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This is one area of writing that I find myself struggling a lot. I usually divide my chapters into scenes and each scene has a goal(s) that I have to achieve. And I have found that even though I know what the goal of a dialogue between certain characters is, I am not able to convincingly pen it down. I get lost in writing convincing dialogue to reach that goal.

Some of the feedback I have received is -

  • The segue from one topic of conversation to another is not fluid.
  • The dialogue sounds wooden or stilted or unnatural at certain points.
  • If I'm trying to present information (like two characters discussing history or a war in the past), then it sounds like an interrogation.

I am not sure how to improve this or what steps to take. If someone can suggest some good books or videos or any good tips that they use, it would be useful. Thanks in advance.

Edit - As requested, I am attaching four excerpts from two of my chapters. I will also include the goals I try to achieve from that dialogue.

To help you you understand the excerpt. The flow is that Adam meets with the Taoi twins and explains them the history of his world. He has a vision there about the death of him and his brother (Brendan) which freaks him out. Adam is now trying to get Brendan (the chosen one) to return back but Brendan does not want to leave.

Excerpt 1

Goals -

  • Humour
  • To show the Taoi twins share a mental connection (not to state it explicitly yet)
  • The twins have kind of a Idiot Savant or Rainman type personality.

“So what?” Taoi shrugged, “Age does not drive skill.”

“Besides, we have put in the effort”, the other twin said. “We have trained in multiple disciplines to qualify.”

“We are good at this”, the other twin nodded as if it was fact. “It is the reason the elves turn to us.”

“If something needs fixing”, Taoi said.

“We fix it”, the other twin said.

“If something needs inventing”, Taoi said.

“We invent it”, the other twin said.

“Basically anything that needs experimenting”

“We experiment with it. You can call us...The…umm...”

“Scientists ?” Adam supplied.

“We don't like that word”, Taoi said, turning to the other twin. “We actually prefer...”

“Experimenters?”, the other Taoi said with an air of sudden inspiration.

“Experimenterist?”, Taoi said just as brightly.

“Experiment artists?” The twins looked at each other and shook their heads.

“Experiment enthusiasts”, they said in unison, heartily agreeing with each other.

“You both are bad at naming things”, Adam observed.

“It is our greatest flaw”, Taoi lamented.

Excerpt 2

Goals -

  • Show the vastness of the city and the other industries
  • Show how the cities function
  • Show the people don't really have a choice
  • Show the Empire's dependence on the population

The eight cities were quite distinctly visible on the map. “The cities sure are vast”, Taoi said, eyes glued to the map.

“When the cities were unveiled, they were not as vast. Survivors were rounded up and brought in and yet the cities were overwhelmingly empty. Over the course of time, the survivors thrived, in a way, and the cities grew, extending to accommodate the growing population. What you see on the map is not their entire extent though. For some of the cities, depending on the environment around it, a large area outside the walls of the city but inside the dome are dedicated to various industries. There are large farmlands near a few, mines near some.”

“That is good, right?” Taoi asked tentatively.

The other twin nodded. “People have the means to earn their own livelihood.”

“Not exactly.” Adam shook his head. “Everything belongs to the Empire, whatever the results of the labour of the residents. It is one of the conditions of being allowed to live in the cities. The Empire claims everything you create. In return for the contribution‟, every resident gets access to food, clothing and medicines, and protection from the dangers outside.”

“And what if someone is not able to contribute?”

“Everyone contributes. One way or another.”

“Ominous”, Taoi commented.

“What do you mean?”, the other twin asked.

“Well, if you are able and willing, you will be given a choice to enrol in the army or find work in the fields or in the mines or any other industry. But if you are not able or unwilling, then the Empire will make the choice for you and there is a single option. You will be mutated into Clamors, genetically modified creatures which serve as the Empire's first line of defence.”

“That's horrible”, Taoi said.

