3 Steps To Brilliant Dialogues In Your Stories

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your humble host

I write good dialogues in my stories.

It’s true.

Actually, I write great dialogues.

And occasionally I overdo the dialogues. I can admit it.

Thank goodness for critique partners. But anyway…

There are several components of great storytelling: a cool idea to serve as the plot. Engaging characters. A fast pace (unless that’s wrong for your book about the birds of Lake Michigan, but you get the idea). And most of you will adequately do those things, but

DIALOGUE IS WHERE YOU’LL MESS YOUR STORY UP.

Bad dialogues send a bright flashing neon sign to the reader that the writing isn’t very good.

So avoid that. Write GOOD dialogues.

Yes, but how?

Glad you asked.

My characters tend to talk a lot, but they – like yours – have to do things during the conversation or it gets dull fast.

So I laid out the process. I’m nice that way.

This is what you want if you wanna learn to write great dialogues like mine (there are other ways; if this doesn’t ring your bell. emulate a different author’s way), and I show you my step by step process with real examples from my books.

A: The Idea. WHY are we having this scene and its dialogue in the first place?

Dialogues exist in stories to:

  • ask a question
  • exchange information
  • advance the plot
  • maybe other stuff, but I doubt it

Basically, everything in a story is supposed to reveal character or advance the plot, so dialogues will do both – if they’re done well.

B: The Process.

First, I think up what these people need to convey in the scene.

Then I try to have each person’s speeches be quick, pithy, and irreverent. Sarcastic. Not mean, because they love each other, but instilled with the barbs that only friends and family can trade.

Second, I add the beats

Beats are the little actions people do while talking, like scratch their head when they’re confused – to make the scene seem real.

THEN it gets edited.

 

Okay? Okay.

BEFORE YOU START (things to avoid so you don’t mess up)

  • DON’T just have your characters sit at a table and talkThat’s boring.

  • DON’T have all the information come easilyThat’s boring.

  • DO have somebody interrupt or disagree. That’s teasing the reader as you wait and wait and wait to tell us what we wanna know. Teasing is good. It’s also known as TENSION – and tension drives stories.

  • DO add as much witticism as you can stand. Some people are funny. They’re more interesting to listen to in a book. Try to inject some of that into one of your characters. Readers love it. (So do moviegoers. Think Han Solo in Star Wars, or Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park.)

Here’s our first example from my upcoming novel The Water Castle. (This scene may or may not appear in the final version, and it may appear but with changes.)

PART ONE: JUST THE WORDS

When I do this, I just bang it out like a script or a play. This is big part of your voice, how you’d say something.

Gina took the passenger seat as her aunt Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

“Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up. You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God! No.”

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good. How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

“She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.”

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.” (NOTE: This is a tease. Why is this weekend special? Don’t answer right away. Make your reader wonder.)

“I guess so. She…”

“She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things.” (I said punctuation doesn’t count in a first draft, especially in dialogues.)

“Like everything. I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

“Him, who? Your dad?”

“Yeah. Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“She made decisions she had to make.”

“She made bad ones.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“Sounds like somebody else I know.”

“All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after Steve passed away. Your mom did what she had to do for you and your little brother. He was a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

“Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point. You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the sports car’s glistening yellow exterior as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to. Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know. Mom would get mad.”

“Good thing she’s not here. The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the Onstar. So let’s see. Send. Let’s go check.”

They walked to the car.

“Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks. There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.

“I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

Doesn’t really read like a book, does it?

But you see the fast pace and seemingly thoughts going all over the place. Questions raised but not answered.

Now, you see this plot (as expressed in this dialogue) potentially going all over the place, but in that single (and somewhat long) dialogue, how many questions did we raise – and how many did we answer?

Is your reader intrigued? Are you?

You are already starting to like Sam aren’t you? Why? (Because A, Gina does; and B, Sam is witty and irreverent. A rule breaker. People like witty and irreverent rule breakers if they are charming, and charm comes from empathy and charisma. But C, Sam is concerned for the family members.)

Let your reader put two and two together. They’re smart. They’ll get it.

No spoon feeding.

PART TWO: JUST THE BEATS

A list of some things you do when you get in a car to go to the airport.

