Blogging Distarcted alt header image with evolved logo and alternative site text.

I’m a champ at suspending disbelief, but as an author, nothing takes me out of a moment faster than bad dialogue. It happens on the page, in movies, on TV, and in real life. This not to say that I’m not guilty of writing bad dialogue, because I am. Dialogue takes practice. And I’d be willing to bet that anyone who has ever tried to write it is guilty of the same.

The thing is, dialogue can be tricky. There are a lot of rules for writing it and they almost always get in the way.

Seriously. Google “how to write good dialogue” and you will see rules like: keep it brief, cut out greetings, use conflict, leave out the small talk, don’t write like people talk, etc. Now, I will admit that if you ever sit and listen to people talk, there are a lot of pauses, topic changes, unfinished sentences, and interjections such as um and err. Also, it’s often incredibly dull. Dialogue in print or scripts can’t flow that way, because it needs to move the story forward.

But that doesn’t mean its flow can’t sound natural.

If you think about it, when listening to people talk whom you don’t know, as the listener you are not likely to have all the context and are almost certainly missing non-verbal cues. Just following along can be difficult. In print, it’s up to the author to make sure that the reader has the proper context. And thus we have one of the biggest mistakes in writing dialogue.

Context is Key.

So long as the dialogue relates to the current character circumstances, it will be relevant to the reader. That’s half the battle right there.

Even with the proper context, it’s vital to find the character’s voice. And I don’t mean tone. How someone talks – their unique inflections, use of contractions, and word choice are all distinguishing factors. Think about classes you didn’t like or found boring, did the teacher speak from their desk in monotone? For me this was Mr. Clute. High school biology teacher and man of monotone.

Except that more than 30 years later, I still remember how he spoke. Those unique little nuances and his favorite phrase to utter, “Uhhh, people,” stuck with me. And this is exactly what I’m talking about. As much as his droning voice made me want to bang my head against the desk and not learn biology, his dialogue left an impression.

I’m not entirely sure when I consciously decided to become a writer. I know I thought about in high school. And my Mom will agree that when it came to making up stories, I had a talent for it.

By 1991, I had begun taking creative writing classes and was firmly on my way to a BA in English (at some point I’ll discuss the usefulness of that degree). Although I was fortunate enough to have many talented and encouraging professors – a lot of their lessons still stick with me – when it comes to dialogue, my single most memorable lesson came from Timothy Zahn.

In an interview about Heir to the Empire, he discussed his process for capturing the voice of each character. In the article, he mentioned that while researching for it he would run the movies (original Trilogy) through his sound system, with the TV off. It allowed him to hear how the characters spoke without the distractions of the visuals, which helped him to better translate them to the page.

It is my opinion that no other writer has done as good a job capturing the voice of those characters, and I’ve read MANY Star Wars books.

Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of movies and TV shows just through the sound system. One of my favorite mental exercises is imagining a scene from just the dialogue, and occasionally peeking at the screen to see how far off I am. I do this often when my wife is watching something of which I have little interest but want to be near her. Sometimes I can see the scripts in my head, usually when the dialogue is just bad, but for the most part I feel that paying attention to how others write dialogue – both good and bad – has helped me to write more compelling and realistic dialogue.

Give it a try – listen, don’t watch. When it comes to writing good dialogue, I feel like we all need every advantage we can get.

Come back for a new writing topic in two weeks

If you enjoyed this writing blog, please share in your favorite social media platform.

And subscribe below for news and new content alerts.