My Dialogue Sucks: Tips For Improving Dialogue In Your Novel

I have just submitted the first few chapters of my thriller novel, Pentecost to my writing group for critique. The responses have been great on plot but truly, my dialogue sucks! (and I am using the English spelling before everyone starts sending me typo notices)

So here are some articles and links that I have been reading to try and improve my dialogue so hopefully they will help you too.
  • Dialogue is not conversation” from Robert McKee ‘Story‘. Conversation is boring, repetitive and concerns inane things. Dialogue moves the plot along, reveals character and every word is necessary to advance the story. As Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘a good story is life with the boring bits taken out’.
  • Very few writers get away with writing in dialects, (think Irvine Welsh) but for most readers it is very annoying and disturbs the flow of reading so don’t do it.
  • Dialogue breaks up monotony of paragraphs of exposition/description and makes the story move faster (JA Konrath). It is better to reveal story elements in dialogue than exposition. It should be natural, but not too natural (as above, it is NOT real conversation). Avoid adverbs and dialogue tags where possible i.e. Jill said wryly. Reading it aloud helps.
  • On attribution and dialogue tags from Let The Words Flow. He said/she said is needed but not every line which can be distracting. But be careful of the opposite extreme so the reader loses sense of who is speaking.
  • Dialogue should reveal emotion through words, not through adverbs. Don’t say “angrily” when you can use angry words and describe the character/action portraying anger. (Show, don’t tell!). From Blood Red Pencil.
  • Don’t use dialogue to explain the back story, saying things like “As you know John, we have already navigated the lost world of Aurion and found the golden goblet…” . From Poewar, which also has some great exercises for dialogue.
  • For a brilliant chapter on dialogue, read “How not to write a novel” which parodies the author who is too good for the word ’said’, as well as examining misplaced exposition, random adverbs, failure to identify the speaker and more in a laugh-out-loud writing book.
  • My primary flaw seems to be that my readers don’t think my character would talk the way I have written, so my dialogue does not match the person created in the reader’s head. This is good in a way as I have evoked a specific character in their minds, but bad as I have clearly got the ‘voice’ wrong! Holly Lisle’s advice helps here, “writing good dialogue comes from being able to hear voices in your head that aren’t there“, and the voices have to belong to the specific characters. I am planning to read my chapters out loud and rectify the issues. I am still on first draft so I am not fretting too much but dialogue is one of the areas that has stopped me writing so I want to continue learning about it.
Do you have any tips for writing dialogue? Or any good examples in books I could read?


This is a reprint from Joanna Penn‘s The Creative Penn.