Reviewing the Rules of Writing Good Dialogue

 

Readers love to read a novel full of dialogue. Often they have no idea that, as writers, we have rules we must follow to keep the dialogue interesting. Every sentence in a novel must move the story forward. This keeps reader’s interest whether it is a fiction story, a devotional, or an article about keeping aphids off rose bushes.

Let’s pull back the curtain on an author as she creates her compelling story.

Don’t repeat the question or person’s name when giving an answer. Example:

George: “Lucy? Do you want to go to the movies with me?”

Lucy “Yes, George, I’d love to go to the movies with you.” (Sounds like the utterances of a robot.)

Readers may not even notice when a skilled writer gives an oblique reply.

George: “Do you want to go to the movies with me?”

Lucy: “It depends. What’s playing and when did you have in mind? I have a very busy social life, you know. (Aha! We’ve moved the goalpost on the story. Lucy may have another suitor.)

We don’t use conversation to impart information. (Example)

George: “So? You’ll go with me if you aren’t too busy?”

Lucy: I have a date with Tom next Saturday night. You know, Tom–my mother’s second cousin’s nephew by marriage? He’s a troubled guy, votes Democrat, but he has a charming personality.”

We don’t use meaningless chit-chat in dialogue. Every conversation should have a purpose, give a clue to something yet to come in the story, or suggest a potential conflict. Example:

George: “You’re going out with Tom? I thought he was in jail for murder.”

Lucy: “He’s out now. He was falsely accused. Now he’s receiving death threats against him or anyone associated with him.”

George: “Really, Lucy?” George raises his eyebrow. “Is it wise to date a guy like that?”

Don’t use conversation to impart lengthy bits of back story. Example:

George: “You should be dating me, not Tom. Don’t you realize that I was the one who saved your mother from a burning building that she had purposely set that night when she was despondent over her divorce, and then she learned that she was my father’s long-lost twin sister, separated at birth by their evil stepmother?”

Lucy: Gasp! “I’ve been away at college way too long. Good grief. Does that make us cousins?”

George: “Maybe kissing-cousins. So is it a date?”

Lucy: “As long as they haven’t arrested me yet for killing my college roommate, who recently died under questionable circumstances when she was smothered in her sleep.”

Review: Each sentence delivers new information.

Give oblique answers to a question.

Don’t use the person’s name in your response.

Don’t use conversation to impart lengthy back story.

Don’t repeat the question just asked. The goal is to keep the reader turning pages!

Wow! Writing a book isn’t as easy as you thought, right? I had to keep all these things straight while writing a compelling event that hooks the reader on page one, an exciting middle, and a satisfying and thrilling conclusion. But, it was easy for Mrs. Odboddy to be the prime suspect in a burglary, involved with a counterfeit ring, lose the war bond money, meet a tiger and still win at the end. Mrs. Odboddy – And Then There was a Tiger will keep the reader turning pages and looking backward to the previous Mrs. O books, or forward to Mrs. Odboddy’s Desperate Doings. Join Mrs. Odboddy on this rollicking adventure as she tackles adversity in this hysterical romp at the Newbury Harvest Fair, even as she fights the war from the home front during WWII.

He said… She said. Why does it matter?

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Readers love books with lots of dialogue and not so much narrative. Good dialogue should never just be idle chit-chat or casual conversation. Dialogue moves the storyline forward and is written specifically to create a certain mood.

In the following edited conversation between Brett and Kimberlee, from Black Cat’s Legacy, she shares her darkest secret.

Kimberlee took a deep breath and sighed. “I’ve had nightmares all my life. I never thought they had anything to do with my father’s death.”

“Nightmares?” Brett wrinkled his forehead. “Go on.”

“I remember now. In my dream…maybe it wasn’t a dream… My father is lying at the foot of the stairs and there’s someone standing in the shadows!”

Brett leaned across the table and took her hand. “You were there? You saw the killer?” His grip tightened on her hand. “You know who it was?”

She shook her head. “I heard voices. I came down the stairs. I remember something red, maybe a piece of clothing? I heard a shot and then I saw his…his… body. That’s all I remember.” She laid her head on her arms. “I never realized what it meant. I thought it was just a nightmare.”

“I can’t imagine how you must feel. I want to help get to the bottom of this. What can I do?” Brett’s voice shook
.
She lifted her head. Tears ran down her cheeks. “There is one thing, but I hate to ask.”
“Anything. Just name it. How can I help?” A flicker of concern swept across his face. He squeezed her hand.

“Maybe get me a tissue?” Her eyes crinkled in a smile.

What does this dialogue reveal?
In a few short sentences, we learn that Kimberlee never understood the connection between her nightmares and her father’s murder. We feel empathy for her pain. We see Brett’s increasing attraction to her, and suddenly during this tense moment, she delivers a one-liner that hopefully, if I did my job well, makes you smile.

Even more than the narrative in a story, good dialogue can create drama, romance, angst, or humor. If you can put it all in one conversation, go for it!

The reader doesn’t understand the creative effect of what a writer has done or admire their skill of their craft. They just know that as they read, the dialogue makes them feel they are watching the scene unfold, or better yet, they become one with the characters, feeling their joy, their pain, or their sorrow as they are pulled into the story.

The mark of a good book is when the reader reaches “THE END” and wishes there was another 100 pages. The mark of a GREAT book, is when that same reader searches for the sequel or another book by this same author.

Beyond a good plot, a charming setting or appealing characters, writing dialogue that sings is essential to creating this kind of reader’s response. It contributes to the success or failure of a book and to the writer’s career.