Writing dialogue isn’t as easy. Our characters can’t speak the same way we talk…else there, um, would be–well, I guess, it’d just be hard to kinda like, you know, follow. Character conversations are direct and to the point. They convey emotions, motivations, and subtext. Plus, story dialogue moves the plot along, without sounding like it’s moving the plot along. Dialog has a pretty big job to do.
Here are a few rules I follow:
- Get to the point. Small talk and chit chat has no place in a book. It’s boring. Everything your characters say should reveal emotion, develop personalty, or move the story forward. Great dialog allows your reader to glean information and learn more about a character or situation without being spoon fed details by the author.
- Add character view points. Dialog should always reflect the goals, needs, and motivations of the character speaking. This doesn’t necessarily mean accents and dialects. View Points reveal a character’s urgency, incentives, interests, fears, and so on. Not only does this make dialogue engaging, but makes the character interesting.
- Use unique speech patterns. You don’t want all your characters to sound alike. Use dialog to develop the characters. One character may use large words and long, complex sentences. Another may be succinct and say everything he needs to say with a single word. Have you ever met someone who answers every question with a question? How about someone who is always frustratingly positive or un-apologetically negative? How would a naive character talk? Or a cynic? Be creative,
- Show hidden character traits. As the author, what do you know about the character that the character doesn’t know about herself yet? Delve into the character’s psyche and add some subtext to the conversation. Dialog can reveal hidden desires, ambitions, or needs.
- Create tension. Whether it’s dramatic, stressful, or sexual, well-written dialogue will enhance the tension. Family and relationship dynamics are revealed in how your characters speak to each other. Also, your characters will speak differently in various situations. If running for her life, a heroine will speak in short, broken sentences. But if flirting with a potential lover, she may sound coy and playful.
- Avoid monologues. A person generally speaks three to four sentences, before the next person interrupts — or at least acknowledges that that he’s listening. In written dialog, spoken text needs to follow a rhythm, a back and forth between multiple characters. If one character is giving a speech, the spoken text needs be broken-up with action. Give the speaker something to do with his hands or feet, something to see that’s a little distracting, or provide some type of reaction to what is being said. Long-winded dialog is as boring to read as it is to hear.
- Never data dump. “You know our estranged, younger brother Eddie whom we haven’t spoken to in over six years last November?” said no one ever. Real people don’t talk that way, and your characters shouldn’t either. Don’t use dialog to blatantly explain or deliver information the reader needs to know. Details should be revealed naturally. Exposition (aka a data dump) is never good, whether its in prose or dialog.
- Don’t name drop. People rarely address the person they’re speaking to by name during the course of a natural conversation. I can talk with Betty Sue for fifteen minutes without ever saying, “Betty Sue.” Your characters can too. Name dropping is author intrusion because the author is worried the reader won’t know who is speaking or who is being spoken to. It disrupts the natural flow and rhythm of the conversation. Plus, when used sparingly, a name drop can add impact to the dialog. “Betty Sue, your father just died.”
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