Improve Your Dialogue Using the Four S's
We know dialogue makes for good storytelling, and we know that getting two people talking can make a scene interesting. But, of course, dialogue isn’t interesting just because it exists. The possible things your characters could say at any moment need to be curated and carefully shaped by you.
That shaping means you are going to want every bit of dialogue to be directed toward your story purposes. Therefore, if you want to improve your dialogue, I suggest you revise with these four S’s in mind: Significant, Shorter, Smarter, and Sharper.
Make it Significant
The two most important functions of dialogue for your story are to move the plot forward and to reveal character. Look at every exchange in your narrative and question it to make sure it has a reason to be there.
In this passage from Rae Meadows’ Winterland, two young girls who dream of making the USSR gymnastics team chat in their school room:
“There’s a man in our building who has a polar bear cub,” Anya said.
Sveta’s eyes flashed wide, and she grabbed Anya’s wrist.
“What’s his name?”
“Have you seen it?”
“I tried on my mother’s lipstick last night,” Sveta said, dropping her voice. “Pink. But she caught me, and I got in trouble.”
To Anya, lipstick was more exotic than a polar bear cub. Makeup was a way to stand out when you were supposed to look like everyone else.
In this short exchange, two significant elements are presented. First, a plot element—we find out that there is a baby polar bear cub in Anya’s apartment building (which the girls will soon go visit). And second, character is revealed—the lipstick Sveta mention gives us an important glimpse into her impulse to “stand out.” This will be reinforced in a few pages when a man from the state program comes to their school to scout for talent.
Examine your passages of dialogue and ask yourself if they are either pushing the plot ahead or enhancing the reader’s understanding and experience of the characters. Make sure they are doing one or the other, or both!
Make it Shorter
There are two main reasons dialogue tends to get bloated. First, we often write the way we speak. And the way we speak is not concise, and certainly not curated in the way a reader expects in fiction.
And second, there is a temptation to overload our fictional speech with information we want the reader to know. We let our characters go on and on with explanations instead of forcing ourselves to allow just enough speech to get the job done, with style of course.
Anne Tyler demonstrates the value of economy in dialogue when two characters bump into each other in a train station in her novel, French Braid.
“Serena?” the man asked.
“Well, hey!” he said, and he started to offer his hand but then changed his mind and leaned forward, instead, to give her a clumsy half-hug. He smelled like freshly ironed cotton.
“What are you doing here?” she asked him.
“I’m catching a train to New York.”
“Got a meeting tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. She supposed he meant a business meeting. She had no idea what he did for a living. She said, “How are your folks?”
“They’re okay. Well, getting on, of course. Dad might have to have a hip replacement”
“Oh, bummer,” she said.
Experiment with stripping down your dialogue to express only the minimum that needs to be said to get the point across. This is where a writer must lean into verisimilitude and make the dialogue sound similar to true speech, but not a copy of actual speech.
Make it Smarter
You’ll want to train your dialogue-ear by listening to the way people talk in the real world. And then you’ll mimic that in your writing, except your fictional dialogue will be more interesting, with all the boring parts omitted. If you want to improve your dialogue, you’ll want it to have a smartness about it that real life talk just doesn’t have.
So even better than listening to how people talk in the real world is reading how the best writers write dialogue on the page. See how the dialogue in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is believable, yet has a quickness and brightness about it that you don’t usually hear over morning coffee.
Augustus lay down the Bible and walked over to look at Call’s wound.
“I oughta slop some more axle grease on it,” he said. “It’s a nasty bite.”
“You tend to your biscuits,” Call said. “What’s Dish Boggett doing here?”
“I didn’t ask the man his business,” Augustus said. “If you die of gangrene you’ll be sorry you didn’t let me dress that wound.”
“It ain’t a wound, it’s just a bite,” Call said. “I was bit worse by bedbugs down in Saltillo that time. I suppose you set up reading the Good Book all night.”
“Not me,” Augustus said. “I only read it in the morning and the evening, when I can be reminded of the glory of the Lord. The rest of the day I’m just reminded of what a miserable stink hole we stuck ourselves in. It’s hard to have fun in a place like this, but I do my best.”
Dialogue is the perfect place to showcase the uniqueness of your characters, to let their speech surprise us, to let them speak with not only clarity, but cleverness.
Make it Sharper
Let’s talk about word choices. As real-world speakers, we tend to say the first thing that comes to mind. We don’t have the time to carefully fashion our speech in most of our conversations, so we tend to say things in expected ways.
But see how Jess Walter’s characters in The Cold Millions speak in ways that are slightly more precise and engaging than what might first come to mind to real-world speakers?
“I don’t like it,” Hage said.
“Roff pissing on trees?”
“I don’t like that, either, but I mean walking up this hill hoping to bump into some ace burglar on the job.”
“Well, we won’t find him rousting bums downtown with Clegg.”
“We will if he’s a bum.“
“Fancy work for a bum.”
“I suppose so.”
If I were the real-world version of Hage, I might say something like, “I don’t like walking up this hill hoping to bump into someone burglarizing a house.” See how the fictional Hage’s ace burglar on the job is just so much better than my blander version?
These word choices may seem minor, but I swear that if you can improve your dialogue to the point where your characters are using fresh and affecting language (yet not unnatural) you’ll cause agents, editors, and readers to sit up and take notice.
In a sea of ho-hum books, your dialogue is one of the best places to look for opportunities to distinguish yourself and showcase your writing mastery.
Written by Kim Lozano
Kim Lozano is an editor and creative writing coach from St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Iowa Review North American Review DIY MFA CRAFT and many other publications. You can find out more about her classes and the writing resources she offers at kimlozano.com.