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Seven tips for designing meaningful dialogue

As writers, we’re extremely lucky to be able to engage in behaviors others might find a bit abnormal.

We get to listen to the “voices” in our heads, and we get to make imaginary people talk to other imaginary people. All of this in the pursuit of our “craft.”

I was thinking about this recently while considering what makes good dialogue. Here are a few tips that might help you as you write your own dialogue.

  1. Build your knowledge of your characters. Just as you invent your characters, you must create their conversations and interactions. The more you understand your characters, the easier it will be to invent their dialogue.
  2. Whether you’re writing nonfiction or a novel, don’t create dialogue that is mundane. Dialogue should propel your story and add something new. It should fulfill a storytelling purpose.
  3. Use dialogue to create emotional intensity in your character relationships. Some of the most powerful dialogue is in the subtext– when characters dance around what they really want to say — or say the opposite of what they mean. This creates tension, drama, and new insight.
  4. Let your characters speak naturally but not like people actually speak. For example, it’s okay to use phrases. People don’t naturally speak in complete sentences 100% of the time, and they interrupt each other. To sound organic, dialogue should possess the semblance of an actual conversation. Unless they serve your characters’ development or advance the story, delete extraneous words and filler phrases that don’t add to the conversation.
  5. Choose words and patterns of speaking that reveal the personality of your characters and add depth. A cowboy in Montana is going to have a different way of speaking than a Wall Street banker.
  6. Consider how different elements of speech, including sarcasm, cynicism, jargon and incorrect grammar, can distinguish your characters. But use these judiciously.
  7. Describe body language in the exposition between lines of dialogue to add another layer of meaning to what your characters are saying.

As you work on revisions, read your dialogue aloud to find out if your characters are speaking naturally. Better yet, record yourself and a friend reading your dialogue and then play it back. You just may find out your characters have something new to say.

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