There are plenty of important aspects of storytelling—plot structure, pacing, worldbuilding, etc. But a reader isn’t going to care about any of that if you don’t have strong, well-developed characters. And how does the reader learn about those characters? From what they do, and what they say.
Think of your favorite characters—very often that attachment comes from their witty observations and turns of phrase. Take the Harry Potter books for example. As great as the worldbuilding and plots of those novels are, it’s the characters that readers keep coming back for. Fred and George’s hilarious jokes endear the reader to them, while Dumbledore’s wise words to live by do the same for his character. This is why getting your dialogue-writing skills in tip-top shape is absolutely essential.
Here are some tips and tricks that can help you to improve your dialogue.
1) Read It Out Loud
One of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to dialogue-writing is reading it aloud. It’s amazing how words that sounded perfectly natural in your head come out sounding stilted and awkward once you actually hear them.
A good exercise to try is to write some stand-alone pieces of dialogue. You can use prompts like “Don’t move” or “What have you done now?” to get you started (the internet is full of prompts like this). Once you’ve written a page or two, read it out loud to see how the words sound outside your head.
Once you’ve done a few of these exercises, you can start reading dialogue from a book or story you’re writing. Even outside of dialogue, reading your entire book out loud can help you to spot typos and assess the flow of the writing.
2) Dog-ear Those Pages
If you’re a writer, you’re likely a reader as well. One way to improve your writing is to take one of your favorite books and give it a reread. As you read, try to take note of bits of dialogue that you particularly like—be it for their humor, wisdom, or insight into a particular character. Whenever you find a piece of dialogue like that, dog-ear the page. (Sorry to anyone who tries to keep their books perfect and pristine—this is not the tip for you.) You may feel tempted to underline the dialogue as well, but I’ll explain why you shouldn’t in a second.
Next, put the book aside for a while. Then read it again. Hopefully, enough time will have gone by between readings that when you reach a dog-eared page, you won’t remember exactly which bit of dialogue you liked so much. If you are able to spot whatever you thought was so special the first time, you’ll know that this is the type of dialogue you love—and the type you should aspire to write.
3) Listen to Your Favorite Shows and Movies
Several years ago I dealt with constant light-sensitive migraines for a few months. My doctor eventually figured out that it was a side effect of a medication I was taking, but in the meantime I spent weeks laying in bed in the dark, unable to do anything else. I needed something to distract/amuse myself, so I started listening to TV shows and movies. I didn’t want to miss seeing anything new, so I listened to shows and films I’d already seen many times before like The Office, Parks and Recreation. …When Harry Met Sally, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
While this was definitely not an overall fun experience, I did make a wonderful discovery. When I could only hear the audio of shows and films, it gave me the opportunity to admire the dialogue writing in a whole new way. Even once I recovered, I continued listening to TV shows and movies while doing dishes, folding laundry, and doing other chores that wouldn’t allow me to look at the screen.
I highly recommend playing some favorite shows and movies of yours while doing menial chores. It’ll keep you entertained and help you get a good feel for great dialogue writing.
4) Pay Attention
One place you are sure to hear a lot of dialogue is in your everyday life. Whether you’re talking to a group of friends or family, or overhear people chatting at the grocery store, these are all opportunities to study how people talk to each other. And it’s even better than a book or show, since this is how people converse in real life.
This can be a bit of a slippery slope, since you don’t want to spend so much time observing your own life that you forget to actually live it. But it is worth taking a mental note when your friend makes a witty remark or your child makes an amusing observation at the breakfast table. When your date or friend goes to the bathroom at a restaurant can also be a great opportunity to subtly listen in on the conversations going on around you.
Over time, you will begin to get a knack for what sounds like natural dialogue and what doesn’t—especially if you keep reading your work aloud. Paying more attention to the dialogue in books, TV shows, movies, and in real life will also help you to sharpen your skills and make your characters sound less like caricatures and more human.
But as helpful as these other tips can be, you’re never going to improve your dialogue if you don’t write a whole lot of it. You are probably going to write a whole heap of bad dialogue before it starts getting decent. And that’s fine! Writing is a continuous learning process. No matter how far you’ve come as a writer, you will likely end up looking at your old stories and noticing everything you did wrong. Always remember not to get down on yourself in those moments, and instead feel proud of how far you’ve come—and how much further you can still go.