“The Empire does not value human life”, Adam shrugged. “To them, the humans are just mulch they feed into the machinery to keep it running.”

“If the Empire does not care about the people, then why does it bother with them?” Taoi asked. “Why build cities to accommodate the populace?”

“Why set up the dome to safeguard them? Why not let everyone else die?”

“There is a reason for that”, Adam said. “The same one which caused the wars.”

“Energy?” Taoi's brow furrowed in thought. “Of course, the cities, the dome, they all would require a large amount of energy to sustain them.”

"And they need the humans to mine them", Adam agreed.

Excerpt 3

Goals -

  • To show Adam is concerned about the whole thing but Brendan is not.
  • The oath which Brendan took in an earlier chapter was not really his idea.

"You saw those orcs we fought-"

"-and defeated. Single-handedly, if I might add."

"But there will be more of them."

"Some hundred orcs have escaped in all. There are more elves than that."

Adam opened his mouth to counter but Brendan cut him off again. "You know you need to loosen up a little. Let go of the worries."

"I would, if you would not keep making hasty decisions."

Brendan stared for a moment before he comprehended Adam's words. "The oath ? Wasn't it quite something?" he said proudly. "I have lucrano to thank for that.

Excerpt 4

Goals -

  • To highlight Adam's concern with staying and wanting Brendan to return back
  • Brendan still is not concerned about the whole thing
  • What happened in the council
  • Adam became the leader (but he does not know it) and Brendan is angry at him but can not outright say it. (That is a reveal for later)

"I am not giving all this up just because you had a bad dream", Brendan said.

"It was not a dream. It was a vision", Adam repeated."And don't you want to return back to Medullia?" he asked.

The words brought a bitter taste to Brendan's mouth. "There is nothing for me there."

"Why do you say that?"

Brendan did not answer.

"It's because of the council, isn't it ?"

Brendan did not say anything.

"They rejected your claim again?"

Brendan shook his head. "They reached a decision", he said.

"And it's not you", Adam was genuinely surprised.

Anger burned in Brendan's eyes as he looked at Adam. "The blind bats on the council decided that I, the prince, was not fit to be the leader yet.They felt that I have not been able to prove my abilities. They...they...would rather-" Brendan stopped suddenly and breathed deeply. "You know what, it does not matter."

"I am sure we can make them see reason-"

Brendan interrupted. "I do not care anymore. The council can select whoever they want", he spat. "This is where I belong. It is my destiny." Adam wanted to make him see reason but Brendan raised his blade. "I am the salvation of the elves and this is the weapon with which I shall achieve my destiny", he declared.

  • 2
    Can you write an example of your dialogue onto your question? It will help me to better understand what the problem is (because then I can see it). Please give me multiple examples, including one where the conversation ends one topic and switches to another, one of where the characters are talking about the past, and whatever else. Let me know when you have it up. – Acid Kritana May 20 at 21:01
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    @AcidKritana There should be a little link saying "follow", next to the "share" and "edit" links. – F1Krazy May 20 at 21:12
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    This isn't helpful so much for writing the dialogue, but if you read what dialogue you have out loud to yourself, discarding tags and narrative, you will hear where things are wrong. It will help you to fix mistakes. Also, similar to what F1Krazy wrote, just imagine that you were asked the question that a character of yours was asked (or a statement, etc.). How would you feel? Would you stutter because it catches you off guard? Would you scoff? What would be your knee-jerk response? Then put that into the context of your character to make it theirs, and it should be pretty realistic. Right? – Tasch May 20 at 22:10
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    Also, people often have speech patterns or phrases unique to them that they say a lot. Slipping some of those in could make your dialogue sound more like a real person's. – Tasch May 20 at 22:11
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    @AcidKritana: I have included four excerpts from two of my chapters to help with the question. – user96551 May 21 at 9:12
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I can understand how your dialogue would come across as unnatural, because... well, it isn't. You're trying to force your characters in a particular direction.

