Can we talk? Dialogue, and how to get it right.

ConversationWriting realistic dialogue is tricky. It’s a skill that  comes naturally to those lucky people who have an ear for convincing dialogue and can produce it effortlessly, but most of us have to practice, listen, then practice some more. This is a common problem for new writers (and some more experienced ones, too) who want to produce natural and lifelike exchanges between characters without sounding clunky, over-dramatic or plain wooden. I’ve talked about this before but some things bear repetition, so a revisit might be useful.

Dialogue is defined as conversation between characters in a drama or narrative – an exchange between two or more people. But it has to have purpose, otherwise it’s just page-filling chat that soon becomes boring for the reader. Dialogue must move the story on, reveal something about the characters or contribute to the plot.

Conversation is the way people talk; a simple exchange of information. Dialogue is what’s being said. It creates an opening, an opportunity to move the story along. It should help convey a character’s personality traits – the one’s that can’t be seen or described, like anger, fear, stupidity, recklessness, serenity, cruelty, happiness.

Dialogue isn’t about reproducing real speech; that would be pretty tedious. Try eavesdropping on conversations while you’re waiting for the bus, or in a coffee shop. People talk over each other, with many repetitions of ‘er’ and ‘um’. They interrupt with remarks and opinions that have nothing to do with the current topic. They ask questions that don’t get answered. They aren’t even listening to each other half the time; they’re just waiting for a break in the chatter so they can get their word in.

So what makes good dialogue? Let’s ask what we want to achieve with the dialogue in the first place.

Exchange Information – Explain something in dialogue that would otherwise not be known, or would take several paragraphs of narrative to describe.

Move the Story Along – Set the scene, pinpoint the salient points of a storyline and hint at the action to come.

Develop your characters – How your characters speak, what they say and how they say it all help the reader to distinguish them without resorting to speech tags.  Dialogue can convey mood, temperament, attitudes and disposition.

Break up long stretches of narrative, adding interest and pace – If a character mentions something about a person or place in dialogue it can work better than a straightforward description in the narrative. For example: ‘Why do you always keep the curtains closed?’ immediately highlights the darkness in the room and describes something odd about the room.

Foreshadow – Set up a future scene or revelation. Alluding in dialogue to the gradual disintegration of a relationship can avoid its eventual collapse coming across as an unconvincing coincidence.

There are a few dialogue blunders that can betray the inexperienced writer. Things to avoid:

Exposition – Cramming too much information into an exchange in an effort to explain several plot points always sounds forced. Beware of characters mentioning details that the other people would already know – ‘Hello John, how’s Sylvia, your wife with the blonde hair?’ – Your characters know and interact with each other and shouldn’t be explaining simple relationships and actions to someone who would already have that information.

Would they say that? Now? – Would your characters really stop to comment on the change in the weather or proximity of the axe-murderer, if they were being hotly pursued?

Technical information overload – These days readers take a lot of technical stuff for granted; they have bought into the story and are prepared to suspend their disbelief. They don’t need to have the workings of the matter transporter explained at great length by the inventor in a laboured conversation.

Some advice: 

Speech tags – Good dialogue is easy to follow; who’s speaking to whom and how they are feeling at the time should be revealed by what they’re saying and there shouldn’t be a need for any adverbs. eg: In the sentence ‘I hate you!’ she shouted angrily, the fact that she is angry is implicit in the exclamation. The narrative and dialogue should convey the speaker’s feelings, not the tag. Readers ignore them a lot of the time, anyway, so concentrate on creating realistic characters with different traits and speech patterns.

Dialect – Some writers get away with writing whole novels in the vernacular, but personally, I find it tremendously difficult to read. I prefer to establish a character’s origins, if pertinent to the story, then carry on as normal, with just an occasional word or phrase of dialect thrown in to remind readers.

And finally…..

Read it aloud – Reading your story out loud will expose any clunky bits of dialogue. I have a nifty bit of software on my computer that reads my work aloud – oddly mechanical and rather amusing, but it serves its purpose. You ears will pick up all those jarring mistakes better than your eyes.

Read widely – Studying how published authors tackle dialogue is very valuable. It takes some of the pleasure out of reading, that’s for sure, but you’ll learn a lot.


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