Have you ever wondered what makes characters speak in an engaging way? Every novelist (and narrative nonfiction writer as well) is tasked with this mission. But what tips make writing dialogue easier?
Funny enough, this task is a deceptively difficult one. As a book editor, what I see so often is dialogue that is stilted, or, everyone sounds the same. However, those are the big ones, and utilizing more subtle skills causes great dialogue to move the story along as well.
So, let’s just discuss some big and small ones.
You know what this is, right? When you’re reading along, and everyone sounds like an English professor:
“My name is Bill. What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Theresa. Good to meet you, Bill,” she replied.
“Name’s Bill,” he said, a grin spreading over his stubbly cheeks. “Yours?”
“Theresa. I know you from somewhere?”
I.e.—get something done in the dialogue with every spoken word as well.
Everyone Sounds the Same.
Some folks do speak in very correct, precise language. But that in and of itself is a character trait, not a common occurrence.
Funny enough too, although people in different parts of the country (and the world) have similarities in their speech patterns, everybody has his own favorite words. We all use slang in a wee-bit different way.
Close your eyes in a restaurant, airport, or other busy place. Listen to the people around you talk. Hear their inflections, the specific words they use, often repetitively.
Then, at your computer, close your eyes again, get quiet, and listen to your characters speak. Write down what you hear.
But Don’t Overdo Dialect!
So often, as writers are getting the hang of this, they write every single nuance of a character’s speech pattern. Every bit of the dialect. All of the dropped g’s. Which, in a nutshell, results in a quite laborious read.
Unless you’re emulating Faulkner, you want to give a flavor of the speech, but not so much to make it tedious or confusing.
It’s like putting salt into a stew—you want to shake in just enough to bring out the other seasonings, but too much makes it briny and inedible.
Often, as a book editor, I see long passages (pages even) of straight dialogue, which in my mind always brings about those cartoon stick characters with the talking bubbles above their heads.
Not only does this become tedious as well, but often, readers lose the thread of who’s talking where. Which stops your reader. And as successful authors know, we don’t want to stop our readers for anything!
Split this up with actions and mannerisms. Show the folks involved, which kills two ducks with one shot—not only breaking up the tedium, but also reinforcing character descriptions and reactions and traits.
Avoid Using Tag Modifiers.
This seems like a basic tip for writing dialogue, but it contains something deeper as well.
If you must write, ‘she said anxiously,’ then the dialogue itself is lacking (and horrors, ‘told to’). Readers should get the anxiety from the spoken words, and the actions/mannerisms of the speaker.
This has the added benefit of, again, showing your characters, adding depth to them, bringing about nuances where you’d otherwise have to tell about them.
Every time you’ve used a tag modifier, replace it with an action or expression or mannerism.
You’d be amazed at how often I see this.
Here’s the thing: Yes, in our normal everyday lives, we often chatter away for minutes or even hours, just, well, talking. We go off on tangents, talk about how the dog peed the rug, how the mailman didn’t deliver, what we might have for supper tonight, etc., etc., etc.
But a book is different from real life. Everything—every word, sentence, paragraph, scene—counts. With such limited space, you don’t have the luxury of putting down every word spoken, or half the book would take place over lunch.
Unless your husband murdered the dog for peeing the rug, or the mailman didn’t deliver your $10,000 check, which would have paid the mortgage, or you’re planning to poison somebody with supper tonight, well, why do we need to know about those then?
Write what counts. Yes, they may have languished over supper for hours. But your reader wants to know the important parts. Write those.
But we’re supposed to be showing not telling, right?
Right. However, if we, the readers, already know something from what happened previously, we get bored if we have to listen to the character repeat it to someone else.
And bored is the kiss of death to an author, no?
So don’t repeat what we already know in dialogue. Paraphrase. Say so and so filled him in, etc.
Avoid long Lectures.
This seems to go without saying as well, no? But I see this all the time too. One character is explaining something (anything) to another, and goes on, and on, and on, and . . .
This is a soliloquy. Which may work great in a play, or in House of Cards on Netflix. But it bores a reader to tears. Even in real life, when someone talks on and on and on and won’t shut up, don’t you tune out?
Again, break this up. Show what’s going on, either around the characters, or within the interaction between them.
This is so common it’s almost a rite-of-passage authors have to go through. We have folks talking, no matter if 2 or 20, and the only thing happening between the spoken words are people looking at one another.
She looked up at him. He looked over at her.
Now, that indeed may be happening. But again, we’re trying to get something done here, and in as few words as possible.
So, if you take one writing-dialogue tip away from this, it’s this one:
Rather than using that phrase, and every time you’ve done so, replace it with showing the look/expression on the non-viewpoint character. Show him through actions/mannerisms/etc. Deepen the character that way, and show him to your reader. And rather than the viewpoint character ‘looking at her,’ once you show her expression, the reader knows he’s looking at her.
Dialogue, like all writing skills, takes some practice. But you can master it! And these tips will get you well on your way.