Well-written dialogue doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it quietly goes about its business, revealing truth and ferrying the plot toward its conclusion.
Bad dialogue, on the other hand, stands out like a man wearing a clown costume to a funeral. (Unless it’s a clown funeral. Then it’s like a man not wearing a clown costume to a funeral.)
But for all its invisibility, good dialogue does a lot of heavy lifting. Besides giving voice to your characters, dialogue frequently puts legs on that “show, don’t tell” axiom.
For a rare few writers, writing dialogue is as natural as breathing. It’s second nature to them. But for many others, writing good dialogue is one part chore, two parts challenge. For them, dialogue is an unrepentant thief of patience during the revision process.
For those who are in this latter category, I offer the following tips. As with pretty much every other bit of writing advice that exists, there are always exceptions. For example, you can use intentionally stilted or awkward dialogue to help shape a unique character. Maybe the creepy guy who’s stalking the protagonist never uses contractions. (This would certainly enhance his creepiness.) Maybe the daughter of the rich oil baron talks as if quoting lines from a bad romance novel because that’s all she ever read in her sheltered life. But even in those cases, it takes a deft writing hand to craft appropriate dialogue that fits both character and context. It’s not as simple as writing badly.
But I digress. On to the dialogue tips:
Simplify Attributions – As much as possible, just use “said” and “asked” and their variations in dialogue scenes. Or use nothing at all when the context makes it unquestionably clear who’s talking. People who bark, spit, grunt, or burp their words need to see a doctor. Or a veterinarian. Clever attributions can divert attention from the dialogue to the attribution itself. You don’t want this to happen. “Trust me,” he puked.
Don’t Be a Puppet Master – In real life, people bring assumptions and prior knowledge to a conversation. This is also true for your fictional characters. Don’t force dialogue through your characters’ throats because you need to tell the reader something. If the information wouldn’t naturally be revealed in the context of the conversation, find another way to deliver it. Your characters aren’t puppets; they’re people. Treat them as such.
Maintain Believable Pacing – Most conversations aren’t like a game of ping-pong, despite how convenient it would be to use ping-pong as a visual metaphor. Unlike ping-pong, the back and forth of conversation is uneven, sometimes dominated by one party, sometimes rapid-fire, sometimes languid. Context should always determine who’s talking and what they’re saying. There is a rhythm to good dialogue, but it’s rarely something you can set your metronome to. Don’t force characters to speak just because you’re uncomfortable with their silence. Always let the moment decide its own pacing.
Avoid Long Monologues - I know. One of your characters is a blowhard. He likes the sound of his voice and this is important to the character development or plot. Let him have his way. But don’t make a habit out of long speeches unless the story requires it. Dialogue usually requires two people. And while one may say little while the other says a lot (see pacing, above), giving characters pages of monological diatribes risks boring the reader. And in my experience, long-winded monologues are frequently evidence of a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. Rather than revealing important information contextually and through creative “show, don’t tell” opportunities, they make their characters dump it on the page for them (see puppet note above).
Kill (Most) Adverbs – Do I need to say it again? Only use adverbs when they actually add something to the dialogue. If it’s clear the character is upset and yelling, you don’t need to add that she’s yelling “loudly.” Yelling is, without further qualification, loud. That said, you might actually find use for adverbs in the dialogue itself. Real people use them in conversation (though not as much as you might think). That’s fine. Just don’t staple them willy-nilly to all your attributions.
Use Contractions – Unless you’re writing a period piece or a novel that otherwise demands the stiff-upper-lippedness of contraction-free speech, please use them without apology. They just sound more natural. This, by the way, holds true not only for dialogue, but also for the rest of your narrative. If you want to challenge this advice, that’s fine. Please have your well-thought-out reasoning notarized by at least three editors who agree with you before presenting it to me. Thanks.
Don’t Give Readers Whiplash – “A lot of newbie authors,” he began, turning to look her mascara-streaked face, “suffer from this malady.” He looked down. “They break up a single piece of dialogue,” he continued, “with so many little ‘asides’ that the reader gets whiplash.” He looked up into her eyes again. “Do you know what I mean?”
There’s a time and place for action in the middle of dialogue, and when done right, that action can greatly enhance a scene. A well-timed look or touch can speak volumes. Just don’t use action to distraction.
Use Dialects Sparingly – Some of the best novels ever written are packed with well-defined characters who speak with dialects that by their very nature reveal a certain level of education or perhaps a country (or region) of origin. Characters with unique or easily-recognizable dialects can add a great deal to a story. However, crafting believable characters with any sort of dialect is no easy task. In part, this is because the dialect you see with your eyes (on the page) has a much different “feel” than a dialect you hear with your ears. In some cases, dialect can detract rather than enhance a story. If your character’s speech is hard to understand (and this isn’t due to an intentional plot point), consider dialing back on dialect. And whenever you do use it, just be sure you’re consistent both to the way such a person would speak in real life, and from scene to scene in the story itself. Otherwise your characters will sound like Kevin Costner in…well…any movie where he attempts an accent.
What other dialogue tips do you have? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile…
“Happy writing,” he said.