Try to think less about what your characters need to say, in order to move the plot in the direction you want, and more about what they would actually say. Your characters' speech needs to convey more than just the storyline; it needs to convey their personalities, their viewpoints. It needs to come across that they are people, and not just puppets through whom you are telling the story.

I'm quite a visual writer: I can see scenes playing out in my head as I write them. I imagine what Character A would say or do to start things off, then how Character B would respond to that. And I go back and forth until the conversation gets to a convenient enough stopping point. Usually, the characters are able to bring up all the plot points I needed them to, while still carrying on a regular conversation.

This method may not work for you, but it's worth a try.

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    That is a good suggestion. I do visualise most of the scene playing out as I write but I guess I am trying to push them in a particular direction (to achieve my goals) rather than letting it flow by itself. – user96551 May 21 at 9:17
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    Yes, this is what I’m talking about! – Naomi May 23 at 21:42
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I'll address each of the criticisms you've received separately.

  • The segue from one topic of conversation to another is not fluid.

I'm not sure I see any problems with this in the excerpts you've posted. The main shift in conversation is in excerpt 3, which moves quickly from the orcs to the oath, but this sounds like a natural progression to me - Adam worries about the orcs, which makes Brendan tell him to loosen up, which prompts Adam to mention Brendan's hasty decisions, by which he means the oath. This happens in real conversations all the time.

  • The dialogue sounds wooden or stilted or unnatural at certain points.

This one I agree with, and would offer the following suggestions:

Use more contractions. For example "It's one of the conditions" or "That's one of the conditions" instead of "It is...". Ditto "I'm not", "There's nothing" et cetera. This is closer to how people actually speak and flows better.

Include more sentence fragments. Don't worry about the dialogue being in full sentences or grammatically correct, because that isn't how most people speak. Instead, people often use single words or phrases as stand-alone "sentences" or interjections. For example, in excerpt 4, how about

"A vision," Adam repeated. "Not a dream."

Or, later in the same excerpt,

"Council decided I wasn't fit to be a leader. Blind bats."

Use fewer dialogue tags. This isn't technically the dialogue itself - after all, the words when said in conversation are the same, regardless of how you've described them - but I think too many "he said"s and so on make the narrative as a whole stilted. For example, in excerpt 1, once you've established that the twins are speaking, you could reduce their dialogue down to something like:

“If something needs fixing-”

“-we fix it.”

“If something needs inventing-”

“-we invent it.”

In addition, adding personal quirks and favourite phrases, as suggested by Tasch in a comment, would make it easier for readers to identify the speaker without dialogue tags.

  • If I'm trying to present information (like two characters discussing history or a war in the past), then it sounds like an interrogation.

This mainly relates to excerpt 2. I can see where the "interrogation" idea is coming from, because almost everything the twins say is a question, but this doesn't bother me until maybe right near the end, where they have four questions in a row. You could try inserting a statement between two questions, or rephrasing some of them. For example, instead of saying, "Why do they...?" you could use "If I were them, I'd just...". But for me this is a minor point.

I would be more worried about whether this is an infodump. Firstly, I assume that the twins know nothing about Adam's world. It often seems unnatural to have dialogue where characters tell each other things they all already know just for the reader's benefit. Secondly, I assume that the reader knows nothing yet about Adam's world. If the reader already knows this info, there's no point spelling it out, and it would probably be better to summarise. For example,

Over the next few minutes, Adam explained the workings of the Empire to the twins.

Even if neither the twins nor the readers know this information already, it might be easier to read if Adam's explanations were broken up more, either by replies, by movement / action, by character thoughts, or by summary. For example,

The eight cities were quite distinctly visible on the map. “The cities sure are vast”, Taoi said, eyes glued to the map.

“When the cities were unveiled, they were not as vast," said Adam. "Survivors were rounded up and brought in and yet the cities were overwhelmingly empty. Over the course of time, the survivors thrived, in a way, and the cities grew, extending to accommodate the growing population."

