Writing Tips: Dialogue


I have recently been doing some critiques in one of the many critique groups online and noticed something that annoys me to no end. Useless dialogue.

When I say useless, I mean, it doesn’t show character, it doesn’t even effectively tell what the hell is going on. I mean the utterly useless kind that just takes up space. Allow me to give you an example.

“Aggh! James, where are you?”

“Over here, Max.”

“Where? I dropped my flashlight and can’t see a thing.”

“Over here. Follow my voice.”

Okay… I will stop boring you. What does the above say? Is there mood? No, not really. Is there information being conveyed here that can’t be shown a different and much better way? Hell no. It’s dark, and someone dropped a flashlight… ooh, I’m scared now <insert sarcasm here>. Damn, I think I bored myself, what was I saying? Oh yes, boring and dull dialogue.

Have you ever read a book and been eager to skip ahead to the dialogue? Do you know why that is? Dialogue shows the characters. Dialogue is an action scene and deserves every bit of attention, if not more, than any other portion of your story. Characters come alive in their words and how they interact with others. Good dialogue shows the characters mood, voice and attitude. It shows who they are.

Let’s look back at the above four sentences, if you can bear the sight of them again, and consider how we might change things to make things both clearer and more interesting.

First of all, we need to set the mood. We are going to assume the “aggh” sentence is where our idiot, Max, dropped his flashlight.

His thick fingers fumbled with the tiny button on the flashlight. Grease slick hands trembled and his heart thumped wildly in his chest. His thumb found the button as the flashlight shot from his hand and disappeared into the tall grass around the graves.

“Oh shit!”

Not bad. We cut one sentence and added three, and none of it boring dialogue. Hell, I don’t think those are boring sentences at all, and certainly do more for us than an “aggh” ever did.

Now we can add him fumbling for the flashlight and getting scared. He doesn’t need to say a damn thing. In fact, for flow issues, I wouldn’t add anything until after his fear starts to peak.

Mood people, mood. Oh, I am so going to write another post on that issue, but back to dialogue.

Now that the mood is set, we need to add the characters. The characters are what make your story. What kind of people are your characters? Are they the type of people who would use words like, “shit” or maybe something like “shoot” instead. A small change like that, changes what type of characters you have. Do they use words like, “ain’t” or “impossible” or “inconsiderate”? Choose  your dialogue wisely based on the character.

Now, lets rehash Max and James and see what we have here.

His thick fingers fumbled with the tiny button on the flashlight. Grease slick hands trembled and his heart thumped wildly in his chest. His thumb found the button as the flashlight shot from his hand and disappeared into the tall grass around the graves.

“Oh shit!”

Max dropped to one knee, reaching his hand through the dew damp grass in search of the lost flashlight. Something cold and slimy touched his hand. He jerked back his hand, holding it to his chest as he squinted out over the faint gray tombstones.

Something move in the distance. A gray shape shifting between two stones.

The excitement in his chest twisted into dark wisps of fear.

“James?” Max said. His voice cracked, betraying his fear, sounding hallow in the still night air.

“Over here,” the voice sounded distant and breathy.

Max spun to his right, searching for James through the dark. He swallowed hard, squinting into the night.

“Come here, Max…. Follow my voice.”

A chill ran down his spine. He couldn’t be sure if it was James voice or not….

Better, don’t you think? This dialogue does something. Broken up with mood and visuals that show the story instead of telling, gives a nice mood. Dialogue that bores you to tears and gives nothing interesting to catch your attention should always be cut and reworked. Let your characters shine through their dialogue don’t let them fall short.

Happy Writing Everyone!

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