I was at a writing group the other day and someone asked about how to write good dialogue. I sat there for a moment thinking, then I realized I had a helluva lot to say on the subject.
I used to be afraid of dialogue (see my post about it HERE) but now I love it and I find the more I write it and critique it in other people’s stories, the more I’m learning how to rock it.
So here are my tips so far on how to love your dialogue (and hopefully have other people love it too):
Stop Cramming Backstory
Stop cramming backstory into your dialogue now. Stop it. Nobody wants to hear your characters tell their whole life story in conversation because it feels forced and completely unnatural. There are very few situations in life where I have ever had to sit down and tell a person my whole life story. In relationships and friendships it comes in bits, over time. As far as you should go is a vague mention of something here or there that can be filled in as the story progresses. No one likes* info dumps and long boring histories, especially in dialogue.
*Okay so maybe some people might like it, but I would think those people are few and far between.
Don’t think of dialogue as story
Dialogue is character, not story. This basically means that if you are trying to progress the story too much within dialogue than you are probably doing your characters a disservice*. So just take some time to make sure that your action isn’t entirely being pushed through in conversation, because it can come across as stilted and it can even dilute certain opportunities to use dialogue for character building.
*The exception here would be a story that is made entirely of dialogue.
Talk around meaning
This one was brought up by an awesome lady in my group. She said that people don’t often say what they really mean, so generally you should avoid flat out honesty. I totally agree. People use all sorts of psychological tricks to get around getting to the point. You can use this to your benefit in conversations. Beat around the bush a little (if it’s in your characters character), play with double meanings and metaphor and allow your characters to be reluctant to say what they mean. It’s only human after all.
I’m sure some people wouldn’t agree, but I say give them a try. If they suck, you can easily change them, but there’s no harm in experimenting!
Keep it short
People don’t usually talking in long, sprawling sentences. They are generally short and quick and use sounds and abbreviations and contractions. Think really hard before allowing your character to say ‘It is’ instead of ‘It’s’. Always take the shortest route possible and minimize the word count*. The shorter it is, the faster the read and the more it will feel like real conversation.
*Unless of course your character is a long winded kinda person.
Dialogue tags are distracting
He said, she said, he shouted, she laughed. We get it. Do your best to minimize. Your characters voices should be unique enough and the context should be concrete enough that we know who’s talking without dialogue tags. If you need them, try to tie them in with actions as well, so if we have to be distracted, it’s for a good reason.
Get your lingo right
Don’t be the person who has teenagers saying ‘radical’. No one says that anymore unless they’re being sarcastic. If you have to, go stalk some teenagers and listen to them. Listen to the way people talk, the words they choose and even if you can’t find anyone to listen to, just think about it hard. I’m sure you’ve talked to a million people in your lifetime and you can pull up some memories of how they speak. Be careful with teenagers though, they seem to be the hardest.
Get in the flow
Read out loud. Feel the flow. Match the flow to the tone of the conversation and the quality of the relationship. Try to imagine what’s happening in each characters mind. I wrote a scene the other day where a character was on the verge of tears. I remembered what it feels like to be almost crying, so I wrote her dialogue with single word responses. I know when I’m about to bawl any single word could send me over the edge and so I get down to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘okay’. Doing this added to the scene because it gave it an undercurrent of being on the edge of a breakdown. Remember that the flow of a conversation and patterns of dialogue change for any given situation. Match that and you’ll be laughing.
Those are my tips, I’ll update if I think of more.
Feel free to comment and add your own. Tell me about dialogue challenges and successes you’ve had. Tell me how you’ve learned to love your dialogue.