Dialogue is a hugely important part of writing fiction. It can move the action forward, reveal character, emotions and motivations, and can help show a reader a character’s back story. Good dialogue will draw your reader into the story. The good news? It’s not that difficult to achieve.
Writing excellent, realistic and informative dialogue begins with listening. Pay attention to how people actually speak to each other. Listen out for elements such as turn taking, pauses, figures of speech, contractions etc. This last one is really important. If you listen to people you will notice that hardly anyone says ‘would have’ or ‘did not’, for example. What they will say is ‘would’ve’ and ‘didn’t’. Make sure you use these contractions in your dialogue. Nothing sounds quite as unrealistic as someone saying:
‘I did not go for a walk. I could have but it was raining.’
What they will say is:
‘I didn’t go for a walk. I could’ve done, but it was raining.’
(OK, so that’s not exactly the most enthralling thing I’ve ever written, but you get the point.)
Whenever you write dialogue read it out loud. If you can, get someone to read it with you. It’s not until you actually hear the words spoken, that you can tell how natural it is, if it flows, if it works. Incidentally, I tend to read all of my own writing out loud. This really helps to pick out errors, repetitions and sentence structure issues (I do often get funny looks from the dogs).
Leave out the boring bits
While dialogue needs to be realistic, it can’t be exactly the same as real speech. If you listen to an actual conversation, you will notice lots of pauses, lots of sounds that aren’t actual words (ums and errs etc.) and lots of ‘fillers’ that are completely irrelevant. Your dialogue has a purpose, and while it should be ‘real’ it should also achieve something. Get rid of anything that doesn’t add to the story.
Beware dialogue tags
In a previous life I worked in a school. I spent a lot of time teaching children to avoid using the word’ ‘said’ in their writing. In fact, I have spent whole sessions putting together lists of alternative dialogue tags. Now I spend a lot of time editing these same tags out of manuscripts. The problem is that exciting, exotic dialogue tags only draw your reader’s attention away from what is actually being said. They detract from the story. And, if your writing is peppered with words like ‘exclaimed’, ‘bellowed’, ‘croaked’ etc., it looks like you’re trying too hard to come up with something different each time. Which you probably are. Stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ for the most part. Your reader shouldn’t have to be ‘told’ how your character is speaking, they should gather that from the words, the actions, the situation etc.
Break it up
While dialogue is exciting and adds variety, you don’t want line after line of dialogue. Break it up with some action. Actions can also work in place of dreaded dialogue tags. For example:
‘Did Ted drop off the package?’ asked Linda.
‘I don’t know,’ said Sophie.
‘For goodness sake,’ Linda sighed. ‘I asked you to remind him.’
can be transformed into:
Linda burst into the office.
‘Did Ted drop off the package?’
‘I don’t know.’ Sophie glanced up from the screen, her lips pursed.
Linda flung her bag onto the desk.
‘For goodness sake! I asked you to remind him.’
It’s completely clear here who is talking. Also, there is a sense of where the action is taking place, an idea of what the characters are doing and how they’re feeling.
Be very careful to ensure that readers do not feel that dialogue is being used simply to let them (the reader) know certain facts. Let the reader ascertain things from what your character is saying. Trust your reader – don’t force feed them details.
Anyone who is serious about writing needs to read. A lot. And reading someone else’s work can help a great deal when it comes to writing dialogue. When you come across dialogue that works really well, work out how the writer did that. And when dialogue doesn’t work, again, work out what went wrong. You’ll then know what to do and what not to do when it comes to your own work.
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