If you write or read fiction, you know that dialogue can make or break a story. Good dialogue conveys important story points, personality traits, and relationship cues. It is interesting, crisp, and meaningful. The best dialogue is sharp or witty, and though it reflects real life, it isn’t the same thing as real-life conversation.
In fact, I think that’s where a lot of writer’s stumble — they attempt to make written dialogue mirror real-life speech. It should not. Think of all the conversations you’ve accidentally overheard: at work, in school, in a restaurant at an adjoining table. Did you want to join in? Odds are you didn’t. Know why? It wasn’t interesting. Now think of a conversation you had at a dinner party, one that was funny, or tragic, or engaging. Quite a different experience, wasn’t it?
That’s how dialogue in fiction should work. It shouldn’t mirror speech, it should mirror some of the most interesting conversations you’ve had. That doesn’t mean every word has to be a gem. It means every word should matter. If one doesn’t, take it out.
Here are some general rules for writing dialogue that might help:
- Dialogue is not your narrator: Don’t use dialogue to lay out your backstory or to reveal major character traits. Writer’s Digest refers to this as “on the nose” dialogue. I refer to it as fake and stilted. For example, “I walked to school with my sister, Donna, who is entering her senior year. It took forever.” Try to separate the character info on Donna from the conversation. Nobody talks like that. Nobody anyone listens to, anyway, which brings us to the second rule.
- Write the way people talk, just better. In other words, don’t use stilted speech. How many times have you heard an American say “Do not” in actual speech, unless they are being emphatic? Not many. We are a nation of shortcut takers, and our speech’s life’s blood is the use of contractions. Don’t overdo it, but make it read naturally. The key to keeping readers engaged is having them believe actual human characters are talking to each other. Overly formal or simplistic speech patterns should be avoided, unless you are using it to reveal personality traits. Jeff Gerke wrote an excellent article called “Stilted Dialogue.” I recommend it.
- Keep individuals’ speech patterns consistent. Don’t have your character saying, “Yonda lies the palace of my fodda, da prince,” in one chapter, and “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum,” in chapter three. Trust me, people will notice.
- Make sure everyone sounds different. Dialogue is an excellent way to reveal characters’ differences. We are impacted by our lives, and those impacts show up in our speech patterns. Try this quote: “Fascinating,” he said, his brow raised. Did you know who it was? I bet you did if you’re a Trekkie. Mr. Spock’s tag line wasn’t just for marketing, it was a character marker. I suggest this test — read dialogue after it’s written, ignoring the “she said / he saids” and see if you can tell who is talking just from the words they use. If not, perhaps you haven’t differentiated your characters, or their speech, enough. If two people say the same things, one of them is unneeded. Fix the speech, or kill one of the characters.
- Be careful with speech tags (said, asked, yelled, etc.) Nobody cares that you know 150 words that means “said.” Speech tags take readers out of the dialogue. Only use words other than the basic ones like said or asked if they are revealing VITAL information. Even then, use the simplest one you can. If you say “he interjected” I may want to smack you. Just say, “Hey!” We’ll understand he interjected it. And avoid those nasty adverbs. If your dialogue doesn’t make it obvious Taco Bob was speaking vehemently, then he wasn’t. Your telling us it was vehement adds nothing. Fix the dialogue, lose the adverb.
- If you can take out a word, sentence, or paragraph without changing the story, it’s unneeded. Take it out. Always. By the way, this should be your Rule 1 in all writing. It’s certainly Rule 1 in editing.
- If you don’t come from there, don’t try to make characters talk like they do. You’ll get it wrong and piss someone off. Avoid dialects, Spanglish, pigeon English, Ebonics, or Patois. Just don’t go there; it’s not needed. Plus, you are wrong if you think people speak the same way amongst their inner circle that they do in public. I can speak Ebonics with the best of them. You’ll probably never hear it. If you’re in a certain (male-centered) group, you’ll find out I speak fluent “Mufucka.” Again, not with strangers. If it’s absolutely important, use it in key spots, just to remind the reader Uncle Buck is still kind of a Hillbilly. Did you just bristle when you read “hillbilly?” Yeah, that’s why you don’t write in dialect. It’s no longer PC.
- Intersperse dialogue with emotion and action/gesture descriptors. Remember, the best writing uses all 5 senses. When someone is talking to their best friend, she is gesturing, she’s frowning, her voice inflection changes. Perhaps you giggle or shed a tear in response. Maybe she habitually mumbles when she’s being evasive. Or, you make a meta-gesture — looking briefly away, for instance — right before you’re about to tell a whopper of a lie. If you use these well, being careful not overwhelm the dialogue, it conveys sort of a three-dimensional exchange that draws your readers in and enhances the work.
- When in doubt, act it out. When I’ve “finished” dialogue, I read it back, aloud. I’ll allow myself to act out the words, gesturing as I read. More often than not, I’m doing this as I write. You’d be amazed at how easy stilted speech gets weeded out this way. Plus, it’s a great way to identify your descriptors (step 8).
- Don’t make your characters perfect. People don’t always make sense. Sometimes their words get jumbled. Other times, they stutter, or maybe they flat out lie. Some people make jokes when they are stressed; others have no sense of humor at all. Allow the dialogue to sometimes lead you through the scene. Just be careful to ensure the exchange still reveals important plot and/or character points. And remember, if you’re written the best dialogue in the world, but it doesn’t move the story, you’ll probably need to pull it out. This is a rookie mistake we’ve all made, so be careful.
There are probably other rules, but these 10 will get you a great start. Try them and let me know how you make out.