6 Reasons Why Your Dialogue Sucks (And 7 Ways to Improve)

Improve Your Dialoge

I don’t care what anyone says, dialogue is hard. Every writer struggles to make character conversations seem realistic. But the good news is that it does get easier if you know which traps to look out for and how to fix them.

1. Your Characters Sound Alike

No one talks like anyone else they know. Sure, friends and family may pick up some of the same vocabulary, like slang and regional word usage, but no two people talk exactly the same. People use different sentence structures, nuances, and tropes in every day speech. The same person may even talk completely differently depending on the context of the conversation. Work on discovering the different ways people talk and representing them on the page. Each character you represent with dialogue should sound different from every other character.

2. Your Characters Think Alike

People don’t think the same as others. They don’t all follow the same logical paths. Streams of thought that seem logical to one person are nonsensical to another. When your characters talk, they should have different thought patterns, opinions, and ideas. Good characters can be picked out from the rest in a book even without dialogue tags, just because the reader knows how each character thinks. Don’t make your characters’ thoughts too similar.

3. You Don’t Write How People Talk

Grammar is fantastic. I love grammar, but all rules are meant to be broken, especially in dialogue. No matter how many times parents and teachers correct people as kids to speak and write correctly, speech is messy. Check out this great post on the Write Practice about how messy real speech is, if you’re curious.

Now, I’m not saying to go crazy and make an unreadable mess, but it’s ok to break grammar rules for the sake of character. Use good grammar when you can, but don’t do it if your character would not use correct grammar in his or her everyday speech. Don’t make your characters stiff with formal speech. Try to make them seem like real people by making their speech a bit messy.

4. You Use It As An Excuse to Tell

Show don’t tell. You’ve heard that over and over. Too many writers are convinced that tons of back story is necessary for readers to understand the plot of a story, and rather than cut it, they think they can cleverly hide it in dialogue. The truth is that real people don’t talk about back stories all that often, especially if they already know each other. When you talk to your oldest friend, do you always bring up how you met her? No. You’re characters won’t either, because you treat them like real people. While having your characters talk about actions in the past may seem like an easy way to get around info dump and tell everything about the plot.

What’s worse is that some writers use dialogue to avoid showing characters acting in scenes. Don’t fall into this trap. Just don’t do it. Dialogue is meant to explore characters and move the plot, not supplement it. This brings me to my next point:

5. Your Dialogue Doesn’t Advance the Plot

Yep, sometime writers think dialogue is just there as filler and nothing happens. It just takes up room on the page. When you talk to people in real life do you just talk for no reason? Well, sometimes people do, but that’s usually an indicator that someone is uncomfortable and something else is happening.

Dialogue is a great tool because its applications are so diverse. You can use it to give more detail about a character. It can show the truth someone’s mental state. It can advance the plot when characters come together for some reason.

Don’t cheat and use it as filler. Make sure your dialogue is essential to the advancement and clarity of the story.

6. You Use Annoying Tags

“Hello, John,” said Jane.

“How are you, Jane?” John asked.

“I’m fine, John,” said Jane.

“That’s delightful, Jane!” exclaimed John.

Please don’t go overboard with dialogue tags. As an avid reader, I’m begging you. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story more than unnecessary and distracting dialogue tags. Do we need to see who the speaker was at the end of every line? Nope. We can guess who’s talking based on the flow of the conversation, and if the writer has paid attention to points one and two, the way the character talks and thinks. Do real people use each other’s names throughout a conversation? Nope. Usually they are only used to get someone’s attention. So seriously, stop it. Get rid of all that unnecessary stuff and let people talk.

Okay, so now you know how people fail at writing dialogue. How can you fix it? Try these methods to get ideas:

1. Listen to Conversations

It’s simple. Listen to how people talk.

2. Watch Movies

Guess what? Movies are almost entirely dialogue. Study movies you love and see how the characters interact.

3. Read Dialogue Masters

Read writers who are great at dialogue, like Hemingway. Hemingway is the master of omission. He almost never gives more back story than is necessary. Read the short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” or the novel The Sun Also Rises and take some notes on how you can figure out what the characters want and how they feel without Hemingway saying it all for them.

4. Read It Out Loud

If you want to know how a conversation sounds, say it out loud like a conversation. This is an easy way to tell if the writing seems unnatural.

