Dialogue should be fun to read. It should flow easily as a conversation and sound like people are talking right in front of you. But too often it reads stilted and unnatural, like it’s been written down, not spoken. Some people have a natural ear for it, but most don’t.
The most common mistake with dialogue is to be too direct. People say what they mean and give full and frank explanations of themselves. It’s like a bank robbery where everything goes smoothly and everyone gets rich, there’s no fun in that. Dialogue is very flexible and you should take time to bend it. Lying, avoiding the truth (not the same thing), answering a question with a question, changing the subject, these are all ways of making a conversation interesting.
But my number one tip for improving your dialogue is this:
Read good dialogue.
And the best way to do that is to read plays and screenplays. I’ve included a picture of another shelf in my bookcase for you to see the kinds of texts available, click twice on the photo for a better look. There’s a few odd ones in there (of course).
Plays tend to be better at voice and theme, screenplays are more direct and handle exposition and plot better. You should be careful with screenplays as those you buy as books are often not the original text, but transcripts. Once the screenplay gets director-affected, actor-influenced, filmed and edited, the version up on the screen is the one they transcribe onto the page, with all the actors’ ums, aws, and hesitating pauses, because that’s what the punters are familiar with. Which is fine when you have the actor’s voice in your head, but no good for novels. You’re safer with the big name screenwriters like William Goldman, the Coen Brothers, Tarantino and the like who will insist on their exact words being published. If you find scripts online (there are numerous sites) make sure it’s the ‘shooting script’ you look at.
Read good scripts and see how people say things without saying them. And how they reveal their true nature when talking about something completely unrelated.
Here are some other tips:
Try to give the person talking a purpose in talking.
Try to give the other people in the conversation a different purpose.
Look at the obvious way to respond, and choose another way. Did you kill your husband? Obvious answers are Yes, I did and No, I didn’t. Once you take those two away, what else can you say?
If someone wants something don’t ask for it directly. You want me to give you a lift in my car, say, “Hey, man, you want to go to a party?”
Here’s what not to do:
Don’t add pauses and stammers and repeat words like people do in real life, it will make the dialogue seem amateurish.
Don’t have question and answer sessions like it’s an interview (even if it is an interview), it’s exhausting to read and very one-note.
Don’t have people just chatting about random stuff in an interesting way unless you are very (and I mean VERY) confident you can pull it off.
Don’t have people express how they’re feeling (unless they’re lying).
Here’s a scene from Double Indemnity (written by Billie Wilder and Raymond Chandler) where a woman convinces a man to kill her husband, and makes him think it was his idea.
Phyllis has moved over to the window. She stares out through the wet window-pane.
What's the matter now?
I feel as if he was watching me. Not
that he cares about me. Not any more.
But he keeps me on a leash. So tight
I can't breathe. I'm scared.
What of? He's in Long Beach, isn't
I oughtn't to have come.
Maybe you oughtn't.
You want me to go?
If you want to.
Sure. Right now.
By this time, he has hold of her wrist. He draws her to him slowly and kisses her. Her arms tighten around him. After a moment he pulls his head back, still holding her close.
How were you going to do it?
Walter, for the last time --
She tries to jerk away but he holds her and kisses her again.
In fact here’s my top tip, get hold of any Billy Wilder script on an Internet near you (even a transcript — actors used to do what they were told back then) and read the hell out of it. Everything you need to know about dialogue, for any genre, will be in there.