One of the most important ways that you can convey information, build conflict and develop characters is through purposeful dialogue. Out of all the various skills involved in storytelling—many of which may feel purely instinctive—dialogue is likely the one that requires the most practice and earnest study. It seems pretty logical that young writers (especially those who may have committed their first story to the page when they were still teenagers) are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to writing effective dialogue: for starters, their exposure to conversations is limited, and they’re still trying to understand communication practices themselves. Perhaps this is why many writers don’t become comfortable with dialogue until they have gained some experience, both in writing and in life.
As you begin to take a closer look at whether your dialogue is meeting its full potential or not, here are a few helpful guidelines:
-Focus on dialogue that is natural, not “realistic”: One of the mistakes many writers make is paying undue attention to how “realistic” their dialogue is, or, more specifically, how closely it resembles the way that people speak in real life. The issue with this is that, in real life, people have a lot of vocal habits that would impede storytelling. In other words, if my life was a novel, there would be a lot of pages a reader would skip over because me asking my coworkers about how their night was or if they’d read the latest email traffic is not conducive to a riveting story. In normal everyday speech, people repeat themselves, drift off into non sequiturs, issue the polite exchanges that are socially expected of them, and use several gap-words (words that “bridge the gap” while they’re thinking such as “like,” “um,” or, in my case, “fucking”) that would unnecessarily pad a word count.
The general rule of thumb is this: instead of obsessing about your dialogue being as true to life as possible, instead focus on your dialogue being accessible and natural. After you write an exchange, read it out loud. Does it sound stilted? If so, you may want to reduce formal words and the use of names in every line (people saying the name of who they’re talking to in every line sounds less like people talking, and more like aliens putting on a play about people talking). Is it loaded with ellipses, stutters, repeated words and dashes to denote a pause? If so, you likely had a difficult time reading it out loud, and you may want to simplify the use of punctuation: your job is not to provide stage direction for any would-be actors reading these lines, it’s to keep the story going.
-Formatting and grammatical considerations: The key here is consistency. If you decide to use quotation marks to demarcate lines of dialogue, use them throughout. If you choose not to use quotation marks (a risky move for less-seasoned writers or anyone trying to appeal to mainstream audiences), stick to that rule throughout. That isn’t to say that you can’t summarize some lines for the sake of expediency or to portray a narrator’s mental state, but even that you would want to do sparingly, and utilize some tool to show that this is dialogue, such as italicizing the lines or still using “she/he said” at the end of the line. Also, be sure to use quotation marks correctly, with all punctuation closing the line of dialogue within the quotation marks.
Furthermore, when it comes to dialogue tags, there are three general rules of thumb to abide by: one, avoid using the thesaurus to come up with new ways to say “said.” This word is preferred because the reader skims right by it, maintaining the rhythm of the dialogue while still providing them the information they need, which is who is doing the talking. Secondly, you can switch up the placement of your dialogue tags to present variety in sentence structure: you can begin with the dialogue tag, end with it, or break up a line of dialogue by placing the dialogue tag in the middle. As long as you practice appropriate grammar in these instances, they offer an easy way to keep your reader’s eye engaged. Lastly, you don’t need to use dialogue tags after every line; this would, in fact, get tedious fast. Instead, if the conversation is between two people, throw tags in every few lines so that the reader doesn’t get confused about who is talking. If the conversation is between more than two people, you may want to use tags more frequently.
-Avoiding expository dialogue: Or, at the very least, disguise it. It’s pretty inevitable that, at some point, you will have some instances of expository dialogue; an easy way to have one character learn about the world your story is set in or the conflict they are engaged in is to have another character tell them about it. In many ways, this is preferable to blocks of exposition given by the narrator: expository dialogue at least gives the reader information about who knows what, and how the speaker may feel about the information they’re giving.
One way to use expository dialogue without it coming across as glaringly unnatural is to never have only one character deliver it, and to space it out amongst several scenes. Whenever you have a character whose sole purpose is to give expository dialogue (often an old sage, professor or even a best friend) it strips the character of the ability to have anything else to talk about. Also, as with non-dialogue exposition, the aim is to not overload the reader all at once, as this slows down the pacing and the development of the primary conflict of the story.