5. Try to Make Every Character Sound Different

Spend extra time making sure each character thinks and talks differently to help your readers get distinct impressions of each character’s personality. Enough said.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules

Grammar is a helpful and wonderful thing, but don’t let it hold you back in dialogue. When you’re listening to conversations, make notes of how people ignore grammar in conversation, and don’t be afraid to do the same in dialogue.

7. Practice

No part of writing will ever be easier if you don’t practice. Write lots of dialogue, and then write some more. You’ll start to learn what parts you struggle with and what to pay attention to in your edits. You’ll learn how to fix your mistakes, and before long, you’ll stop making so many. Write stories entirely out of conversations. Write stories with conversations as limited as possible. Write dialects. Write about different ages and cultures speech. Practice different patterns of speech and thought. Try it all, but whatever you do, don’t be afraid of it. Learn to love dialogue, or hate it and work past it, but you have to write it to improve.

Do you have any great dialogue exercises to share? Have you read any particularly good or bad dialogue recently? Have you written any? Let’s talk about it in the comments.






Tomorrow is Positive Thinking Day

Improve Your Writing

Writers can be a particularly negative bunch. My draft sucks. I was rejected again. My editor wants me to change too much. No one wants to read my book. My beta readers didn’t understand my plot.

There are so many negative experiences in writing, especially when you factor in criticism and critiques, but letting those negative thoughts take over your writing holds you back. When you think negatively, you expect failure, which teaches you fear.

Fear is often the number one reason writers struggle to create. Fear holds you back from writing something wonderful, or it can keep you from writing altogether. Banish negativity and fear with positive thinking.

Positive thinking is a powerful tool in writing. With so many writing fears, it can be a huge factor in your success. In honor of positive thinking day, we need to practice thinking positively and see how it affects your work. We’re going to work on pushing through all those negative thoughts because what you’re doing is worth it.

Understand Your Fears

Before you can tackle your fears, you need to understand where they are coming from. What are the negative thoughts about your writing that keep coming back to you? When do you have most of your negative thoughts? Is it when you’re writing or before you start? What do the negative thoughts focus on? Is it your abilities? Is it your chances of publication?

Once you understand the nature of your thoughts, you can focus on eliminating their impact on your work. For positive thinking day, I want you to take the fears you’ve identified and do three specific exercises that will help you work though your fears.

Here’s your homework:

1. Every time you have a negative thought, doubt, or fear about your writing tomorrow, think of two positive thoughts about your work. Maybe your dialogue is a little rough, but I’m sure you have an awesome concept and a great protagonist that make you want to keep working.

2. Think of three key reasons why you want to write. Write them down on a piece of paper and hang it above your writing space. If you’d prefer, you can also type it and make it your desktop on your computer.

3. Think of three reasons why the manuscript you’re working on is worth finishing. If nothing else, think about the practice you’ll get from completing it. Make a plan to help yourself combat the negative thinking as you work on your draft. Write down at least two things you can do to make finishing easier on yourself. It may be ignoring your own criticisms while you finish your first draft, or maybe it’s talking to a supportive friend. You might work on a skill or anything else you think will help you. Once you have your plan, try to put it into action for long-term success.

Let’s talk about your homework in the comments. I want to hear about you positive thoughts, your reasons for writing, and how you intend to finish your manuscript.

Improve Your Writing With Two Simple Exercises

Improve Your Writing

I’ll bet you didn’t know that was a thing. I didn’t until recently. Still, when I heard about it, I immediately thought about swapping ideas can benefit writers. We tend to be a solitary bunch, especially since our work requires us to think alone, and people can be a distraction. Many of us, including me, are introverts, and we don’t want to share our ideas with others, but it can benefit your work to change your process. In honor of the holiday I have two exercises for you to try:

When you’re facing a creative block, swapping ideas with another writer can be a great way to generate exercises for writing practice. You can take turns suggesting exercises for the other and give them a try. It’s always fascinating to hear the ideas of others, and it may lead you to come up with new approaches or topics you hadn’t considered before. Talk to another writer or even a creative friend. Come up with five prompts or ideas each and swap. Try writing about your favorite idea from your friend’s list. If you enjoyed the exercise, do it again.

Another time it can be beneficial to swap ideas is when you’re working on a difficult draft of your manuscript. Maybe you’re stuck, or you’re unsure what’s missing from the writing. Try talking through your ideas with another writer or creative friend and listen to his or her feedback. He or she may have some great ideas that could help you work through your block.

Lets discuss your practice in the comments. Which exercise did you do, and how did it go? Did it help you? 

