Dialogue is one of the hardest things for a lot of writers to really get down. In general, most of us go through the same “stages” of writing dialogue until we get to the point where we’re actually writing great conversations that both feel real and get what we’re trying to get across. There are some major mistakes I think a lot of writers make when it comes to writing their characters’ dialogue down, but luckily they’re easy enough to avoid when we figure out what they are.
In general, I think there are six good rules to stand by when you’re writing dialogue.
We’re tempted, especially as we begin our writing journey, to have characters call one another by name all the time. Sometimes this is because we’re trying to let the audience know a character’s name in a more subtle way than just blurting it out in the context, but often we just throw character names in all the time because we somehow think that’s how people talk–but just think about it. When you’re having a one-on-one conversation with someone, how often do you use their name? They certainly know you’re talking to them, so there’s no need for you to constantly say their name in your conversation. The same goes for written dialogue. Overusing other characters’ names can come of clunky and unrealistic.
Only write the interesting bits.
A lot of young writers have a tendency to try to write down an entire conversation in the course of their dialogue. This can get really boring. You want to make sure you keep the important and interesting pieces of dialogue without inundating your reader with boring in-betweens.
“Where do you want to go for dinner?” Jan asked.
“I don’t know,” Hillary said. “What do you think?”
Jan shrugged. “I guess we can go to the Thai food place again.”
“We always go there,” Hillary groaned.
This piece of dialogue is pretty boring and really don’t get much across. Instead, you could cut all the clutter and simplify the entire conversation down to this:
Jan and Hillary met up for dinner–or at least they tried to. In deciding where they wanted to go, they got into the same argument they always did, first by being indecisive about what kind of food either of them wanted until Jan finally suggested Thai, followed by Hillary complaining that they never ate anywhere else.
“Well, fine,” Jan said. “Then this time you pick out the restaurant!” Hillary did, much to Jan’s displeasure, and they ended up at Taco Bell.
The second piece of dialogue is much shorter as far as actual dialogue is concerned, but much more interesting to read.
Pepper dialogue with action.
Sometimes, though, you need to have a lot of dialogue to move the story along, and luckily you can do that without totally bogging your reader down with paragraph after paragraph of characters talking. Pepper in action between the dialogue you can. This doesn’t have to be intense action–just realistic action that would happen in the course of a conversation. Maybe a character hides his head in his hands or fiddles with a pencil. Explore what kind of movements your characters may make while they’re talking. A tip, though: don’t be too dependent on this. If you have too much action between your dialogue, it can slow down a scene. Add action where it logically makes sense in the context of what’s being said.
Make sure your dialogue is necessary for the story.
This should be a no-brainer, but it kind of goes hand-in-hand with the thing I said earlier about writers trying to jam whole conversations into a story. You want to make sure your dialogue is important to the story as a whole, which means it accomplishes one of three things: it either moves the storyline forward, adds to a character or to the relationship between two characters, or increases the tension in the scene. Usually, increasing the tension in the scene is mostly the same as moving the storyline forward, but in a more dramatic way. If your dialogue isn’t accomplishing one of these things, you can probably cut it out or shorten it.
Don’t be afraid of adding characterization.
On the topic of characterization, you can also use dialogue to help establish who your characters are and set them apart from one another. When we start writing dialogue, many of us have the tendency to make all the characters sound the same when they speak–and they usually speak like us! As you get better at writing dialogue, one of the things you’ll probably do is use the dialogue to set characters apart from one another. You can do this through adding accented words, slang phrases, and even just differing the sentence structure. It’s a great way to make your characters stand out and give your reader an idea for who they are (the character who says “fuck” a lot is going to feel very differently than the character who never uses contractions when he speaks).
But not too much.
Another warning on that, though: if you add too much characterization into the dialogue, you do run the risk of alienating your reader and making it borderline impossible for them to relate to your characters. This depends on your reader, of course, and the audience you’re writing to. In general, I think it’s a good idea to accent your dialogue with characterization details but not bog it down with them. If I tried to write my Irish character’s dialogue with a heavy Irish accent, it would be pretty much impossible to decipher.
Hopefully that helps! Anyone else have any tips for writing dialogue they think I missed?