Writing riveting dialogue is as easy as walking the plank! It seems like a straight path. We all speak, we all listen to others speak, we can hear our characters speak, but if you’re not careful and if you’re not paying close attention to where you’re going, the path (plank) will end and you (and your writing) will wind up a soggy, dripping mess.
More often than not, dialogue is a must in fiction, but having your characters speak just because you like the sound of their voices isn’t a good enough reason to include huge chunks of dialogue.
As with every other word you write, your dialogue must serve a specific purpose. Dialogue must contribute to the plot, reveal character and provide necessary information to the reader. Really good dialogue offers foreshadowing and breathes breath into your characters.
Dialogue gives your characters a verbal as well as physical distinction. Each person must sound different if they are to be believable. Through their conversations, readers should be able to sort out your characters educational background, age, occupation, and where they are from.
Here are a 10 few tips I’ve picked up on how to write good dialogue.
Listen to people, to their natural speech patterns, to the music of every day speech. Then edit out the filler words, all the ums, and the ahs – as they say, all the boring bits. Real people may speak like that, but your reader doesn’t want to read their hesitations unless you as the writer are including them to paint a clearer picture of the speaker.
In order to give your dialogue a natural flow and not sound stilted use contractions, have your characters break off sentences, and have them interrupt each other.
You will never be able to hear your characters if you don’t listen. But beware. It isn’t good enough to just let them ramble while you write everything that comes out of their mouths. It can be a huge mistake to relinquish complete control and/or to indulge your characters, allowing them to rant endlessly and to go off on wild, irrelevant tangents. By copying down verbatim what they say you run the risk of becoming nothing more than a transcriber. What you must do is listen to not only what they are saying but also what they aren’t saying.
The subtext to any conversation indicates what is implied rather than what is stated explicitly. When you hear what your characters aren’t saying you’ll be able to lace your dialogue with subtext. Away from your story, you may want to have your character keep a journal. Once you’ve done this for a while you’ll see what motivates the conversations they initiate and how they respond to what others say to them. Lean, anticipated dialogue is more interesting and powerful then paint-by-number style conversations, i.e. I did this, and this, and this, because…
Beware of talking heads who are hell-bent on dropping every piece of information needed (and not needed) into the lap of the reader as they babble on and on and on. Dialogue is not to be used for information dumps. Although it does play a part in revealing information, dialogue cannot be the only way you provide pertinent facts to your reader. Let your story unfold naturally using all the tools at your disposal – back story, setting, description and action.
Break It Up
Dialogue should contribute, not dominate your story. It is extremely important that you drop your reader into a scene, allowing them to see as well as hear what is going on. To accomplish this you will have to break up long sections of dialogue with action. Move your characters around while they are speaking. Show the reader what they are doing, how they are standing, what they are touching.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to think of clever ways to say he/she said. It’s the conversation you want the reader to see, not the tags. The occasional cried, barked, whispered, are okay but start adding too many and your tags stop being part of the wallpaper and will become an annoying distraction.
What Did He Say?
Be very careful when using dialects. My advice would be, if you aren’t really good at writing a unique turn of speech or regional accent, that you avoid it. Of course, what a character says and how they say it tells us as much about him as his actions do. So by all means, give your characters a distinctive voice, but limit your vernacular to the odd word or phrase per character.
If you don’t know the correct way to punctuate dialogue, learn it. Nothing can be more frustrating than writing (and potentially good dialogue) that is incorrectly punctuated. There are several good grammar books available for writers to learn this all important skill. A quick internet search will provide you ample reference books to choose from.
Say It Out Loud
Always, always, always read your dialogue out loud. What appears brilliant to your eyes may sound phony and stilted to your ears. Only by hearing it will you be able to determine whether your words sing or are completely tone-deaf.