Be a Better Writer This Month in 4 Easy Steps (Really!)

What part of writing is difficult for you? What are you bad at doing and have always wanted to get better at? What are you okay at, but you could improve on? Well, now’s your chance. September is National Self-Improvement Month, and I want to talk about how we can improve as writers.

If you’ve done any amount of writing, you know that it’s challenging. Many writers struggle with dialogue, while others have trouble coming up with great ideas. Some have difficulty describing character actions and reactions, and more are confused about grammar. We all have trouble with certain aspects of writing. We could all work on writing better first drafts, and we could all improve on managing quicker edits. So how do you get better?

1. You practice

You practice a lot. In honor of self-improvement month, I’m going to be posting tons of writing exercises you can try to improve your skills. I want you to seriously commit to trying the exercises and sharing your results so that we can grow as a community of writers. Additionally, I’m going to create a series of workbooks to help you improve your writing, the first of which will be available for free this month. Give it a try to see how you can work on your writing.

2. Understand what needs improvement

I want you to really focus your thoughts this month on your weaknesses as a writer. Once you’ve identified a few aspects you can improve on, I want you to pick two that you can focus on improving this month. Try to think about why these are weaknesses and how you can improve them.

3. Make a plan

Once you’ve identified your weaknesses, I want you to make a plan to improve two of them. This may include writing exercises, asking another writer for help on a specific aspect of your work, reading books on craft, or researching tips on that element of your work. For example, if you struggle with grammar, you may decide to read a few books on grammar to improve or invest in a manual. If you struggle with character development, you may want to invest in a book on craft. If you have trouble coming up with ideas, you may spend time on writing prompts or spending ten minutes a day brainstorming ideas.

You don’t have to come up with ideas that will take a ton of time. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. The only plans worth having are plans you can actually stick to, so don’t come up with a huge multi-step plan that you’ll quit working on after two days. Come up with a few small steps you can take to get better. Small improvement is better than none, and committing to the work will help you improve.

4. Interact

I hope you’ll share your plans here on the site so that we can support each other as a community of writers. We’re all going to focusing on improving, so don’t be shy. Help each other. Give each other support. Writers tend to be loners, but the support of peers in similar situations is hugely valuable when you’re making changes. Try to build a network of writers you can commiserate with and that can help motivate you.

Don’t forget to reach out to me as a resource if you need help. I may not be the greatest writing expert, but I am a writer, and I do have experience practicing. At the very least, I understand where you’re coming from, so feel free to reach out.

Already have some ideas about how you want to improve? Let’s talk about them and your plans in the comments.

Making Your Characters Real

Today I’m going to share a quick tip on creating believable characters.

Believable characters are ones that seem like real people because they have virtues and vices.  We see their ups and their downs, and we sympathize, even if they are the bad guy, because they are relatable.

But how do you make sure your characters are relatable?  It’s easy.  Make them balanced.  They have to have good and bad sides, even if the bad outweighs the good.  Just like no person is all good, no characters are all good, and a  truly evil character has his good points too, or maybe he did in the past.  This balance between good and bad creates conflict within readers about whether or not they like your characters, adding more tension to your story.  Just like nobody likes all the traits of the people they know, your readers shouldn’t like everything about your characters.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to make sure that all your characters are developed enough to have strong virtues and flaws.  One way I make sure they do is by an exercise I call “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”  It’s a really simple way to get you to think critically about your characters’ traits.

What I do is make a spreadsheet.  I like to do this by hand on notebook paper, because I hate taking the time to reformat the boxes in an Excel file to fit my text, but that works just as well if it’s your preference.

In the first column, list the names of each of your characters.  Make sure to leave plenty of room between their names, because you may need multiple lines for each of them later.  Make three more columns and label them “good”, “bad”, and “ugly.”  Leave extra space in the “ugly” column.

The good column is self-explanatory.  Write down several of the traits that you feel make your character good.  It’s okay to put a few, but you don’t want to put more than three or four.  The point is to list the ones that really make your character special and have the most impact on the story.  For example, I had a character name Frederick in an early draft of my current novel.  For good, I put that he was family-oriented and ambitious.  I knew he was also organized, but that didn’t have a lot to do with his personality, so I left it off.

Repeat this step for the bad column, focusing on negative traits.  For Frederick, I put that he is strict, angry, and impulsive.

Make sure you don’t just put random traits down.  Really think about negative traits that will balance the good in your protagonist, and do the opposite for your villain.

