4 Ways To Write Better Dialogue

One of my biggest pet peeves as an agent reading slush is unrealistic dialogue. This is a huge indicator of skill for better or for worse. For me this is a bigger red flag than any grammatical error and I cringe when dialogue isn’t edited as carefully as the rest of the manuscript (in terms of pace, being concise etc). I will VERY quickly pass on a manuscript if everything else is going well–except dialogue. It’s a more important piece of the puzzle than most writers realize. It’s our link to your characters’ tone, emotion, voice and so many other things. If you want a reader to connect with your characters (which you all do!) dialogue is a huge part of that equation.

So, how can you write better dialogue?

Write the character’s voice, not yours — Debut writers have a tendency to write themselves into their book when it’s not necessary and therefore, they baby the characters a bit instead of treating them separately. There is a divide between you and your characters even if you can’t see the difference when the words flow through your keyboard onto the page.

Don’t strong arm the characters around — It is very obvious when a writer is being a puppet master instead of letting the characters’ dialogue flow naturally. Make sure you don’t try to manipulate your characters because what ends up happening is that the reader can see through it and THEY feel manipulated. You have to trust your reader so you have to create worlds where dialogue flows naturally and makes sense for the plot.

Avoid perfect phrasing and sentences — None of us speak perfectly in real life and your characters shouldn’t either. Have them cut each other off. Let them speak over each other. Allow them to make grammatical errors.

Use dialogue to advance your plot — Don’t let your characters stand around recounting a scene that already happened. We were all there! That’s the quickest way to lose us and waste word count. Instead, keep moving forward. Never let dialogue move backwards. (Use flashbacks to look back.)

Q: What tools do you use to edit and improve your dialogue?

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

30 thoughts on “4 Ways To Write Better Dialogue

  1. I found tips on a screenplay site a while back. Start with 10 words/sentence and a max of 3 sentences per character per time. Obviously this would change and vary at different parts of the story but it helped me minimize the monologue effect.

    I even saved the link! http://www.whatascript.com/movie-dialogue.html

    Also, I try to say the lines out loud. Does it sound like a real conversation? If not, I go back to work. I get some strange looks if I do this in public, but who cares.

    Finally, I downloaded an app called Voice Dream Reader. I listened to my first draft while driving and it helped with not only dialogue & pacing but also typos, repeated words, etc. I could quick flag them and go back and fix it later at home. It’s free but you can pay a few bucks to get better reader voices or different accents.

    Hope this helps!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Make it real, is what I learned. A strategy that we use a lot when writing in Spanish, evolving from writers such as Bolano, is to have absolutely no description. The idea should transmit itself only through dialogue.

    My biggest challenge is to detach myself from the characters and not hoard their minds with what I want them to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Nicholls is a master at dialogue so I studied his techniques. He writes for TV as well, and has brilliant ways of making his characters communicate. His dialogue flows so naturally, it’s such a treat to read. As drwendyv said; read the dialogue (preferably the entire manuscript) out loud. It works wonders.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yes to all of this. Something I see a lot with beginner writers that’s a dead giveaway that you haven’t been writing long is when their characters don’t use contractions when speaking. Very few of us go around saying “I am sorry that you are upset.” Contract! Be real!

    And one of the things it took me a while to learn was to not have characters repeat in dialogue what I just showed in scene. It’s good to know when to summarize!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Contractions, yes! I got this exact same advice when I started my critique group. I’ve noticed since then that my dialogue flows better.


  5. Definitely read it aloud. Say it aloud while you’re writing. Listen to people speak. And pay attention to punctuation and dialogue tags. These are great tools for pacing dialogue. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to have a comma here or you can’t have a dash there because some rule says you can’t. Dialogue is a lot like poetry: every word has to count, and pacing matters.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Couldn’t agree more. Exactly what I teach in my memoir writing workshops and talk about in my new book on how to write memoir. A big part of my own process, as I share in “Don’t Write your MEmoir without ME!” includes what Susan and Suzanna say above: read it out loud. That way you hear the voices and know instantly if the dialogue is natural and believable. Great post Carly. I’ll be sharing this one with my followers and workshop participants.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah Vigaland! So right on! Last semester I wanted to take a playwriting class for that very reason. Would have been super helpful in learning to write dialogue. But my MFA profs nixed it! Go figure! Sometimes, academia makes no sense!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. You got it Lisa. That’s why I chose to write my books, and this latest how-to with the accent off academia. Folks spend so much time trying to sound like writers should sound instead of just writing and doing all the editing later!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for another helpful post, Carly. I have a more difficult time writing the dialogue in my memoir than in my short stories! Going to keep this post handy as I revise.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Write Through It and commented:
    This literary agent considers dialogue “a huge indicator of skill for better or for worse.” When reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts) she considers unrealistic dialogue a deal-breaker. Fortunately she also offers some tips for writing better gialogue. Pay attention, too, to the comments: several (including mine) strongly recommend reading dialogue aloud or having someone read it to you. Imagine your dialogue being acted on stage or film: would you keep watching, or would you doze off?


  10. At a recent performance of A Woman of No Importance I drifted off during the drawing room scene. Imagine dozing through an Oscar Wilde play! I suspect it was the dialogue and now need to examine the script to determine whether it was Oscar or me who was having a tough evening.


  11. I found writing dialogue tricky initially, reading it out loud definitely helps identify where it’s not working. I also found listening to audio books really useful, I started listening critically to the dialogue in scenes and trying to identify why it was working so well and if not why not. It also made me more comfortable listening to myself reading my work out loud.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. For me, I think it’s a balance – I personally don’t want to read ‘real’ dialogue. Why would I want to spend my reading time on ‘So ya wanna go to tha movies? Whatchya, like, wanna do?’ I’m more of a fan of classics and upmarket lit, where the dialogue is a bit more poetic. That said, stilted and egregiously unrealistic dialogue can yank you out of a story too. Funny story: To make sure I got some ‘mother’ dialogue authentic, I did role play with a mother, to find out what she would say to her daughter under my characters’ circumstances. One of my betas noted that the mom’s dialogue sounded ‘unrealistic’ even though I was quoting her. :) Good tips!


  13. So happy I found this blog. Dialogue has always been so important to me, but I have to admit I might have been working my own demons here and there – at least in the first novel. Second one less, and third even less. But still, thing is that if I don’t put myself a bit in the main character I can’t relate to her. In order to write the story, I need to desire to live it myself (it’s what inspires me, things I’d like happening in my own life). So if the character becomes too much herself instead of a vessel carrying a certain part of me, it’s life-threatening for the story. Supporting and secondary characters have strong personalities of their own, but the heroine (and very often the HERO, the Prince Charming! – go ahead and hit me with the reason, Papa Freud) have a lot of me. So how do I let go and let them become themselves completely?
    Oh, one other thing I’d like to mention. Years back, as a brash teenager, I met an actor whom I looked down upon and told: “You guys play make-believe, who on Earth can ever take you seriously.” He smiled like a wise man at a know-it-all rebel and said: “It’s not make-believe. It’s YOU in a certain situation. It’s YOU living Ophelia’s life and going mad. It’s YOU as Electra. It’s YOU in Hedda Gabler’s shoes.” That opened my eyes, I remeber it to this day. And it’s the approach I take in writing. It’s what keeps it authentic, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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