Get in car

Adjust seat belt

Touch up makeup

Fix hair

Pick at or check your teeth

Start ignition

Start driving

Look in mirror

Look at passenger

Notice other cars

Take the exit into the airport

Pull up to the curb

Get out the bags

Hugs and kisses

Go inside

Drivers pull away from the curb

Take the exit on the interstate

Merge into traffic

Make a few turns

Pull onto your street

Next, after dropping off the traveler

You get in car

Maybe you start the engine

You put the car in drive

You slowly pull on the street

You get some instructions on how to keep the car the proper lane, with a new driver

You speed up or slow down

Usually more issues on keeping car centered, with a new driver

Then making a turn

Turning onto a side street

Speed up

Hold onto dashboard

Grip wheel

Yell at each other

PART THREE: COMBINE AND STIR

Blend. It’s not math, it’s jazz. Put in what feels right from the list and add whatever else comes to mind. Visualize what the people are doing and try to describe it. The list is really a prompt, not something to use verbatim. Stuff for here and there, that you might add. Now it should read more like a story.

Gina took the passenger seat as Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

Gina buckled her seat belt. “Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up.” Sam put the car into drive and pulled away from the curb. “You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God! No.” (NOTE: Probably would be fun to show Gina’s facial reaction here.)

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good.” She merged the vehicle into the flow of the airport traffic. “How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

Gina stared out the window. Somewhere behind the office buildings and housing developments, the sun dipped into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, sending brilliant orange and yellow reflections onto the clouds. “She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.” (This description of the sunset totally sets the mood and scene, and does it in very few words.)

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.”

“I guess so. She…”

Sam glanced at Gina. “She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things?”

Gina threw her hands in the air. “Like everything.” She sighed. “I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

Sam looked for her exit. “Him, who? Your dad?”

“Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“Hey, your mom made decisions that she had to make.”

Gina continued watching the scenery go by. The houses got smaller and older as they went. “She made bad ones.” (Another drip of setting, noting the houses getting smaller and older. What’s that tell you? Dribble it in here and there.)

Sam made a turn. “I… I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“That sounds like somebody else I know.”

Gina propped her elbow on the door, resting her chin in her palm. “All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after… your dad passed. Nikki did what she had to do for you and your little brother. Kyle was just a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

Sam nodded. “Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point.” Sam pulled over. “You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the glistening yellow exterior of a sports car as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to.” Sam sat back, folding her arms. “Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know.” Gina’s voice fell to a whisper. “Mom would get mad.”

Sam chuckled. “Good thing she’s not here.” She plucked her phone from her purse. “The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the OnStar. So let’s see.” She pressed a button. “Okay. Let’s go check.”

They walked to the Corvette. Gina stared at it in amazement. “Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks.” Sam stared at the doors, waiting. A short, slightly rumbly noise emanated from the car, along with a flash of the tail lights. She smiled. “There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Sam opened the passenger door. “Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.”

Gina opened the driver’s door. “I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

Okay, so you see how it’s coming together – but still needs some smoothing out of rough edges.

Remember, I don’t really make a list of beats per se; I do lay out the speech and then go back and add the linear actions that have to happen (you have to get to the airport before you take your suitcase out of the car), but stuff life resting your head on your palm, that needs to come from the feel of the scene.

Then I add placeholder beats – you’ll see quite a few sighs – to remind me to have an action there, just not necessarily that action. Or that action conveyed differently.

That’s it. That’s the process. The final draft will be completed later, but I this is one step-by-step method for writing amazing dialogues!

YOU CAN DO IT!

The changes are obvious when placed side by side (and so is the need for another pass at it) but hopefully you can see some of the process.

 

Feel free to ask for me to address areas where you have problems!

Dialogues do NOT need to be difficult.

BUT MOST OF YOU STRUGGLE WITH THEM

Learn the method and use it in your stories.

You may not have such talkative characters but your story will benefit from the process.

13 thoughts on “3 Steps To Brilliant Dialogues In Your Stories

  1. Writing dialogue is fun, and these examples tell the writer how to make it sing along to move a story, Dan! In a longer story, a novel, I tend to play more with dialogue, but it always should add to the story — serve to tell more about a character, even — and not bog it down.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I find your method a little bit confusing grammatically because I was taught in English, which is how I write, that dialogue should always come at the beginning of a paragraph not at the end or half way through. Whilst it does hold the story, I personally would have not have laid it out like this and would have done it so that every time a new speaker was speaking, a paragraph began with the dialogue, even if they were the next person to talk and there was action or description within the paragraph after them doing so. However every author should be allowed to have their own method I completely agree that dialogue is an essential and fun part of storytelling.

    Any thoughts on this would be welcome.

    Tom

    Liked by 1 person

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