian crime writer. She is the author of Cover Art and other books. At the heart of all of her stories are strong female protagonists.

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