When writing fiction you need to know exactly how much reality to inject into your story for your audience to achieve that moment of lift-off into the realm of suspended disbelief. One of the fastest ways to kill that mood happens the moment your characters open their mouths.
Dialogue is a strange beast. On the one hand, we need to follow the rules of grammar, but on the other, not everyone speaks perfect English on a daily basis. Come to think of it, I don’t know of anyone, except for maybe the Queen Mother, who speaks perfect English.
Writing good dialogue takes practice. Good dialogue also means listening closely to how people really talk to one another. Authors writing a novel for the first time often make many mistakes when it comes to dialogue. Many Indie novels published by first time authors create dialogue that is either too perfect, too long, too flowery, or totally unreadable.
One day they’ll look back at their first attempts and wish they had had these tips back then.
- Leave the flowers in the garden. Not every character needs to sound like a 19th Century English aristocrat. If you have one, then by all means, let them speak. But if your character is from the streets of Detroit and hasn’t had a lick of education his whole life, he’s not going to speak in the same way as Lord Fontleroy Mufflelump of Salisbury.
- You don’t have to be “GC” all the time. Grammatical Correctness is not a requirement when writing dialogue. Everyday people use contractions, slang, words like “ain’t” and “‘nother”. We’re lazy buggers when it comes to our own language and if we want our characters to be believable, chances are they’re just as lazy.
- Keep moving forward. Think about this: Your story is a specific piece of time plucked from your character’s life. You didn’t include all the mundane events unnecessary to the telling. You didn’t start each new day with the cumbersome details of taking showers, brushing teeth, picking out clothes, making and eating breakfast…or at least I hope you didn’t, unless it was pertinent to the story. And that’s the key…is it relevant? Your dialogue is no different. Think about how much actual conversation we as humans participate in on any given day. Most of it is filler, words to fill empty silences or for small talk. Unless you’re trying to create a specific mood between two or more people in your story, you can skip the small talk. Dialogue is meant to push the story forward. Each conversation your characters have has to have a reason for happening. Just like you wouldn’t throw in a character without a purpose, don’t include useless dialogue.
- “La-la-la-la…I’m not listening!” Ever hear an exceptionally annoying person speak? Maybe it’s a teen who overuses “like” too much, or someone who constantly ends each sentence with, “Know what I’m sayin’?” These may be considered normal speech patterns, but they can be as annoying to read as they are to hear in real life. Watch the use of these idiosyncrasies, or the over-use of slang or written out accents. All of them have the ability to kill a reader’s enjoyment.
- Cue the “Move along” music now. You know how during award events the directors often cue some music to get the award winner to wrap up their thank yous? Some writers need that cue in their dialogue. Unless the character is making a needed monologue, the character shouldn’t go on for more than a couple of sentences. Nobody in real life speaks in massive chunks. We break it up with breaths, gestures, and various facial expressions. We laugh, we cry, we shake our fists or pat a shoulder. There’s reaction and emotion happening for both people. Some people constantly interrupt, others merely nod and say nothing.
- He said, she said. Dialogue tags. Do you really need them? Not always. If you give a distinctive voice to each of your characters, your reader is able to recognize who’s talking by the speech pattern alone. You don’t have to use “said” on the end of every piece of dialogue. You don’t have to use a ton of synonyms for it either. Use tags sparingly.
- Is that your grocery list or are you describing your character? Another purpose for dialogue is to reveal aspects of character. Don’t clutter up your dialogue with lists of words describing your character’s appearance or never ending internal dialogue. Show us, don’t tell us. Think about what actions your character could use to enhance a simple exchange instead of you, the writer, trying to explain it.
Knowing how to write good dialogue is only one topic many new authors may wish they had known before they started writing. What are some other things you wish you had known before you published that first book? Do you have any major “face-palm” moments you’d like to share?