Writing dialogue should be easy. We all talk, don’t we? Unfortunately our challenge is that in fiction writing, the best dialogue isn’t anything like real life conversations. It’s much, much better.
From Deadline by John Sandford:
“Maybe you should have been a cop,” Virgil said.
“Nah. I couldn’t put up with the bullshit,” Clarice said.
“You’re living with Johnson Johnson, and you can’t put up with bullshit?”
“Got me there,” she said. “He is a bullshit machine. But he gets things done.”
To improve my dialogue, I’ve studied plays and TV scripts. Unfortunately, scripts don’t help. Scriptwriting isn’t fiction writing. Check out The Importance of Being Earnest — not much help there, right?
What helps, is to listen to people’s real life conversations, and then do the best you can when writing dialogue. And of course, you can study how the authors you love use dialogue.
These tips will help too.
1. See it, hear it: write your dialogue first
We’ve talked about writing in scenes. When I write scenes, I write the first sentence, and the last sentence of the scene. I also write down what effect I want from the scene.
Here’s the graphic from the How to Write Scenes in Novels and Short Stories article again; writers tell me it’s very useful.
Before I start a scene, I muse a little about the characters in the scene, and what they want. I try to visualize them. Then I write the dialogue. Nothing else, just the dialogue.
Then I go back and add dialogue tags, physical actions, the point of view (POV) character’s thoughts, and other information. I’ll edit the dialogue as needed.
Focusing on dialogue first means that you’re focusing on what matters. You’ll get your scenes written faster, and they’ll be more dramatic too.
2. Use character catchphrases, but don’t overdo it
Do all your characters sound the same? Try giving them catchphrases. You’ll find that this will make a character more real to you — and you’ll write his dialogue more easily.
If you’re not writing a humorous character, limit the number of times the character uses his catchphrase.
3. Forget the dialogue tags, they’re distracting
Avoid overusing dialogue tags: “he said” etc. In our snippet above, from Deadline, Sandford’s over-using his tags to achieve an effect. Virgil Flowers is a laconic cop; Sandford’s voice in the Flowers’ books conveys this brilliantly.
Vital tip: if you need a dialogue tag, use “said.” Please don’t grab a thesaurus to find synonyms — hissed, whispered, groaned etc.
Worse — please don’t tag an adverb onto “said”. As in “he said harshly.” If he says something harshly, make the dialogue harsh. As Stephen King pointed out:
“The adverb is not your friend.”
4. When you’re writing dialect, avoid making readers think
You write fiction to make readers feel. If you make them think, you drag them out of the fictive dream. That’s the danger when you use heavy dialects.
From Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander:
‘But it was a risk to you,’ I said, persisting. ‘I didn’t realize you’d be in danger when I asked you.’
‘Ah,’ he said noncommittally. And a moment later, with a hint of amusement, ‘Ye wouldna expect me to be less bold than a wee Sassenach lassie, now would ye?’
There’s enough dialect in Gabaldon’s novel for verisimilitude; it’s not distracting to most readers.
Writing dialogue is fun: play with it
Have fun with your dialogue. When your characters become so real to you that you can hear them speak, they’ll be real to your readers too.
Updated: January 8, 2017
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