How to write powerful dialogue

Writing a novel is a hard slog, but the part that comes most naturally to me is the dialogue. I’m not sure how I gained this talent. I can only suggest that I have heard plenty of strong dialogue. Many hours spent watching (and reading) films, television and plays have helped, I suppose.

For instance, it was the fast-paced banter in movies such as His Girl Friday that inspired me while writing The President’s Lunch. Similarly, Arthur Miller’s powerful and restrained discourse in plays like The Crucible echo throughout the novel I have just completed, Hummingbirds.
Here are my top tips for writing real, authentic, powerful dialogue.

1. The writer has to know each character extremely well. The author must be able to hear the voices of their characters in their mind. Each character’s voice has to be distinct and mirror their actions in the novel.

2. Once a conversation is written, read it aloud. Lines that are clumsy become obvious. Dialogue has to sound real. The character’s tone, turn of phrase and speed of delivery have to ring true.

3. Conversation is also about silence. Sometimes what is not said is important. Likewise stumbles, stammers and restarts can convey an emotional moment better than a perfectly constructed exchange.

4. Utilise the power of punctuation. The right punctuation alters the flow of the lines.
5. Try not to use dialogue to convey large chunks of information to the reader. Real people don’t talk like that. Let the exposition eke out subtly through the tone of voice and the gestures or facial expressions etc of the characters.

6. Don’t worry about the repetition of he said/she said/Bill said etc to indicate who was speaking. Using too many words like exclaimed, observed, screeched, murmured, conjectured, reasoned, argued and pondered overpower the speech around them. If the dialogue is strong it doesn’t need any dressing up.

7. Don’t worry about the boring stuff – greetings and goodbyes. Cut them out. Assume the reader knows this came beforehand or will happen. In other words, come into a scene late and leave early.

8. I’m not kidding about listening to the dialogue in top quality movies and TV shows. It helps enormously.

Here’s a great story about ten authors who write spectacular dialogue.

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