The ugly column is where it really comes together.  It is for whatever negative trait the character has that causes him or her problems and how it plays out in the story.  I usually make it a whole sentence and base it off the words I used in the previous column.  While the good and the bad columns may give you quirks or even smaller actions to work into your story, the ugly column can help you figure out how your characters are changing the story based on their personalities.

In my example with Frederick, I thought about the fact that he was angry and impulsive and tried to figure out how those traits could play out in an action.  His ugly column says, “He is so strict that he rages and gives into angry and murderous impulses.”  All I did was take those traits from the previous box and form them into some sort of sentence that could imply action, and that gave me a new piece of information: Frederick has murderous impulses.  This was something I hadn’t known about my character before, and that’s what is great about this exercise.  It helps you learn things about your characters that you don’t know yet.

I do it for all the characters in my novel, except for the ones that are only walk-on roles.  This helps me figure out not only what they are like, but how those traits come together to create the driving force behind your character’s action.  Even if you don’t use all their “uglies” in the story, I think it’s important to know what is motivating your characters, so that they stay consistent and are engaging throughout the entire novel.

How are you going to make your characters more realistic?  Leave a comment.


Torture Your Characters

Writing is about conflict.  Without problems, we’d just have a bunch of characters wandering around while nothing happened, and that wouldn’t be any fun to write or read.  A tortured character is one that evokes sympathy in readers and creates a greater investment in the outcome.

Creating conflict can be challenging, though, so I’m going to share a writing exercise that I use to figure out exactly how I want to torture my characters.

If you’re new to writing and don’t know a lot about conflict and tension in writing, I suggest visiting Fiction Factor, where there are some great articles on why stories need conflict and some basic ways to add tension to your writing.

My trick is something I like to call “Bad and Worse.”  This particular exercise works best when you know who your characters are and you have a general idea of where you want your story to end up, but the hows and the whats along the way are giving you trouble.

All you have to do is take a fairly boring scenario, make it bad, and then make it even worse.  Keep doing this until you feel like you have a story full of conflict.  It’s that easy.

Here’s what I mean:

You have a character named Jason that wants to be an astronaut.  We have a name and an ambition.  That’s a good starting point.  Let’s say he’s a high school student, and the basic story is his journey to become an astronaut.  We can find out the basic points of that from a little research: He’ll have to go to college, get a job in the field, learn to pilot jet aircraft, pass physical examinations, and make it through candidate school.

Once you have your basic idea and know a few things about the topic, you get started by trying to think of something that would be bad for your character along the way to achieving his dream.

Bad would be if he didn’t have good enough grades to get into the college or university he wanted to get into.  Worse, would be if he failed out of college right before graduating.  Bad would be making it though college, but being unable to find a job to get experience.  Worse would be finding a job, getting his experience, and failing the physical examination to enter the candidate program.  Bad would be passing the physical exam and failing candidate school, etc.

Things can always be worse for a character.  You’ll notice that some of those outcomes are a little more heartbreaking than others.  Getting close to the goal and then facing a setback is a lot more heartbreaking than a setback early on, so those later in the list are more challenging and provide greater conflict for your story.

Now it’s time to use those points you came up with to make a story.  You have two options: You can take your original point, and use the bad and worse elements as layers of the starting point, or they could be separate incidents altogether.  For example, maybe when Jason decides he wants to be an astronaut, he’s already a bad student, so part of the struggle is bringing his grades up.  You need separate plot elements though, Jason could be a great student, but maybe he takes a math class, and the teacher hates him, so he fails and risks his dream in the process.  See the difference?  Both are viable, interesting options, so you have to figure out which way gives you more to work with, and what you want the main conflict to be.

Keep in mind that you can’t just have one setback, though.  You’ll want to have one major problem that ends up being the climax of the story, but you’ll also need lots of little ones along the way to keep readers engaged.  Even though readers would probably want Jason to reach his goals, the story wouldn’t be interesting if it was just this one plot line.  That’s why subplots need conflict too, so decide what you want to use as a subplot and repeat the process.

Maybe Jason’s mother is sickly.  Bad would be if he couldn’t go away to school because she was ill.  Worse would be if he went anyway, she died, and he felt guilty about leaving her, and so on.  By the time you’ve done this a few times, you’ll have a ton of ideas and you just have to pick the ones that fit together to create the most interesting story.

Ta da!  You now have a storyline with tons of conflict.

Do you have any tips for creating more tension in a story?  Leave a comment.