Craft Corner: Make Your Dialogue Snap and Sizzle

Welcome to the Class of 2k21 Craft Corner! These posts will be dedicated to sharing writing tips and tricks we’ve picked up on our journeys to publication. Each month features a new theme with insights from members of the Class of 2k21; this month, we’re discussing dialogue.

Whether you are a long-time creative with too many ideas to wrangle or a beginner with no idea where to start, we hope you’ll find something you can apply to your writing journey. Let’s get started!

Kalena Miller: I absolutely love dialogue! So much so that I consider dropping this whole novelist thing and becoming a playwright about once a week. (Then I remember that young adult plays aren’t really a thing, and I get sad.) For all the nuts and bolts of writing clean dialogue, I highly suggest a craft book as a starting point: this one is good. But here, I’ll share my personal mantra for writing dialogue: Don’t write dialogue the way you speak, write dialogue the way you wished you spoke. Think about that argument you had with your friend. Good book dialogue isn’t the awkward, mumbled retort you actually said, it’s the witty, impassioned, scathing speech you came up with later that night. Because we’re writing fiction, right? This doesn’t mean you should eliminate every “um” or “like” because filler words can be excellent for pacing or character. But it means that every word spoken in dialogue should be intentional.

Sam Taylor: My first creative writing teacher in college emphasized that dialogue shouldn’t be too clean. I don’t mean writing the way people really speak (as Kalena also mentioned)! But don’t always have your characters answer questions or respond to each other too directly. Subtle motivations and conflicts can be revealed when characters slightly talk around each other. For example, instead of writing:

Character 1: I kept calling your name. I was shouting. Didn’t you hear me?

Character 2: I thought I heard something, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to turn around in case you weren’t really there.

Try instead:

Character 1: I kept calling your name. I was shouting.

Character 2: I didn’t want to turn around in case you weren’t really there.

Sometimes, what characters don’t say can be just as powerful as what they do.

Jennifer Adam: As Kalena and Sam have said, I think dialogue can be tricky because it needs to sound as realistic as possible but without all the awkward pauses and filler words people usually use. It also needs to reveal something about the characters speaking - each of us has our own speech rhythm, inflection, and tone based on how we’re feeling at that moment and what we’re really thinking. In order to hit that right note in written dialogue, I think it’s valuable to spend time just listening to speech patterns. Train your ear to distinguish rhythms and watch how someone’s body language contributes to their conversation. Then, when you sit down to write, really think about how your characters would sound in this moment. What do they intend to reveal - and what might they be concealing? Do they use different words in some situations but others when they’re with friends? Also remember that your characters aren’t just “talking heads” - think about where they are when they’re talking, what they’re doing at the same time. Physical beats can lend credibility and tension to dialogue, especially when they reinforce something about a character’s personality and habits.

Thanks for joining us! Craft Corner will be back in July with thoughts on writing strong openings. See you then!