‘Ooo Ahh, my lover! I are just about to put another shrimp ont’ Barbie.’
There is good dialogue and there is bad dialogue and, depending on which you are writing, it will make or break your story. Nothing engages a reader more than realistic dialogue and nothing disgruntles a reader more than a phrase that is contrived, clichéd and unnatural; it will pull a reader away from your lovingly crafted prose quicker than a flat character or a thin plot could ever do.
It is not too much of a surprise, then, to discover that writing dialogue is one of the most challenging elements of fiction writing and one which takes time to master. The following list should help you through the minefield of dos and don’ts.
Listen to how people talk
This is the best way to learn about speech patterns and natural dialogue. People have many different methods of verbal expression which vary depending on who they are talking to, what they are talking about, their mood and their upbringing. Taking notes from real life will really improve the authenticity of your dialogue.
Use dialogue to move the story forward
Dialogue in fiction is an economical representation of the real thing. In addition to being realistic, it must be purposeful. Read your dialogue and ask whether it has a function. Does it establish tone or mood? Does it reveal anything about the plot or characters? Does it add to the relationship that the reader is building with the speaker? Does it add or create conflict? If it doesn’t have a purpose, delete it.
Break up dialogue with action
Breaking up the dialogue is especially useful when handling large sections of speech which a reader may find tedious. Including actions alongside dialogue also gives the reader a sense of the conversation taking place in the real world, which elevates the conversation above mere words on a page.
Vary the use and placement of speech tags
Speech tags indicate who is speaking and are essential in following dialogue (he/she said). Varying the use and placement of the tag will help the flow of the conversation and prevent the dialogue from becoming tedious. Place tags at the beginning, middle or end of speech. When experienced, a writer instinctively knows the most effective use of tags and when to leave them out completely.
Give each character a distinct voice
In theory, a reader should be able to read a line of speech and identify which character is saying it. There are many techniques for achieving this. You may give your character a distinct accent, use habitual phrases or mistakes which they tend to repeat or vary the speech patterns through the grammar. Paying attention to what a character will and will not talk about, their level of intelligence and sense of humour will also create the difference.
Be aware of pace
As with all elements of writing fiction, you are in control of the pace. In urgent situations, when you want to pick up the pace, leave out or limit narration and tags. To slow the pace and building suspense, use monologues and longer sections of narration.
The best way to learn is to see how the masters do it. Read within your genre and note techniques that really work.
Test your dialogue by reading aloud
With dialogue, the ears are often a better judge than the eyes. Listen to the dialogue to hear the flow and notice the mistakes that interfere with it.
Use dialogue to dump information
This is where trust in your reader is essential. If you have done your job well, the reader will be able to follow the story as it slowly unfolds without a character speaking for the sole purpose of filling in a back story, reminding the reader of past details or over-explaining. Information dumps are unnatural, lazy and annoying. Don’t do it.
Obsess about grammar
People don’t obsess about grammar when they speak and you shouldn’t when you are writing speech. People speak in incomplete sentences, leave out words and interrupt each other. Relaxing the grammar can only help your dialogue to be more believable.
You may be tempted to replace ‘he/she said’ with ‘he roared, whimpered, gushed or barked’, but you will be in danger of drawing too much attention to the tag and away from the dialogue. When the dialogue is strong, simple tags will suffice and keep the reader engaged with what is really important. As stated earlier, use action to ground the reader in the reality of the conversation.
Overuse slang, stereotypes and Ummms!
Beware of overusing stereotypes and slang. These can distract or alienate your reader. They will also age your work. In real speech people take time to think about what they are saying and ‘Ummming’ and ‘Ahhhing’ is commonplace. Again, to keep the dialogue economical and interesting, use this sparingly.
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