He gestured to the map. "What you see here is not their entire extent though," he explained, telling the twins about the industrial areas outside the walls, but inside the domes. "There are large farmlands near a few cities, and mines near some.”

“That is good, right?” Taoi asked tentatively.

In addition to what I've said here, I agree with all the suggestions in F1Krazy's answer.

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    First of all thank you for taking the time to give a detailed answer, it helps a lot. The tips you mentions for the stilted dialogue are useful in particular. Would it be possible for you to give an example about " it might be easier to read if Adam's explanations were broken up more, either by replies, by movement / action, or by summary." While I understand inserting action but I am not sure how to insert action (which would essentially be fluff) in between a narrative as it would feel forced and out of place. There are only so many times I could have a character pace the room. – user96551 May 21 at 15:08
  • Done - when I tried it, it came out mostly as dialogue tags (I know, that contradicts what I said earlier... but it's a balance!) and summary, with one gesture. I've also added 'character thoughts' to the list of things that could be used. – DM_with_secrets May 21 at 15:20
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    Thanks, it helps. – user96551 May 21 at 15:51
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Warning: I'm going to go with a frame challenge.

It's not the question you asked, but it's the answer I think will help.

The problem isn't your dialog – which honestly seems good to me, it's the empty 'stage directions' and filler text between the spoken words that's draining the life from these scenes.

I'll remove the dialog, and strip the sentences of prepositional phrases:

Taoi shrugged

the other twin said.

the other twin nodded

Taoi said.

the other twin said.

Taoi said.

the other twin said.

Adam supplied.

Taoi said

the other Taoi said.

Taoi said.

The twins looked and shook their heads.

they said, heartily agreeing.

Adam observed.

Taoi lamented.

This text contributes nothing but rhythmic beats. All story elements are in the dialog. This filler text doing zero work, we learn nothing of the interior of these people. They are eyes that looked, heads that nodded, and mouths that said and said and said….

Without the dialogue, I'd bet even you, the author, would have trouble distinguishing which scene this is.

I'd give 1 point for 'lamented' because there is the barest hint of an emotion there, but I'm going to have to knock off a point for 'supplied' because obviously even you got tired of writing 'said', but then fell back to 'said' 3 more times.

Worse than 'not contributing', it's distracting

We don't even need this text because it's not doing anything to differentiate who is speaking or why, it's basically just an arbitrary name flashed at the end of each sentence – in a script the name would come before the dialog, and I'd know which person is talking before they speak. Here I am told which one spoke after the line was said, and I'm sorry but it isn't working. I've already forgotten if it was important or not so I'm not matching dialog with any particular person.

Again, I think the dialog is fine – it's the only way I'm learning anything about the scene – but this filler text is dragging everything down.

Let's look at the second example:

Taoi said, eyes glued.

[exposition]

Taoi asked tentatively.

The other twin nodded.

Adam shook his head. [exposition]

[conflict] [foreshadowing]

Taoi commented.

the other twin asked.

[exposition]

Taoi said.

Adam shrugged.

Taoi asked.

Adam said.

Taoi's brow furrowed

Adam agreed.

The same issue is present, but it isn't half as bad.

There is more emotional engagement in the dialog, and there are hints of the conflicts ahead. That helps, but what actually makes it better is that you've started skipping the filler text. It also helps that the roles of these characters feels a bit more established, and it seems you aren't as worried that we can workout who is speaking based on the context of the dialog.

I honestly have no idea which character is speaking some of the longer exposition paragraphs – I sort of imagine the book is rambling on with these factoids. Still, it's better. There is variety in the length of spoken text, and there are some beats between the characters where it feels like a natural back-and-forth.

I still get nothing of their interior. When the filler text returns it is certainly filler – and almost no new verbs are added, still mostly said and looked and nodded, but there is less of it.

