For fiction writers, dialogue is one of those tricky things you really have to master and it certainly takes time. My dialogue certainly sucked when I was writing the first book, and I continue to focus on learning how to improve it.
In today’s guest post, Irving Weinman, author of Write Great Dialogue: A Teach Yourself Guide gives us 5 tips that should help that improvement.
(1) Dialogue brings your characters to life.
It’s the direct speech of your characters. Dialogue presents not just story information to your readers but shows your characters’ emotions – their desires and fears, what they really mean rather than pretend to mean.
Do they speak more slowly or more quickly when they’re happy? When they’re angry? When they command or when they beg? Do they use a more formal or a less formal way of speaking when they’re delighted? When they’re offended?
Do they generally say what they mean in a straightforward way, or do they start and stop and seem to forget what they intended to say? Or do they speak ironically, and does this show that they’re sceptical or trying to be funny?
Your dialogue is a key way of making your characters different from each other – of making them individuals, more real and more interesting to your readers.
(2) Where do you find dialogue to write?
You find it in yourself. You’ve been speaking it all your life, taking part in all sorts of conversation, from the details of every day, to joking around with your friends, to speaking quietly in love, of love. You remember the way your family talks, you remember how different friends and acquaintances speak. And since you want to write, you’re obviously a reader who’s come across characters in fiction that you like, that are memorable because of their dialogue.
Look closely at some of it again, and jot down a few quick notes about why you like it. Do this with several authors you like. Then try it out in your own writing. Don’t worry, you won’t be cheating, you’ll be learning to write your own good dialogue. Start listening to conversations around you; keep a small notebook and set down what strikes you as real and interesting ways of speaking. As a writer, you sort of spy on life!
(3) Avoid the adverb trap
Keep ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ (identifying narrative) to the minimum necessary for clarity in a scene of dialogue. Effective descriptive narrative is great mixed in with dialogue, but take care using a single adverb to explain the tone or emotion of what a character says. This can be a trap because, first, the dialogue itself should reveal that tone or emotion. And it can be a trap because it often results in a cliché that says less than nothing, that turns readers off. For example, ‘she said coyly,’ or ‘he said roguishly,’ or ‘he said beseechingly.’ If you think of writing ‘she said nervously,’ think again. You might come up with something more specific that keeps the reader’s attention better, like ‘As she spoke, her thumb rubbed across the tops of her fingers.’
(4) Regional and foreign accents
Accents are of course part of how some people speak. But a little goes a long way. Don’t overdo it: you risk making it too difficult to read and understand, or too boring or silly to keep ‘listening to.’ For example: If the Austrian doctor is speaking English to the patient who’d had a skiing accident, don’t have her say, ‘Ve vant you to valk vell.’ Having her say ‘We want you to walk vell,’ indicates the accent without the distraction of sounding silly, and it also indicates the emphasis she puts on the final word.
(5) Different levels of speech
Remember that most adults use different levels of speech for different listeners and in different social or professional situations. You generally don’t answer a five year olds’ question about what makes a rainbow using the same language you would to the same question from a bright fifteen year old, when you might use the term the ‘refraction of light.’ Or a question by the boss: ‘What do you think of Charlie Smith?’ would be answered in terms of the job’s jargon – efficiency, analytical ability, teamwork, etc. But ‘What do you think of Charlie Smith?’ asked by a friend in a pub might get the answer, ‘He’s eye candy!’