When used well, dialogue gives life to a story, moves the plot forward, and breaks up long descriptive paragraphs. Used badly, it highlights the inability of the writer to grasp natural speech patterns and alienates the reader. Capturing the dynamics of human conversation is no easy feat, but there are a few general rules that can help.
1. Less is more
Dialogue should serve a purpose; it either moves the story forward or conveys important information about your characters. If characters ramble on for three pages about the weather, the momentum is lost and the reader will be bored and confused. Avoid unnecessary details and small talk, and pare dialogue down to the bare minimum – it’s ok to leave gaps in the communication and allow the readers to fill in the blanks for themselves.
2. Avoid adverbs
Overuse of adverbs is one of the tell tale sign of weak writing. Writers who need to explain to the reader that their main character said something ‘sadly’ or ‘angrily’ aren’t doing an effective job of conveying emotions in the content of their dialogue. Readers should be able to tell how a character is feeling by what is said rather than how it is said. One way of fixing this is by using visual cues. Here’s an example: “It was your idea to come,” he said, defensively.” “It was your idea to come,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.” The second sentence shows the reader what is happening between the characters, rather than spelling it out to them, which is a more effective technique.
3. Mimic actual speech
People rarely speak in perfect English – they use slang words, hesitate, start sentences and get distracted… effective dialogue should do the same. Pay attention to the way people talk when you are at a bar or coffee shop, including the gestures they make and the body language they use and incorporate the observations in your work. Reading your dialogue aloud should help to highlight anything that doesn’t sound quite like natural speech.
4. Avoid info dumping
Slipping backstory into dialogue doesn’t happen in real life, so including it in a piece of writing immediately sounds clumsy and false. Characters should never reiterate information that they all know already. One way of checking whether you are doing this in your writing is by testing whether you could add the words ‘As you know’ to the beginning of the speech. If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s time for a rewrite.
5. Minimise dialogue tags
Dialogue tags such as ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ indicate who is speaking. Some tags are necessary to avoid confusion, but too many in a single speech can be jarring and disruptive. Resist the urge to get creative with alternative tags such as ‘he exclaimed’ or ‘she retorted’ – they are clichéd and archaic. In many cases, you can omit tags altogether and still have clear, natural sounding dialogue. Here’s an example: “I told you I’d come down when I’m ready.” Vinnie slammed his bedroom door.
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