Tips for Writing Dialogue: Reading
When it comes to writing dialogue for a story, it’s important to make it believable. Believeable doesn’t mean “lifelike,” though. So what does it mean?
Writing dialogue is definitely a skill that takes time and effort to develop, but like all aspects of writing, the best way to learn is through reading.
As you read books that are similar to the one you’re writing, you’ll read many different kinds of dialogue. As you read, pay attention to the author’s word choices in the dialogue, attribution tags, and surrounding description and action.
Pay attention to word choice
Word choice is very important. Sentence structure tells you which character is speaking and what mood they’re in. For example, in one of my favorite series, Outlander, you can almost always tell when certain characters are speaking without even looking at the attribution tags. Fergus Fraser, a Frenchman adopted by a Scot, and his wife Marsali, are among the most recognisable characters in the story. Because Fergus uses a French accent when he speaks and his wife uses a Scottish accent, it’s easy to tell their dialogue apart when simply scanning the page.
Tags or action?
Attribution tags can be used in a variety of ways. In the Harry Potter series and other works, J.K. Rowling typically uses simple “said” attributions so the reader can primarily focus on the dialogue and largely ignore the rest of the sentence that falls outside the quotation marks. This is one of the techniques that make this book an “easy read,” especially for children.
Meanwhile, in books like Outlander, Diana Gabaldon focuses on including action within her dialogue so that as the reader goes along through the narrative. They always have a clear picture of where the characters are and what they’re doing. For this reason, the series reads as a highly visual, high-action story.
Here is an example scene that could be very boring if it weren’t for the description mixed in to help orient the reader:
“What is it the laddie swallowed, I wonder?”
“This.” Brianna spotted the object, half buried under fallen leaves, and plucked it out. “It looks like a button.” The object was a lopsided circle, crudely carved from wood, but indisputably a button, with a long shank and holes bored for thread.
“Let me see.” Jamie held out a hand, and she dropped the button into it.
“You’ll no be missing any buttons, will ye, Ian?” he asked, frowning at the small object in his palm.
Ian peered over Jamie’s shoulder, and shook his head. “Maybe Fergus?” he suggested.
“Maybe, but I dinna think so. Our Fergus is too much the dandy to be wearin’ something like this…”
Even just reading this simple excerpt, you can clearly see Jamie’s distinctive manner of speaking. His Scottish accent is strong, and he is clearly educated and intelligent.
For some additional dialogue education, I also highly recommend re-reading books that have dialogue you like, but listening to them as professionally recorded audiobooks. This will give you a different perspective and interpretation of the same lines.
How do you prepare to write good dialogue?