Writing a good dialogue should be as easy as having a conversation with your best friend. Words should come to mind in an instant, flow together and make sense. The real niggle that many writers encounter is realism. Realism is hard to maintain without going off topic, or breaking character, yet it can be done.
So, let’s go over how to write some good dialogue!
First, this is the fourth in a series of articles on writing a good book. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out earlier pieces, where I cover story structure, protagonists and antagonists. I would also like to hear what you aim for writing good dialogue.
With that said, let’s talk about realistic dialogue!
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Speak Realistically, Write Realistically
The biggest struggle I had when writing realistic dialogue was with swearing. I wanted to write my first book for a younger audience, which of course meant limiting my selection of favourite curse words. At the same time, I couldn’t have my characters using phrases like ‘Goodness Gracious!’ or ‘My word, that hurt!”.
So, instead of making my character’s sound like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I elected not to include such words in dialogue. Simply saying, he/she cursed or screamed etc, was enough to get the point across while remaining realistic and family-friendly.
One of the easiest methods is simply saying what you have written out loud, while in character. Consider the character’s emotional state, their personality and say the words out loud. Do the words have the right impact, or does something sound off? Is it too dramatic, or not dramatic enough? Can you adjust the way they say the dialogue, or does the dialogue itself need to change?
It should become pretty clear if your conversation sounds flat. We have a natural ear for dialogue as writers. We know how we speak, we know how others speak. We have read lines of dialogue from a book, we have heard lines of dialogue from movies and television. If something doesn’t fit, you make a face, a contortion of eyebrow muscles that let everyone else know that the words you heard just don’t sound right.
Speak your dialogue, find the problem. Avoid words that people simply don’t use in order to pander to a specific reader. Keep emotions and personality in mind. All this advice will keep you from making dialogue that doesn’t sound, or read, right.
When to Use Dialogue
With the dialogue itself addressed, we now need to talk about when to use it. Not every piece of dialogue you write will be necessary, some might not even be wanted. It’s knowing when to include dialogue and when not to include dialogue that helps you craft a scene.
For example, when characters need to be quiet, dialogue is limited to a few whispered words and various gestures. Or, if you are in the middle of a realistic fight scene, no dialogue at all. It is only during Shakespearean sword-play that monologues are exchanged between sword clashes.
A great rule of thumb is to consider what is on your character’s minds, what is occupying most of their attention, then find the purpose for the dialogue.
For example, in realistic fight scenes, dialogue between characters is often brief, often spoken with exertion or shouted at each other. If your characters are focused on searching for something or doing some other simple task, dialogue is usually casual.
With that in mind, you now need to consider the purpose. Depending on it’s importance relative to the situation at hand, the dialogue might not be necessary. For example, jocular dialogue during a simple fight scene, might make for an amusing read, but jocular dialogue during a serious fight scene might break the scene.
Your purposes can vary.
Most importantly is story and character development. These carry things forward, taking the story or characters forward. It shows progress, it is necessary and the reader is interested.
Not so importantly is dialogue for dialogue’s sake. If you are including dialogue because there hasn’t been dialogue in a while, then you need more dialogue worthy scenes for your characters to discuss or comment on. Otherwise, silence is still better than forced dialogue.
However, if your characters main concern is dialogue with other characters, then conversation is a lot more involved, all parties being clear where they stand in one way or another. Purpose is clear for you as the writer, clear for the characters and hopefully clear to the reader as well.
An interesting dilemma is needing dialogue, but lacking the words.
You are aware of your characters personalities, their emotions and the scene, but you are unsure of what to write. Typically, these are humorous scenes. It’s hard to come with a joke, or amusing exchange, on the spot. It’s even more difficult when you have to fit the words to the characters.
Whatever dialogue it may be, I have many solutions for you to choose from.
The first step for all of them is to step away if words aren’t coming to you. It’s one thing to slowly build the dialogue through trial-and-error, but a completely different thing to sit there without any clue on how to proceed.
Now, solution one is to wait for ideas to hit you, progressing the book elsewhere or simply doing something else. An idea will hit you eventually, when it does I highly recommend you write it down whether it fits your dialogue or not. That’s right, I recommend a writer’s journal. Jotting down any good ideas you have, whenever you have them, is crucial to ensuring you maintain your writing creativity and circumnavigate some troubling writer’s blocks.
If you are not hit with the answer, then the break from the problem will still help you approach it again with a fresh perspective, or attitude, and words should start coming to mind. Personally, I recommend writing the best dialogue you can make for that scene even if it isn’t great. You can always come back to it, but move on knowing you at least wrote something.
Solution two is talking with someone else.
It can be another writer, or better yet, it can be a friend or family member you are comfortable discussing your book with. You will be surprised with the results. Even if they cannot provide you with answers that work for your book, the conversation with someone else is enough to get the creative juices flowing again. You might have a few ideas, perhaps an awesome revelation, while talking about your scene and dialogue with someone else.
I found this a solution with other subjects as well. I first encountered it in IT class. When one of us had a problem and wanted our teachers' help, he would ask us to explain our program and what we wanted to happen. Generally, discussing the problem was enough to get our mind back on track and we had the solution before we were finished explaining.
Personally, I have found both these methods incredibly helpful and less time consuming than researching dialogue in other books similar to my own. I believe it is much better to find the answer yourself or with someone close than to seek it from writer’s who have different characters, or different styles of writing to what you may have.
This article has come to an end, but I want to make one final point.
Personally, I believe almost every dialogue should have a conclusion to it. If it doesn’t, then it’s just small talk. Your characters and/or your reader must learn something from the exchange. Sometimes, the concluding point is in the very last line, making it all that much clearer for the reader.
“Well, if I didn’t finish the last slice of cake…” Alpha summarised slowly.
“And neither did I,” Beta continued. “Then...”
The two look down at the strangely-round, purring creature at their feet.
“The cat,” they both finished.
A little unrealistic, but you get my point. I make this a personal piece of advice as I tend to be more direct and simple with my writing style. Concluding dialogue by delivering a point, usually not as obvious as the previous example, but it is how I ensure that my dialogue is necessary for my story.
However, sometimes dialogue is meant for subversion, or distraction, to hide information from a character and/or the reader. In which case, a point isn’t made, therefore this advice doesn’t work.
With that said, I hope that all that I have told you has given you some ideas, or solved some problems, when it comes to writing dialogue. As I said earlier, I would like very much to hear what methods you use when writing dialogue.
I hope you enjoyed reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!