Fiction Writing: 3 Savvy Tips To Boost Your Dialogue Skills

In fiction writing, dialogue is more than conversation, so make your dialogue work for you. Unlike real-life conversation, dialogue builds your plot and characters. It’s heavy with subtext and packed with conflict.

Have you noticed that commercial fiction is dialogue-heavy? Readers expect scenes (showing) rather than narrative (telling.) This means there’s lots of dialogue and every word of dialogue is an opportunity to create drama.

Brilliant insight from bestselling author Janet Fitch:

Dialogue (is) part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

Fiction writing: create drama with dialogue

In your first draft, just write. You’re exploring your story and characters. If you like, you can look on your first draft as an extended outline.

In your next draft, focus on building conflict and suspense. Make your evil antagonist even more evil. As I suggested in Writing Fiction Tip: Make Everything Worse For Your Hero:

… with a truly evil bad guy, your book will (almost) write itself. And you’ll have more fun. Where would the 1001 Dalmatians be without Cruella de Vil, after all?

Let’s look at some tips to help.

1. Avoid wasting words: “outline” scenes before writing

I’m a pantser, rather than an outliner. However, before I write a scene, I tap out a few sentences, describing:

  • Who wants what in the scene;
  • What each character is hiding;
  • My goal for the scene: how I want readers to feel during and after the scene.

Invariably, the scene departs from any itty-bitty list outline. But outlining isn’t a waste of time, even if the scene goes in an unexpected direction. Look at the outline as a trip plan: a destination and driving directions.

Try this: read your mini outline aloud before you start writing the scene. (Check Tip Three for the reason this makes writing the scene easier.)

2. Later drafts: focus on the elements of fiction

After using the process of first draft (get the story) and later drafts (build your fiction), one of my students reported: “Writing’s much less stressful for me now; I don’t procrastinate as much either.”

I used to call the second draft of a novel the “thinking draft”, because in this draft, you focus on changes, deletions and additions.

Your focus might be on things like:

  • Ensuring that each scene has a point of view character who’s determined to get what he wants.
  • Changing the setting to build conflict and suspense. An example… If I set a scene in someone’s car in the first draft, I put them at the top of a cliff in the second. Or in a spooky abandoned warehouse, after dark (no electricity, so no lights), during a storm.
  • Adding the point of view character’s thoughts.
  • Dialogue: punching up the dialogue. Shorten it; load it with subtext.

Here’s a strategy you can use. Take several passes through your draft, each with a specific focus: characters, settings, etc.

Dialogue is your final pass. You’ll get lots of ideas for punching it up in earlier passes. Just enter ideas right into the text.

3. Read your dialogue aloud, then play with it

When a weeks-long episode of laryngitis meant that I couldn’t speak above a whisper, I wrote little. Not only because the illness sapped my energy, but also because I couldn’t talk.

I realized how much I use my voice when writing, not only to dictate drafts, but also to read aloud.

Reading aloud has many benefits. According to a study, it can even improve memory:

You are more likely to remember something if you read it out loud, a study from the University of Waterloo has found.

When you read aloud, you’ll discover writing becomes easier; you’re more creative. Reading aloud helps later with editing too: you’ll pick up clumsy construction and typos.

Improve your fiction when you build up the dialogue

Writing isn’t typing. It’s a process. Take it step by step, building characters and plot, suspense and dialogue as you go.

Try the above tips, and happy writing. 🙂


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