I’ve just read some appalling dialogue in a novel I’m reading and I simply must complain about it. I’m no expert, but I do know that writing realistic dialogue requires more than just parenthesising. I also know that there’s nothing worse than reading long verbal relays between characters or endless mono-dribble. Real language is filled with acoustic nuances. While it’s not necessary to include every inarticulate sound your character’s make, the dialogue must resemble real interactive speech and include sociocultural, gender and personal features.
Here are some things I try to remember while writing dialogue:
- First and foremost a writer observes. Listen to how others speak and interact – it’s not eavesdropping if it’s research (ok it is, so don’t get caught),
- Now that you’ve listened to how others speak cut out all the heavy crap like saluations (hi, hello, greetings), interjections (well, anyhow, so, um, ah), and even adverbs (advebrs are very bad in dialogue, really burdensome and frankly annoying): Observe: “Hi. So, how are you?” “Hello. Um, really good. How are you?” “Well, you know, I’m ah, I’m tremendously good too, thanks heaps for asking.” Ok, my example is excessive – the point is don’t waste your word count on unneccessary words,
- Don’t use dialogue to explain the plot – nothing gets my goat more than reading a character dribble on about backstory or explaining the motivation of another character through dialogue,
- Avoid trying to be inventive with action tags. One of my pet hates is the use of past participles like sighed or frowned. For example, “You can’t do that,” he frowned. The same goes for laughed, smiled, scowled, joked and so on. You can’t frown, sigh or jest speech,
- Better yet avoid most tags altogether. Tags like cried, declared, exclaimed, responded, yelled, shouted, etc interrupt the flow of speech and are often ignored by the reader anyway. A simple he said, she said will suffice if you need to clarify who is talking. If your dialogue is good it shouldn’t be neccessary to explain who is talking all the time. Let the dialogue do the work,
- Don’t let your characters go on and on, even if you have a deliberately verbose character,
- All of us have accents, and so will your characters; it is best to avoid using phonetic spelling to express this. Try emphasising accents and dialects with colloquialisms and grammar,
- Use appropriate language for your character’s nature. For example, if one of your characters is authoritarian and another is a rebellious teenager their expressions, diction and grammar will differ,
- Read the dialogue out loud. Act it out, or have someone else read it with you.
- Rewrite the dialogue to see if there is a better way