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4 tips for writing dialog

Writing good dialog is an art that requires practice and finesse. In this article, I will go through four things that are important to make the dialog feel believable.

If you want to become better at writing dialog, listen to strangers talking to each other on the bus or in a coffee shop. What I find interesting about how we talk to each other is that we sometimes talk over each other without really listening to what the other person is saying. Weaving that into a book or movie adds a layer of conflict and believability since what is said is not what the character means. Watch an examples of good dialog where characters talk over each other in the video below.

If you’re listening to other people talking in the street, it’s important to remember to clean up unnecessary in-between sounds like umm, hmm and so on. Written dialog needs to be a little more tidy than how we talk in real life since it gets annoying reading filler sounds.

4 tips for writing good dialog

1. Choose between quotation marks or speech marks 

(in Swedish grammar you write dialoge with either of these. I recommend that you check the grammar rules for the language you write in since it differs from language to language). There are two ways to mark dialog in Swedish, by using speech marks or quotation marks. The number line is the same as the dash (-), which is a longer line than the hyphen (-). This is what dialog can look like with hyphens. (The example is taken from my debut novel The Escape.)

– Your brother isn’t going to stop us this time, is he? Hosain asks, squirming in the warm seat.

– No, I talked to him. I think he understands why we have to leave.

Hosain nods and runs his hand through his short black hair. His forehead shines, and he peels off the label of a water bottle. 

– I’m nervous, he says.

– Me too, I reply, staring out the window.

This is what the same paragraph would look like with quotation marks:

“Your brother won’t stop us this time, will he?” Hosain asks, twisting in the warm seat.

“No, I talked to him. I think he understands why we have to leave.”

Hosain nods and runs his hand through his short black hair. His forehead shines, and he peels off the label of a water bottle. 

“I’m nervous,” he says.

“Me too,” I reply, staring out the window.

2. Give characters a unique voice

One way to make dialog more believable is to give different characters a unique voice. You can do this by analyzing how people of different ages speak. Someone who is retired does not speak the same way as a teenager. Someone from a working class family doesn’t talk like someone who grew up in the upper class. I found some examples of how different people can talk on the website of Tidningen Skrivas: 

– Look at those lit sneakers. Lit!

– Fuck, no coverage here, is there any Wi-Fi?

If you are using slang that is contemporary or time-bound, you should do so with care since slang looks different depending on who you are and where you live. For example, the words we used in Dalarna when I was a teenager were not used by teenagers in Stockholm. Another way to give characters their own voice by giving them different tix. Does your character end each sentence with “well then…” or with a question as if they are unsure?

3. Alternate dialog and description

Weaving action and setting into the dialog makes it more vivid and makes it easier for the reader to emerge into the scene. If you just write line after line with dialog, it’s easy for the reader to get bored. Below is a short example of dialoge and description from The Escape: 

“Come,” he says, pushing me in front of him. “We have to hurry.”

We enter an alley. It reeks of rotten garbage. Behind a container someone is sleeping on a piece of cardboard. 

“Do you have the money with you?” he asks, holding his hand out. The tunic slides up to reveal an elongated scar on his right wrist.

4. Let the dialog have a purpose

The purpose of dialog is often to create a forward motion in the story, to let the reader get to know the characters or to shape what happens in the story. One thing to remember when writing dialog is to only create dialog about things the reader doesn’t already know. If two characters meet and talk about what happened last Sunday, but the reader already knows what happened, it’s better to write that they talked about everything that happened and then start the dialog when the reader learns something new. 

I’ve found that I can get a bit chatty in my dialog and repeat the same things when I write the first draft. I make sure to edit this out to make the book more exciting to read.

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