Writing Voice: 7 Practical Exercises to Improve Dialogue
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Dialogue is one of the hardest, most important, most rewarding aspects of long-form writing. Whereas many editors of short fiction markets seem to view dialogue as the mark of lesser authors, the novel-reading audience does expect characters to talk to each other once in a while.
Many writers voice concerns over their dialogue: Is my dialogue realistic? Does it feel true to the characters and the situation? And if it is realistic, then is it also compelling? Will it draw the reader in, leave them hanging on each sentence? How about voice - do my characters sound right, and are their speech patterns and personalities consistent across the story?
It's not unreasonable to worry about this - while other aspects of writing such as setting and character can be broken down into sets of rules, dialogue is a much more personal thing that defies formula. There really isn't a set of clear-cut rules for dialogue, any more than there is a set of guidelines for conversation in real life. There are, perhaps, things you should avoid, but beyond that you're flying solo.
Not that people don't try to make dialogue rules, of course. Even I've tried:
In most cases, these guidelines are going to fall short. The only way to truly master dialogue is through practice. So we're going to practice, but we're going to practice with some of your own characters.
Below, I have some prompts. You will slot in one of your own characters (generically titled "Character" in the prompts) and then work out what this person would say. After that, try another character, and then another. Put them in prompts in pairs or groups if you'd like, or have one intervene to complicate things. There are plenty of ways to mix this up.
However, as you do this, focus on the specifics of how they speak and how emotion might impact that. Might these characters talk faster, louder or longer when under pressure? How does word choice change when one of them is angry or scared? And how are these aspects affected by their backgrounds? Once you've reached a place where you instinctively know what a character will say in any given situation, then you're ready to write some amazing dialogue.
7 Prompts for Writing Voice
These situations are intentionally left generic and a little vague so that they can be used in a wide range of genres and settings. Adjust them as needed to make them work for you. It's not strictly necessary to write these scenes out, and some of you might find it more useful to recite them aloud if you want to get a feel for things like tone and cadence. On the other hand, writing them out can give you a model for future reference. It's up to you.
Character has gone to a shop to make some purchases. As the shopkeeper is adding up the prices, Character discovers that s/he has mislaid his/her money (or other means of payment) and can't complete the transaction. The shopkeeper, incensed, calls Character a thief and threatens to summon the authorities.
Character has just encountered an old friend that s/he has not seen in a long time. This friend confides in Character that he is critically ill and will likely die soon, but he hasn't told anyone else and wants to keep it quiet for the time being. Subsequently, Character meets a group of the friend's relatives, who are concerned and ask if Character knows anything.
Character has just learned that s/he is the target of a plot. Details are sketchy, but it appears as if one of Character's acquaintances may be one of the conspirators, but that isn't proven yet. As it happens, Character had a preplanned social meeting with this acquaintance and will see him in person soon. This person does not yet know that Character suspects him of intrigue.
Character is out in public when s/he is accosted by a stranger who begins lobbing serious accusations at him/her and screaming about revenge. These accusations are totally unfounded, but before character can do anything, the stranger reveals that she is carrying a weapon and suggests that she is prepared to kill if Character doesn't respond to her claims.
An extremely intoxicated man approaches Character, embraces him/her, and insists that they are friends. The man is friendly enough, and certainly not threatening in any way. However, he is extremely annoying and it's obvious that he intends to follow Character around until he sobers up or someone forces him to leave.
Character has a chance meeting with a man who seems very familiar. At length, s/he remembers: This man is a grifter who swindled him/her out of a fairly large sum of money not so long ago. The grifter obviously doesn't recognize Character and has no reason to assume that anyone here knows of his scams.
Character discovers a parcel containing something that is both extremely valuable and clearly illegal (e.g. an illicit good, a famous stolen object). Before s/he can do anything, Character is approached by an official who takes possession of the parcel and proceeds to ask a series of probing questions. The official is openly suspicious of Character and obviously does not believe that this was a coincidence.