Dialogue is a funny thing. It is the voice of your characters, but it is not necessarily always the voice of your narrative (especially when you’re writing in third person). This means that not only do you have to figure out how to give your story a voice, but also each individual character (wow, writing is hard y’all).
Anyway, here are a few tips that I’ve picked up as I’ve been writing and revising.
Common Problems When Writing Dialogue:
Overly formal dialogue.
For example, “I do not understand what you are referring to. I was simply minding my own business with my friends.”
Rough it up! Add some slang (but not too much) and just say the sentence out loud and see if it sounds natural. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just hanging out with my friends.”
Alternatively, too much slang is bad.
This kind of language can date your story (i.e. if you’re making your character say a popular slang word that was big in 2010 but no one uses it anymore, totes awkward amiright?
Also, if you use too much slang it makes it hard to follow the dialogue anyway. Even though everyone speaks with different dialect it can distract from your story. And, sometimes authors who are writing children’s fiction use random words that kids/teens would never actually say themselves. So why trap yourself with trying to use “young speech” patterns.
Just stick with dialogue that you use. Chances are that if you’re not an overly-proper English marm then you speak like any teen, adult, monster, alien character that will be in your book.
Wall of dialogue aka monologues.
It’s what supervillians do in the movies that always get them beat at the end. So we know that it is the tool of evil and destruction. This is how you should view monologues in your writing.
Don’t turn your MC into a guy who won’t shut up. If your MC is telling a long story and it fits into the flow of the story, you should still break up that big block of text with action.
What I call “Telling Dialogue.”
Just because we put background information in dialogue does not magically make it showing instead of telling (which I will talk more about in a later post). Dialogue can definitely feel like telling (I mean, it is literally a character telling another character something)
This is easy to identify if you realize you’re having characters say information that every character in the scene already knows simply because it explains the world or background story to the reader. In real life, if everyone in a room knows something already, I’m not going to tell that story again, it would make me a boring friend and no one would ever talk to me.
Also, if your character is talking out loud to themselves in order to impart information, this is a big no-no (you know, those scenes in Days of Our Lives where the character is like “why did I kiss Steve when I know he’s my sister’s husband? We just got close again after she regained her memory.” Everyone ridicules these tactics in Soap Operas, so don’t use them in your book either!)
If there is a new character who doesn’t know this information then you can impart information in an appropriate conversation. Storytelling is not bad, it just needs to be imparted in a way that creates movement in the story, pushing plot forward. Also, the ability to trust your readers to hang in there to figure out what makes your world tick is a big lesson I learned in writing.
Fancy dialogue tags (i.e. yelled, snapped, growled, hissed)
Just use s/he said and s/he asked. Use action and the actual dialogue to show how it should sound. The context of the words should be enough to get emphasis across.
(This was a hard lesson to learn, although I am still guilty of using the occasional “whispered” and “shouted”)
(Over) Repetition of a character name.
Sometimes you want to distinguish who is speaking in a dynamic way. You don’t want to muck up your dialogue with random “he said” and “she said” tags. So you just plop the names of characters into the dialogue itself. The problem is that this can get very repetative.
Say character names once in a conversation (max).
Just think about it, in regular conversation someone would not say, “As you know, Fred, I am new to this town. So, Fred, when I am out doing errands I often get lost. That is why I need your help, Fred.”
Differentiate who is speaking with a well-placed dialogue tag rather than saying names in the dialogue.
Other Lessons Learned:
Subtext and Context are your friends.
If you have an upset character saying “I’m fine,” then the reader is probably smart enough to know that this is said in an angry tone and that the character is (in fact) not fine.
Also, if someone says “Well, aren’t you just a genius?” then most readers will automatically read that line as sarcastic, because seriously, we live in a world where someone is more likely to be sarcastically calling you a genius than truly thinking you’re a genius (sad, but true).
Try to stay away from the kitchy written out speech ticks.
stuttering “s-s-s-o c-c-c-old.”
lisping “Thisth isth ridicluousth.”
and anything else that you’re using to give your characters quirky voices. You can just said “It’s so cold,” he said, stuttering. Or “This is ridiculous,” she said, her lisp making her words hard to understand.
Make Every Line Count.
I would give this advice for any kind of writing. Don’t have throw-away scenes just to get to the juicy part. So don’t have throw-away dialogue either. Don’t have characters talk about the weather for two pages unless it is because there are gods controlling the weather and it is a sign that the apocalypse is coming and your characters must stop the dark lord from shrouding the world in hurricane evil!
Read your dialogue out loud.
Dialogue is your characters’ spoken words, so you should speak them out loud yourself to see if the cadence and word choice fits what you’re trying to accomplish. If it sounds stilted and awkward then rewrite.
Make sure your dialogue is distinctively from your story and part of your characters.
Something I say to my CPs all the time–if I can take your dialogue and plop it in the middle of any other YA Fantasy or Sci-Fi or whatever-your-genre-is book, then you need to make it more distinctively yours. Give it more voice, make it a part of your characters. Don’t just use dialogue as a vehicle to move plot forward, use it to show us who your characters really are.