Dialogue isn’t just an interchange of quotes between characters. It is a way to bring the characters in your story to life, a way to show their relationships to other characters, and a way to convey information in a more engaging manner. It is usually the most fun part of the story to read as well as write. As a fiction writer, being great at writing dialogue can set you apart from your peers. The following are my thoughts on how best to use dialogue and some thoughts on how you might improve yours, if you find you are struggling with it.
One of the most important things to use dialogue for his characterization. It is one of the strongest ways to distinguish characters on the page outside of using their names. Writing isn’t a visual format, so while you do describe your characters, you are probably not going to constantly describe what they look like to your readers. It’s more likely that your readers will become attached to your characters through their personalities, and that is largely portrayed through their dialogue and interaction.
Of course the exact words you choose to let your characters say will be important, but there are a lot of ways outside of that to flavor your dialogue and make sure each character (or at least each significant one) is unique.
Slang can be a great way to enhance characters’ dialogue. Certain words can illustrate that a character comes from a specific region, for example West coasters will often use the word “hella”, but that phrase is very rarely heard on the East Coast. Having a character use that word either makes the story feel authentic, if it takes place on the West Coast, or perhaps establishes that this person is from the West Coast, if it takes place somewhere else.
You can listen to what slang your friends and family use and pick up some of that. You can also study different slang terms are dialects from different regions if it helps you flesh out your character. Sometimes specific things are even referred to in different ways. The beverage known as soda on the East Coast is called pop in different parts of the United States, and little details like that can really add to the story.
People also often have catch phrases or terms that they use repeatedly, and assigning those to specific characters can really provide them with a strong sense of individuality. You don’t have to use a crazy term like “Bazinga” either. I had a friend who would often say “I like this game” in reference to any activity that she was doing well at, usually not a game.
Also be aware of the similes, metaphors, or references that a character might use. Someone who’s really into gaming culture might make references to video games, while someone who’s really into music might describe a situation using musical similes or metaphors. Flavoring your dialogue with these kinds of references can really help bring your characters to life.
Finally, how a person speaks is also important. Does your character speak in short clipped sentences? Or does she like to ramble about things? Be consistent in the way that your characters express themselves, and if you change anything make sure it’s for a reason. Maybe your character who likes to ramble talks a lot less when she’s nervous, so you can shorten her dialogue in any type of tense situation. This is a good way to show your audience what a character is feeling without directly telling them.
Any scene you write in a novel or story should advance the plot or narrative of the tale. Dialogue is the same. If you’re showing a conversation between characters it should have something to do with the plot or one of your subplots. It’s okay to flavor any conversation with lines or exchanges that are purely for characterization, but you don’t want to have whole sections of dialogue that have nothing to do with the larger story. It might feel more “realistic” to have your characters talking about random things, but it will definitely bore the reader if this happens too much.
Remember that dialogue is supposed to be an exchange of ideas, and so we should be learning things about the characters, plot, and setting through it by watching your characters interact. Show us who your characters are and let them move the story along, don’t just subject us to witty banter for the sake of witty banter.
Mechanical Tips and Techniques
Elmore Leonard said that in one of his rules of writing that you should never use a word other than “said” in dialogue. I’ve chosen personally to follow this piece of advice in my own writing. I don’t think it’s important to be that strict about it, however. I think words like replied, commented, whispered, or shouted, can be useful dialogue tags. But the important thing to remember is that you don’t want to use overly exotic words to replace the word “said”. Your readers are going to skim over it, so even if it’s boring for you to write, you really don’t have to change it up. It’s actually more likely that they will be jolted out of the narrative if you use strange words to replace “said” for no reason.
Also, arguably more importantly, don’t tack on adverbs after your “saids”. This isn’t a matter of style; it’s just bad writing.
I think there’s a lot of debate on how or when you should use accents in writing, but my feeling is try to give a flavor of the accent if your character has one but don’t go overboard and make it very difficult for the reader to engage with your writing. If the reader has to puzzle through the words too much, he or she will likely get bored or frustrated.
Finally, don’t get too caught up in trying to make your dialogue hyperrealistic. I’ve heard people complain about how on TV shows no one says hello or goodbye when they speak on the phone. In real life that would likely be considered rude, but in television this is simply done to keep the flow of the story moving. Can you imagine if every time someone called the exchange began with hello and ended with goodbye? It would get very boring very fast. So make sure you stick to highlighting the important parts of any conversation, and don’t feel like you need to add in a lot of pleasantries just because that’s the way people talk. Keeping the flow of the story going is ultimately the most important thing.
An Improvement Technique
I don’t personally have too many exercises on improving dialogue to share, but there’s one that I think can be very effective. If you find that you’re having trouble giving your characters unique voices, or you think that your dialogue isn’t very good, I would recommend writing out your dialogue alone without saying which characters speaking.
You can then read over what you wrote, or better yet get a friend to look at what you wrote, and see if you can distinguish between the characters. Without being told who’s speaking, is it possible to figure it out? Are the voice is unique enough that they stand on their own? If so, then you’re doing something right.
So those are my thoughts on dialogue. Are there any tips or tricks you have that I didn’t mention? Are there any areas you feel I didn’t touch on? Post in the comments and let me know. Thanks for reading, and I hope this was helpful.