One of the things I often find myself changing when I’m editing people’s fiction is dialogue.
Dialogue is one of the cornerstones of fiction writing: it gives your characters a chance to show off who they are, and–just as in real life–serves as a way for them to learn about each other and work to resolve their differences.
Good dialogue can really make characters come alive. Wooden, unrealistic dialogue, though, can throw a reader out of your story very quickly indeed.
To misquote Mark Twain, the difference between the good dialogue and wooden dialogue is really a large matter—’tis the difference between “Reach for the sky!” and “Hello, Miss. Yes, I am here to rob the bank. I am holding on to a gun in my hand here. Can you please give me all of the money that you have in the sack behind the counter there now so I can take it. If you do not want to give me the sack I will have to shoot you with my gun instead and I do not want to do that if I do not have to and I am sure you do not want me to shoot you either so just give me the money now and I will go.”
Here are three simple, concrete things you can start doing right now to improve your written conversations.
Although it varies a bit depending on your locale, most varieties of spoken English use contractions.
In stories, however, I often see writers who would say “I’m going to the store. Want anything?” in real life make their characters say:
“I am going to the store. Is there anything that you would like me to get for you?”
This turns what would be an otherwise unmemorable line into something that sticks out–in the worst possible way.
While the occasional “I am” or “you are” can serve to make a character’s point, most people use contractions when they speak. (And, as Mark Liberman of Language Log points out, they’ve done so for quite a long time where informal speech is concerned.)
To return to our shopping character:
“I’m going to the store. Is there anything that you’d like me to get for you?”
With this one small change, the dialogue already sounds more realistic.
Make every word matter
Brevity, as Shakespeare tells us, is the soul of wit. My bank robber example above shows that it’s also important to dialogue.
Every sentence–and ideally every word–in your fiction should serve some kind of purpose, whether it’s furthering the plot, advancing the action, deepening characterization, or any of the other things that help draw readers in.
Dialogue is no different. Indeed, since it’s how your characters express themselves most directly, every word carries even more weight.
In the end, it comes down to whether you want your characters to come across as interminable blowhards, or smart and snappy. There’s a place for both kinds of speech–but by and large, shorter is better.
This goes double for sections where your characters are saying something that’s crucial to resolving the plot or their conflict with another character. A reader will feel the impact of a terse “I just–I love you, okay?” much more than a long, rambling discourse on the nature of romantic attraction, complete with detours through every kiss your hero has ever shared with his lover.
Break up dialogue with action
Outside the technical aspects of dialogue itself, it’s important to consider what else is going on during your story.
Your protagonists are rarely likely to be in a situation where they can talk for hours, so it’s important to fit what they’re saying in with what’s happening around them.
Dialogue tags are one easy way to intersperse action and dialogue. Working in short, sentence-long paragraphs in between bits of speech can also do the trick:
“I’m going to the store,” Jeyna said. “Is–”
A shattering of glass filled the air as a zombie broke down the window at the front of the room.
Jeyna pivoted and put a bullet through its forehead, then returned her gun to its holster. “Is there anything you’d like me to get?”
Although there isn’t an exact formula for mixing dialogue and action, at least make sure your long, meaningful heart-to-heart isn’t happening during a time when your protagonist and her estranged brother are in the midst of fighting off an army of invading alien warriors armed with rapid-fire laser blasters. Few things are less convincing than ten paragraphs of dialogue squeezed between dodging one attack and then returning fire.
If your story isn’t action-oriented (and even if it is!), make sure other characters nearby don’t suddenly stop existing while your two characters talk to each other. Either put your characters in a place where they can be alone, or work in a couple of short interruptions–which can also be a great way to increase tension.
Bonus Tip: Read it Aloud
If you’re not sure your dialogue is working, try reading it out loud–either alone or with a friend.
Things that are hard to spot on the page often become very obvious when spoken.
I hope this post is helpful to you in your writing.
If you have a completed manuscript you want to take it to the next level, need a critique on a new short story you’ve written, or Want to make sure your novel is the best it can be before you indie publish, check out my editing services.