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How to Write Effective Dialogue

Dialogue serves several key functions in your fiction: It reveals your characters’ personalities and beliefs, heightens tension, provides an alternative to lengthy descriptive passages and, most importantly, advances your plot. The key to writing effective dialogue is compression. Dialogue in fiction shouldn’t mimic the “everydayness” of actual speech, with all of its unnecessary details and interjections. Instead, it should capture the essence of a real conversation by getting to the point quickly.

To learn how to write effective dialogue, look to the stage and big screen, says author James V. Smith, Jr. In his newly revised writing handbook, The Writer’s Little Helper, he weighs in on the benefits of this approach and offers five steps to writing effective dialogue:

What Does Effective Dialogue Sound Like?

If you want to learn how to write effective dialogue, study the best plays and films. If possible, study dialogue both in performance (live or video) and in print. Read plays and screenplays to get the feel of writing on the page.

And, in the best scripts, what writing it is—pure dialogue unadulterated by music, actor expression, pictures, or narrative transition supplied by an author. Read it aloud to get a flavor of the emotion contained within the word choice made by the writer of the screenplay. Playwrights and screenwriters who succeed at their craft are probably the best writers of dialogue you can study. By looking at such refined gold, you can learn more than from any ten books that tell you how to write dialogue.

If you want to advance your study to the graduate level, follow the steps in this little exercise:

5 Steps to Writing Effective Dialogue

1. Rent a video of a play or film that’s best noted for its writing rather than its pretty actors and pictures. Any nominee in the Tony Awards or the screenwriting award in the Oscars will do.

2. Buy a copy of the screenplay of the film or play.

3. Decide which scenes of dialogue make the strongest impression on you. If you can’t come by a copy of the screenplay, take notes as you watch the film.

4. Return to those scenes and transcribe them—if you don’t have the screenplay. Print out the transcriptions so you have a hard copy in hand for the next step.

5. Watch your chosen scene again with sound muted. Read all the parts of the dialogue to yourself as the video plays silently. Don’t get ahead of or fall behind the pace of the film—try to lip-sync each actor’s part.

You’ll be impressed by this exercise for several reasons. Not only will you reap the benefit of the screenwriter’s words, but also a director’s influence on how those words accompany pictures and action. Not to mention the effect of the language of professional actors. You’ll also learn how decisions are made about word choice, diction, timing, emphasis, pace, and pauses—how everything comes together and flows in the performance (all without narrator intrusion). In plays especially, dialogue carries the story rather than special effects. Learn from them.

Buy The Writer's Little Helper from the Writer's Digest Shop.

Learn dialogue-writing tips from a published novelist: Check out How to Write Dialogue Like a Pro, an on-demand webinar with Elizabeth Sims.

Get hands-on instruction for writing effective dialogue with Great Dialogue Software

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