The third example is perfect.

I'm completely on-board with this conversation. Caution verses hubris. I understand the conflict, and who these characters are. The (minimal) non-dialog text provides pacing and characterization.

This is not filler, this text is adding to the story.

I want to continue reading to see what happens. This dialog is great!

4th example

Brendan said.

Adam repeated. he asked.

The words brought a bitter taste to Brendan's mouth.

Brendan did not answer.

Brendan did not say anything.

Brendan shook his head. he said.

Adam was genuinely surprised.

Anger burned in Brendan's eyes as he looked at Adam.

Brendan stopped suddenly and breathed deeply.

Brendan interrupted.

he spat.

Adam wanted to make him see reason but Brendan raised his blade.

he declared.

Here there is no question which character is speaking, and the emotional context is clear. It would be even stronger after removing the few 'he said' filler.

I'd even go further and suggest some of Brendan's outburst could be omitted, replaced by him drawing a gesture on the floor with his sword and Adam imagining what is going through his friend's mind. It's a strong moment. The weakest aspect is that Brendan's speech is a bit on-the-nose, and it might say more to leave some of it unspoken – as if he's not yet sure how far he will go, and certainly that is the worry of Adam so it put's the reader in Adam's shoes. It feels bigger when we aren't sure how big it is.

I did finally learn their names, but only after I became interested in them.

No amount of 'Adam said' 'the twins looked' 'Taoi shrugged' will keep a wall of dialog straight in my head if I'm not engaged in who the people are as characters. I care a lot less about the words coming from their mouths – that sort of washes over while reading – it's the emotions and motivations behind the words that tell me who these people are.

The filler text isn't clarifying who is speaking, it's putting roadbumps in the way. Understanding who these people are, and their emotional state in the scene, is what keeps them clear.

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    Yes, so much this! I mentioned 'too many dialogue tags' in my answer but I hadn't quite pinned down exactly what the problem was. I think you've articulately it perfectly here :) – DM_with_secrets May 21 at 20:41
  • @wetcircuit: Wow...thanks, this certainly helps...seeing it like this. I am going to use this method on many of my problematic dialogues. Two questions though - 1. When you say "We don't even need this text because it's not doing anything to differentiate who is speaking" but that is the whole reason I am putting those tags. There are 3 different characters interacting in the scene. If I remove most of the directions then I fear the audience would not be able to discern. And also, the tags help show their speaking in turn..completing each other's sentences, highlighting their connection. – user96551 May 22 at 16:42
  • contd... Does it not show ? How would you suggest I can make it better ? 2. Motivation, I understand but how do I make the interactions more emotionally charged ? For e.g. if I take the first excerpt, I am not sure how I can go around doing that in it. In that excerpt, there is no motivation to the twins' behaviour, that is simply how they are. – user96551 May 22 at 16:42
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    @user96551 "If I remove most of the directions then I fear the audience would not be able to discern." Then I think that's a problem. It should be possible to tell the difference from the dialogue alone (perhaps not between the twins, but in that case does it matter whether the reader knows which is which?). It might be useful to listen carefully to the way people you know speak - with permission, you might even record conversations and transcribe them later. That way, you'll get a sense of how different people use different vocabulary, slang, sentence structure etc. – DM_with_secrets May 22 at 19:37
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This is what I think is useful for writing dialogue:

  1. Say the dialogue out loud - do people actually speak like that(Note: Although it may be more dramatic in your book than IRL, it still needs to be somewhat realistic)

  2. Don't include small talk (Greetings, and thank you's) when writing dialogue - unless they are essential to the character (e.g. the character only just learned how to thank/greet)

  3. Keep your dialogue brief - long paragraphs are boring

  4. Give each character a unique voice - special words and phrases they repeat

  5. Add world-appropriate slang

  6. Be consistent with the characters voices

  7. Remember who they’re speaking to - a rich landowner gets a different response than a poor farmer

  8. Cut out greetings - no-one needs them in literature

  9. Use different forms of dialogue.

    1)"Hello?" Bob screamed

    2)Bob screamed, "Hello?"

