Dialogue can be one of the most challenging parts of writing. It is essential for both developing characters and moving the plot forward, but is often glossed over in writing classes. We learn so much about theme and plot, character and setting, and “show, not tell” that dialogue tends to fall by the wayside.
But dialogue doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be the most natural thing in the world. With these tips and a lot of practice, writing dialogue will soon become second nature.
Remember when you were a writing newbie, and learned about finding your voice? You may have had a teacher who told you to write how you speak. Now that you’ve grown as a writer and have command of your own voice, it’s time to adopt additional voices.
When speaking, each person has their own cadence and words that they prefer to use. Have you ever gotten a text message or email from a friend, and when you read it, you hear his or her voice in your head? That’s what I’m talking about. Pay attention to that. If you can pinpoint unique voices amongst the people in your life, then you can start mimicking them. Once you can mimic a voice, assign it to a character. Each character should have their own voice, just like people.
The voice distinction between characters will make your characters a little more lifelike, helping readers distinguish between them during long strings of dialogue.
Improving Upon Real Life
Just because you can steal the voice of real people does not mean you should use real conversations. Real conversations are riddled with filler words like “um” and “uh” and “er” and “like,” because sometimes it takes a moment for our brains to catch up with our mouths. None of these filler words should appear in your dialogue—at least without purpose. Occasionally, it may be all right to use these to convey indecisiveness.
But it’s not just filler words that add excess fat. Many of the conversations we have in real life are completely superfluous. We don’t learn any relevant information, and we are no closer to or further from our goals than we were before the conversation. There is no conflict. If your life were a novel, these superfluous conversations would need to be cut from the narrative. So when writing dialogue, don’t include these conversations. Every piece of dialogue should be purposeful, because books are life with the boring bits cut out.
Additionally, people jump from topic to topic in real life. In your writing, this would be jarring. Keep your dialogue cohesive; if the topic switches, make sure it does so naturally, or break it up, punctuating the different topics with narrative. Use imagery to set the scene. Describe the thought process that lead to the topic change. Take the reader by the hand and lead them through the conversational arc.
Dialogue can tell us a lot about a character; it can reveal motivation and attitude in a way that a straight narrative does not. It also reveals a lot about the relationships between characters. The formality and warmth can reveal if they are co-workers or friends, employer and employee, parent and child, strangers or lovers, acquaintances or rivals. It can pinpoint the outsider in the group, identify the leader, and, if in first person, demonstrate how the narrator feels about all of them.
If a character who is normally very warm and friendly is cold and short with someone, that is significant. It shows that your character is not pleased with the other. Use this tool deliberately–and don’t abandon your characters’ unique voices in attempt to portray their mood.
Balance Your Dialogue Tags
Not every line of dialogue needs attribution. If you’ve created unique voices for your characters, after a time, your audience will come to recognize them. Plus, too many dialogue tags detract from what they’re saying.
However, too few tags may get confusing. If you have a long string of dialogue, your reader is bound to get lost eventually. We’ve all been there, in the middle of reading a page-long block of dialogue that stopped using tags after the first two lines, and can no longer remember which character is talking. When that happens, you have to go back to the beginning of the dialogue block, and carefully go back through it to set your head straight.
Additionally, if you have more than two participants in the conversation, there is no obvious order in which they will speak—tags become all the more essential at this point.
A good rule of thumb is to ask a friend. Have them read the dialogue, maybe without even knowing the characters and their voices. See if they can keep up and if they think the tags are bogging down the text. When speaking to your readers, it’s always important to be clear without being patronizing.
Have any other tips on writing dialogue? Let us know below!