20 Questions to Help Improve Your Dialogue

Paulo Campos at Yingle Yangle http://www.yingleyangle.com/2010/07/20-questions-to-help-improve-your.html 20 Questions to Help Improve Your Dialogue

One of the biggest let-downs as a reader is weak dialogue in a story successful in every other way. I think, “people do not talk this way,” over and over. I read The Stand a few months ago. I enjoyed it so much I burned through its 1,500 (or so) pages in about a week. But most of the dialogue stank.

Most of the characters have the same vocabulary and syntax. That’s despite their being from different social and economic classes, education levels, and regions of the country. Part of what’s interesting about the book is the different points of view the characters have. The way they expressed them didn’t fit.

Lots of novels. Possibly most have dialogue that comes across as inauthentic for a number of reasons. Most novels with great plots would benefit from better dialogue.

  1. How can your characters’ vocabulary reflect their social, educational, regional background that you have explained to the reader or simply know on your own?
  2. Does your use of dialect and patois make sense? (Mark Twain’s did but for every Twain are legions for writers whose use of dialect is less readable than Finnegans Wake. Ask your test readers!)
  3. How does it sound read out loud?
  4. Do your characters’ speech rhythms seem realistic?
  5. If so: does your attempt to make your characters’ speech rhythm seem realistic so successful that it obscures what they’re saying; who’s speaking; and take the reader out of the story? (There’s a balance between this issue and the previous question that messes writers up all the time).
  6. Can you trim cliches, slang and expletives?
  7. Are your dialogue tags clear, repetitive, or underused?
  8. Does the dialogue sequence add anything (exposition, character development, etc) to the story?
  9. Could you break up information from this scene into others; is this scene an information dump?
  10. Did your first draft of that the dialogue sequence stray from what you intended that scene to accomplish? (See yesterday’s post about drinking scenes for more on that).
  11. How present should your narrator be during the scene?
  12. What might each participant in that conversation want in the story?
  13. How might their role in the conversation support what they want?
  14. What kind of body language might they have?
  15. How does their body language re-enforce or contradict what they say?
  16. What can they notice about the setting they’re in? (A great, often overlooked, aspect of dialogue is that your narrator’s still around and your characters can do more than talk).
  17. How do their thoughts contrast or contradict their words?
  18. What might others have said about them before the conversation?
  19. What might they say about other characters during the conversation?
  20. What might said later about this conversation?

Here’s a thought based on those last three questions:
next time you’re watching a television drama pay extra attention to the “previously on…” intro. They often show a sequence of dialogue scenes that set up the events (conversations and action) about to take place in the episode you’re going to watch.

Less action-oriented shows like Mad Men, Six Feet Under, and (going way back) I, Claudius can show examples of how important dialogue scenes are.

Loads of questions were left out. I hope you help expand this list in the comments!