Tips For Writing Good Dialogue
Advice from a pro
Writing good dialogue, authentic dialog is tough. People talk in nuanced ways that aren’t always easy to capture on the page. They say you need an ear for it.
How does someone hone that ear though?
Playwright David Mamet’s advice on the subject is famously simple and abrupt. The great Mamet once advised a room full of eager creative writing graduates to eschew graduate school. Instead, he said, find a bar, preferably a pool hall without a television where they could sit down and listen.
Seems simple. Replace tuition with bar tab.
I have taken David Mamet’s advice to heart. I do not play pool (at least not well) but I do take frequent trips to a comfy stool at the quiet bar down the street and simply listen to what people say. It has proven to be the best means of achieving dialog that sounds like real people.
Writing good dialog comes from refinement.
Here are five truths and tips to refining your character dialog to achieve that authentic tone.
Read It Out Loud:
This may sound simplistic but a lot of writers that I know are afraid to do it. And why?
Because their dialog sounds hammy and on the nose.
If you want that real voice, read it out loud and avoid adding your inflection at all costs. This is a critical step, especially if you’re writing a screenplay, which is in large part a performance of your dialog.
Think In Negotiations:
All dialog is a negotiation. Think of what you say on a day to day basis at work or at home. Verbal communication is an expression of desire or purpose, all with the intent of affecting someone else.
This applies even when a character is talking to themselves. Self-talk is grooming for future interactions.
There is a very simple exercise to sharpen this sense. Put two characters in a room. One wants something that the other has but they cannot name or ask for it.
Write it and see all the ways allusion and suggestion enrich the conversation.
Allow for negative space in your dialog. People don’t always say everything they are thinking. Omissions are as important as inclusions. If your character conversations begin with a hearty hello and end with their chosen means of good-bye, your dialog is probably overwritten.
A way to get this down is follow a simple rule: arrive late and leave early.
Conversations Are Rhythmic:
Straight line conversations simply do not exist. I cannot express this more emphatically. No one walks into a room, announces their purpose, gets what they want and walks out.
One of the ways I work on this is recording conversations. Get permission then record a normal conversation and you’ll see that it’s a rhythmic construct of all the above elements.
Introductions. Negotiations. Negative Space. Repeat.
Mamet Is Correct:
The core truth in Mamet’s statement applies. You cannot learn to hear real dialog a from TV or movie. Writers must find their story subjects in the world and listen to how they talk, interact, negotiate and feel.
An easy tip for writing good dialogue: Go out. Find that barstool. Sit. Listen.
If you’re having trouble writing good dialogue, or with any other area of your work, it may be beneficial to consider working with a professional ghostwriter. A ghostwriter works with you behind the scenes to take your writing to the next level. Considering it? Get in touch!