by Sandy Vaile
Dialogue is a powerful tool in fiction because it enables readers to get to know characters without the author telling them how to feel or information dumping what they need to know.
In fact, speech predates written language by tens of thousands of years and is ingrained in our daily lives, so use it to its full advantage to develop characters, advance the plot, increase pace and create tension.
This article will help you write believable dialogue that communicates vital information succinctly, to have a positive impact on the story and captivate readers. When speech rambles unnecessarily, is overly stilted or sounds forced, readers are unlikely to connect with the characters and may even skim over the dialogue.
We’ll look at what dialogue is, what makes it impactful, and how to write it concisely and authentically.
But it’s not always easy to write succinct speech that rings true, i.e., is relevant to what’s going on in the story, suits the character, and doesn’t feel like it’s forced.
Dialogue refers only to words that are spoken aloud by characters in our stories. It is highlighted with quotation marks (“) at the beginning and end of each group of spoken words.
A dialogue tag is text joined to, before, in the middle of or after dialogue, which makes it clear who is speaking. The most common being said.
Internal thoughts are a different matter altogether and their formatting will depend on the Point of View you are using.
The success of our characters’ conversations comes down to these three things.
Just as we do when writing narrative, aim to say what is needed in the minimum number of words it takes to communicate clearly. Keep the speech focused on the point you need to communicate.
Although dialogue is the perfect place to let a character’s personality and speech patterns shine through, it’s not an excuse for them to ramble like we do during real conversations.
The truth is, natural sounding dialogue in a book doesn’t exactly replicate the way we speak.
If you listen to conversations, you will hear speakers:
In a book we want to make dialogue sound realistic while getting our point across succinctly.
When including an accept, foreign language or colloquialisms in dialogue, the general rule of thumb is to be sparing, giving the impression of it through the way words are put together, rather than writing each word that way. Less is more; the odd word goes a long way to giving the impression of a language idiosyncrasy.
It would be exhausting to read something like this:
“Hey, Mary, you gunna git ta doin’ them chores any time soon? ‘Em dishes fairly walkin’ out a door wit’ou’ ya.”
“Did y’all never see a woman drinking beer before?”
“I’ll see you in three weeks, au revoir.” Sally called, picking up her suitcase and blowing him a kiss.
Edit out most repetitions, filler words and sounds that don’t enhance the dialogue’s meaning. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t include some of these things. After all, we do use them in speech and they can be useful to convey a particular sentiment, like umm for hesitation or oh for surprise. But don’t go overboard and rely on them in place of pithy conversation.
Hey, wWhat do you want for dinner, Jane?” Brian called during an ad break in the football game.
Well, I had a big lunch. Umm, how about … I fancy trying that new Thai restaurant on the corner.” On her way down the hall, she reached for the menu that had arrived in the mail that morning.
Conversations sound authentic when they reveal who the speaker is below the surface, which enables readers to get to know characters on a personal level and understand how they feel in that moment.
What you want to avoid (except in rare circumstances where it’s a specific character trait) is characters sitting around talking to themselves. Most people don’t do this often, so it tends to come across as an inexperienced writer forcing information upon readers in an unnatural way.
Each character should have a unique voice, not just so readers know who’s speaking, but to express who the character is, where they came from, their opinions, specific dialects or colloquialisms, and their attitude to what’s happening in the story at that time.
Authentic speech is about the words a character chooses and how they put them together. Most people use contracts a lot, i.e. I don’t like that, rather than, I do not like that.
Use speech to reveal different aspects of their personality.
Forced dialogue (also known as on-the-nose writing) happens when:
It’s common when we need to reveal backstory or critical information but don’t work to make it sound realistic.
Ruth backed away from the paddock gate. “As you know, Ben, I’m afraid of horses.”
If Ben already knows this about Ruth, she wouldn’t be explaining it. Instead, show her fear through the narrative and her spontaneous reaction to seeing the horse.
Ruth backed away from the paddock gate, behind which an enormous white stallion pawed the ground like a wild bull. “Hell no. I’m not going in there!”
There is always subtext surrounding authentic speech. Thoughts and feelings that are implied rather than spoken. When we have a conversation in real life, we naturally assess the situation; reading facial cues, body language, actions and tone of voice to understand how the other person feels and what they want. Even what they might be hiding.
We’ve all seen chick flicks where the heroine professes her love and her partner is silent. That silence reveals more than words; he’s clearly not the man for her. Or had a friend who changes the subject every time the conversation turns to childhoods. Even if you don’t know why, you can deduce certain things from what people aren’t saying.
Within and around dialogue, layer in details about:
“The dog’s dead,” Mary stated matter-of-factly, as though Sooty hadn’t been her best friend through childhood and loyal companion during her cancer treatment.
I hated the way putting on a brave face meant her not showing any emotion. Ever.
“How did it happen?” Anne chokes back a sob.
“Bloody Dad. I’ve told him a hundred times that he backs out of the driveway too fast.”
“Oh no! Is he coping okay? How about Fluffy? They were best friends.”
We learn a lot about these sisters from this short exchange. Far more than the words alone tell us.
You can more easily hear the authenticity and flow of dialogue if you read it aloud. Hearing the words as the characters say them will pick up whether it sounds too formal or casual (for that character), or forced. If it’s difficult to read aloud then it’s going to sound awkward in the reader’s head too.
Using the “Read Aloud” function under the Review tab in Word is another way to hear how the words on the page sound.
When characters speak, it must be for a reason. Not because the author wants to fill space or force information onto the page. There must be a reason for the character to communicate with another character.
Eliminate mundane chin-wagging. It might be a part of real conversations, but if it isn’t adding value for the reader, then cut it. You don’t need to include every part of a conversation for it to be meaningful.
People may greet one another when first meet, but you don’t need to write every “Hello, how are you?” and “I’m well thanks. How are you?”. Get straight into the meaty parts. The reason the dialogue is there.
Likewise, characters don’t always have to say “Goodbye” when they hang up the phone. It’s implied.
There are no hard and fast rules about how much dialogue to use. It comes down to personal preference and whether characters are alone or with other.
When you add dialogue to your story, don’t get so focused on what is being said that your forget what’s happening around them. The narrative around dialogue should be put to use to help readers picture the whole scene including the setting, character movements, and mood.
Dialogue is a wonderful way to add immediacy to a story and make readers feel more involved in the lives of characters, It gets characters out of their own heads and actively participating on the page, which is way more interesting that the author telling readers how to think and feel.
It’s worthwhile taking the time to make speech concise, authentic and purposeful. Make every word count.
Search your manuscript for places where your character is alone and reveals information through internal thoughts. Try putting them with another person and rewrite the scene with dialogue.
I’d love to know if you feel this improves the scene.
Bonus: Bring your readers closer to your characters with Sandy Vaile’s free Distancing Words to Avoid Guide.
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Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She is an internationally published author, writing romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US, and experienced fiction coach, supporting aspiring authors to write novels they are proud to share with the world (and which get noticed by agents, publishers and readers), through coaching, courses and developmental editing.
Having a writing coach is like having an industry expert in your back pocket, to hold your hand through the writing process and act as a voice of reason when you’re standing on a ledge. Sandy’s exclusive Active Storytelling Method helps authors find the hidden gems in their manuscripts and make them shine.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
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