It’s always nice when someone says something nice about your writing, but I always feel especially happy when a reader compliments my dialogue. Good dialogue reads as if it’s the easiest thing in the world to write, but in my experience, it’s not. Dialogue is an area I’ve always found challenging and here are a few tips that have helped me along the way.
1. Dialogue doesn’t have to mimic a real life conversation word for word. Often we are long winded and repetitive – the reader will want to get to the point and the action, quicker than that. Write out the conversation and then cut it back– typically, I’ll cut by a third.
2. In real life, we don’t always say what we mean so your characters don’t have to either.
‘Do you think it might be a bit wet to go out tonight?’ means ‘I’d prefer if we’d stayed in.’ The ‘unsaid’ will let us know just as much as the words on the page.
3. Listen to conversations around you. You’ll notice how often people interrupt each other and how rarely we answer the questions we are asked, but instead ask another:
How was your day at work?
Do I smell shepherd’s pie for dinner?
Letting your characters interrupt and cut each other off will give your dialogue an authentic feel.
4. Avoid giving your characters lengthy monologues, unless it is in a pivotal scene and even then, be careful. In real life, we don’t let people talk for very long before we interrupt, even if it is to sympathise or acknowledge what we are hearing.
5. Each of your characters will sound differently – play around with their voices until you can hear them in your head and you’re sure they don’t sound the same. Giving characters frequently used expressions or ‘tics’ can help identify who is speaking but don’t overuse this as it can become grating after a while!
6. There are many different ways to say the same thing, think about how each of your characters would greet a friend:
How are you?
What’s the story?
How’s it going?
What’s going on?
Establishing a small anchor of their conversation like this will help you find their voice.
7. Not all of your characters can be funny.
8. Resist the temptation to reply on descriptors for your dialogue – she chided, he snarled, sheexclaimed – and instead rely on the dialogue itself to convey your meaning. If you use he said/she said for 90% of your dialogue, your reader will sit up and take notice of the few times you choose a descriptor.
9. 80% of communication is non-verbal so don’t see dialogue as something you create in a vacuum, but part of the choreography of the scene. A timely sniff, a shrug of a shoulder, the moment someone chooses to walk away – these will all give the reader just as much information as a line of dialogue.
10. Read it aloud. Reading something aloud will show you what is working, what isn’t and where your rhythm may be off. This is true for all your writing but especially for dialogue.