-Depicting voice without overdoing dialect: I have personally always had an aversion to overuse of dialect in writing. I can get behind common slang usage—such as “gonna,” “ain’t” and “y’all,” for example—but when every word in a line of dialogue is misspelled for the sake of dogged dedication to a character’s specific accent, I will very quickly close a book and never pick it back up again. In my opinion, if dialect is conveyed heavily enough that it slows the reader from comprehending what is being said or from getting past the dialogue, then it is wasting the reader’s precious time. If you want to let the reader know that a character has an accent, this might be one of the occasions where “telling” works better than “showing.”
You generally don’t want to sacrifice plot progression or pacing for realism.
With that being said, it is of vital importance that you depict each speaker’s voice and differentiate them from one another; by the second act of the book, a reader should be able to tell who is speaking without requiring dialogue tags: each speaker’s unique speech patterns, rhythms and lingo should clue the reader in. If this is not the case, and each speaker sounds pretty much like every other speaker in your book, you may want to go back and tailor each voice by asking yourself a simple question: given what I know of the character (where they’re from, what their personality is like and what they think about all of the other characters), how would they talk if they were pissed off? How would they talk to the love of their life? How would they talk if they were afraid?
-Don’t be afraid to show humor (and avoid melodrama): In life, as in literature, one thing that gives perhaps the clearest window into who someone is as a human being is their sense of humor. What kind of things do your characters find funny? How would they joke in a time of great tension and stress? How would they joke when that tension is resolved and they can relax? Humor is also a way that people can hide their emotions; would your character joke when they’re uncomfortable with a situation, or would they laugh it off when they’re depressed? You can use humor to depict a character’s mental and emotional state via subtext, and using this subtext allows you an escape from one of the many alternatives, which would be to move towards melodrama or being too on-the-nose in your dialogue. In other words, humor prevents you from having a character tell another character or the reader how they really feel all the time, which is unrealistic human behavior, treats the reader like an idiot, and dissolves tension.
-Developing an ear for speech patterns, rhythms and sharp dialogue: As an introvert, I learned a lot about speech patterns and the unique ways that people speak simply by eavesdropping on conversations. Given that I’ve only ever been comfortable with one-on-one conversation and seldom felt the desire to volunteer any tête-à-tête myself in a group setting, I was always content to listen to others. This, in and of itself, is not sufficient though, as it can only teach me the realistic way that people talk to one another and not the sharper and more stylized dialogue that works better for storytelling. I supplemented these unofficial studies with a boat load of books and movies—as good as dialogue can be in a novel, I would be hard-pressed to find any dialogue-scribe on par with the likes of Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino or Raymond Chandler. Long story short, the best advice for developing a sense for dialogue that works and dialogue that doesn’t is to expose yourself and listen carefully to the world around you—both the real world, and the world of fiction.
-Dialogue that either advances the plot or develops a character: This is, perhaps, the most important guideline for writing effective dialogue: make sure every line either advances the plot or develops a character. True, this bit of advice could go for every word in a novel, dialogue or not. The bottom line is that you don’t want to waste your reader’s time with your characters exchanging pleasantries (the “Good morning, how was your night?”, “Oh it was great, I had a really nice dinner” exchanges that we spend a good chunk of our real lives participating in) unless that exchange of pleasantries carries a meaningful subtext that says something about the character dynamics. When re-reading the dialogue you have written, ask yourself frequently and answer honestly: does this line serve a purpose? Sure, I might like it, it might sound pretty or give me a chuckle, but what does it do to advance the plot or show who the speaker is? Is this line redundant? Have I already conveyed the same information elsewhere? Can this dialogue be condensed, as in could I convey the same sentiment in one word as I just did in thirty words? If your honest assessment to any of these questions is affirmative, you may want to cut or at least edit the line.
On the point of condensing, I would like to close with an example provided in Richard Walters Essentials of Screenwriting. “Ideally, dialogue must in a single stroke accomplish two goals: expand characters and advance plot. In Escape from Alcatraz (Richard Tuggle, adapting the J. Campbell Bruce book), a prison psychologist inquires of the protagonist, portrayed by Clint Eastwood, ‘What was your childhood like?’ Eastwood’s reply: ‘Short.’ ”