    3)"Hello?" Bob screamed, "Anybody there?"

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A technique I have found for this is to get my computer to read the dialogue back to me.

Hearing the dialogue out loud, rather than simply reading it, draws my attention to parts that don't sound natural.

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  • That's interesting - is that a specific program you have, or just a built-in text-to-speech function? I always assumed that anything read out by the computer would sound unnatural! – DM_with_secrets May 22 at 16:09
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    I use WPS on the iPad. It’s not perfect but it’s certainly good enough to get a feel for the flow and for punctuation type issues - certainly much better than trying to read what’s on the paper. I’m mildly dyslexic and, in general, I find I read what I think should be there rather than what is on the paper! – GarethN May 23 at 17:07
-1

In the first excerpt, I see how a conversation might be a little boring. Instead of the twins saying things such as "It is", have them say "It's". They honestly sound like drones, and you can add it occasionally, but it pulls away from the content of the dialogue itself. The word "it's" isn't plural. It means "it is", just a shortened version. (Unless if it's the way they speak; if they just speak like that, keep it. But for other characters, such as Adam, I would suggest changing it) And when Adam said, "You both are bad at naming things," I think it would honestly sound better as "You're both bad at naming things." It makes the speech quicker and has the dialogue move along more smoothly. I would also suggest reading books that have characters that have a "stupid personality" and those that are known for humor. Take notes.

On the next excerpt, change "When the cities were unveiled, they were not as vast" to "When the cities were unveiled, they weren't as vast." It moves it along better. And shorten the long excerpt (paragraph 2), or break it up. Simplify it. You're saying too many words in one part of speech. It's harder to understand what you're after, what you're explaining. (Break it up by having someone else speak or have someone do something) Change "whatever the results of the labour of the residents" to "whatever the results of the resident's labour." The speech is too long. You do make it clear, however that you have no choice in the work of the empire, and it does show how the empire depends on the people. In paragraph 10, you get to the point, and it's not boring to read. I find it to be a very interesting point.

In excerpt 3, change "But there will be more of them" to "But there'll be more of them." Again, moves it faster, and you can use it occasionally, but not as often as the shortened version. Change "You know you need to loosen up a little" to "You know, you need to loosen up a little." It breaks the sentence nicely and changes the rhythm of the sentence to seem more like a person is speaking it. Change "I would, if you would not keep making hasty decisions" to "I would, if you wouldn't keep making hasty decisions." Again, it flows better.

In excerpt 4, change "It was not a dream" to "It wasn't a dream." I like the part "There is nothing for me there." It flows nicely, and conveys some emotion, such as anger. Change this: "Brendan shook his head." You want to convey emotion. In what way is he shaking his head? In disgust? In anger? In sadness? Change ""And it's not you", Adam was genuinely surprised" to ""And it's not you." Adam was genuinely surprised." This is more of a statement of his emotion, rather than stating how he's saying it, if that makes sense. Change "You know what, it does not matter" to "You know what, it doesn't matter." Has a better flow. If you choose to keep areas like this, remember to make them only occasionally, or make sure it's the way the character speaks. "I do not care anymore" would work better as "I don't care anymore." I like "It is my destiny" because it conveys some emotion, certainty that this is what's supposed to happen, at least in the character's belief.

So, in conclusion, you have a very good story, but your dialogue does need some fixing. I've tried my best to be honest, because people can only improve when they know what the problem is. Just change up how your dialogue exists. When you have characters speak, have them speak in different ways. Have them bring more emotion to the table. Have them seem like they could really be people. Dialogue is often one of the best ways to make characters seem real. And dialogue is often a good part of a story (In very few cases it isn't), so it would make sense to give your dialogue a good portion of your time.

Well, good luck!

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