I love good dialogue. Descriptive prose is important, but sometimes you can evoke the power of a hundred words in a single line of well-placed dialogue. As an author, you need to make sure that your dialogue fits both with the tone of your work, but also with what your readers expect and can relate to.
Dialogue is a vital tool. It allows you to add personality to your characters, offer hints at their emotional state, and helps with the all-important “show, don’t tell.” Janice Hardy tackles exactly the dangers present in allowing your dialogue to slip into stale monotony. You can’t afford to let such an important area of your work slip, especially not when there are so many resources out there to help you.
Joanna Penn lists some of the most common mistakes authors make with dialogue. It’s important to know what to avoid before you go looking for advice on how to get better at it.
All too often when honing out craft, we forget to consider how dialogue works. We can be prone to figuring dialogue is easy, because we all talk every day. But consider these important tips. Especially with regard to the first two points there, remember that real-life conversation meanders, goes off-topic, is often irrelevant, and to most outside observers, is quite dull. You never want a bored reader! Even writers who produce incredible conversational dialogue, such as David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino, depend on a strong performance from an actor to carry their words. Readers aren’t actors, and your book isn’t being performed on stage or on screen. It’s being performed in the reader’s mind, so you have to give them all the material they need to craft the scene in their imagination.
Even once you’ve corrected the big stuff, remember that it’s the little things that most often turn a reader, or an agent or editor, off a book. Check out this agent’s advice on small changes that can tighten up your dialogue. Draw from lists such as this and put together a guide for writing your dialogue, keeping checklists to watch for problems as you revise.
As always, remember that anything which does not serve your story does not belong in it. Readers don’t need pages of irrelevant conversation to understand your characters or plot. With some care and attention, you can manage everything you need in just a few lines. The three purposes of dialogue are to propel the plot, provide character insight, and inform the reader. If the dialogue doesn’t do one of these, cut it, and move on.
(c) Paul Anthony Shortt